[19 May 2009]
It doesn’t take a book to tell you that reality television caters to people’s voyeuristic tendencies. It is human nature to be fascinated by so-called “train wrecks”; other people’s hardships reassure us that our own lives aren’t so bad. We want to hear about the bankruptcies, the bastard babies, the break-ups and break-downs. It’s hardly surprising that since 2001, reality television shows that thrive on this type of drama have dominated the major networks, with competition shows like American Idol and Survivor; surveillance-based shows like Big Brother; and dating shows like The Bachelor, Elimidate, and Fifth Wheel taking the place of previous prime-time dramas and situational comedies.
While our generation most likely pinpoints Real World as reality TV’s seminal moment, reality television actually had its beginnings long before MTV and old school game shows like The Newlywed Game or The Price is Right. However, though reality TV has continued to evolve and shape popular culture for decades, not much research has been published on the subject. In Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, 2nd edition, assistant professors Susan Murray and Laurie Oullette attempt to make up for this lack of literature with a collection of academic essays written by various scholars (all teach at a university). The essays examine reality television’s origin, evolution, and influence on the culture of television, and in turn, the sociopolitical culture of the United States and beyond.
In the book’s introduction, Murray and Oullette define reality television as “an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real”. By controlling the players, premise, situations, and editing, the “reality” becomes more about what is perceived through careful manipulation by the producers (milking what’s “cheap, common, and entertaining”), and less about presenting real people in authentic situations. They note that reality television hasn’t so dominated the prime-time schedule since the “quiz show craze” of the 1950s.
They go on to categorize reality TV and this outline serves as a frame of reference for the often complicated, academic essays that follow. They begin by tracing the genre from the quiz formats of the 1950s and “staged pranks” like Candid Camera, to the 1980s daytime talk shows ala Oprah and Donahue, which vied with soap operas for the housewife demographic.
When Real World aired, it “trained a generation of young viewers in the language of reality TV”, paving the way for the influx of reality TV that exists today: game shows and dating programs, docu-soaps (The Real Housewives of Orange County), talent contests (American Idol), reality sitcoms (The Simple Life), and celebrity shows (Surreal Life), to name a few. Even programs that seem innocuous on the surface, like charity shows (Pimp My Ride) and lifestyle games (The Biggest Loser), the editors note, rely on this conditioned audience. Producers prey on the manipulation of the viewer/consumer for the purpose of mass marketing to “enact a highly visible new market-based social welfare, as commercial lifestyle experts, product sponsors, and TV networks pick up where the state, in its role of public service provider, has left off”. In other words, viewers who need to lose weight can get on Biggest Loser (before, they consulted a doctor).
The book is divided into four sections: “Genre”, “Industry”, “Culture and Power”, and “Interactivity”, Anna McCarthy’s opening essay ‘Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt and Me: Postwar Social Science and the “First Wave’ of Reality TV’ sets the (dry) tone of the first section and delves into the beginnings of reality television and its roots in filmed social experiments—unscientific and often unethical experiments performed on innocent bystanders in order to “study” human behavior. The section compares reality television with documentaries and analyzes their differences, concluding that the main discrepancy lies in intent. Whereas documentaries typically aim for an objective view with “propagandist, expositional goals, or analytic goals”, reality television is subjective, with the players “performing the real”, rather than behaving authentically in their natural environments. In short, reality TV provides diversion and is often similar to fictional shows that entertain, rather than educate.
Section 2 analyzes reality TV from an economic perspective. In “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV”, author Chad Rafael notes the simple fact that reality TV shows are cheap to make. “Reali-TV” also can be produced to fit a number of different pre-made formats. As US television was restructured with the rise of cable, videos, and independent stations, networks lost much of their audience, which in turn made ad revenues drop. Reality TV shows, which didn’t require elaborate storyboards, sets, or paid actors, were the perfect solution. It was icing on the cake that the public embraced the genre, as it fulfilled the guilty thrills of those hungry for “info-tainment”.
Perhaps the most interesting questions the book raises are those relating to the reality TV’s sociopolitical effects. In Section 3’s analysis of culture and power, Oullette’s essay “Take Responsibility for Yourself: Judge Judy and the Neoliberal Citizen” examines reality television’s role in shaping culture, noting it was no coincidence Judge Judy aired the same year the deregulating US Telecommunications Act was passed. Oullette’s theory is that shows like Survivor, Judge Judy, and Trading Spaces perpetuate neoliberal world-views, or “templates for citizenship that complement the privatization of public life, the collapse of the welfare state, and the discourse of individual choice and personal choice”. To this effect, reality TV picks up where the family and government left off, especially those pseudo-educational, philanthropic shows. Even dating shows, which Jonathan Grey analyzes in “Cinderella Burps: Gender, Performativity, and the Dating Show” vilify humanity, commodify women, and rely on the performance of gender roles for ratings. In both cases, Oullette argues, the underlying neoliberal message is clear: Those who fail to meet the American dream or moral code, whether it’s remodeling the house, winning the contest, or getting the man are authors of their own demise.
The book’s last section focuses on the audience’s role in the rise of reality television. In “Melancholy, Merit, and Merchandise: The Postwar Audience Participation Show”, Amber Watts further examines reality TV’s “narratives of misery and redemption” and the reasons why audiences feel compelled to watch them. On one hand, we are rooting for the underdog; we want to see the Ugly Duckling get transformed into a swan, or the weakling win the battle. Yet, these shows appeal to a baser component of human nature, the part that gets pleasure from seeing other people fail. What are the repercussions of this? “Being able to compare one’s own life favorably to audience participation show contestants could thus make even the most disgruntled housewife complicit with her social role by allowing her to relish details about the harsh reality of the alternative.”
So why is reality television still so popular? Mark Andrevic believes it’s indicative of the zeitgeist of the 21st Century: to see and be seen. His essay “Visceral Literacy: Reality TV, Savvy Viewers, and Auto-Spies” examines “old fashioned voyeurism” and its role in the genre’s rise in popularity. With the democratization of surveillance, via the Internet, social media and tech gadgets, and the blurring of people’s public and personal lives, it’s no wonder reality television speaks to us on a cultural level. On a political level, questions are raised concerning the government’s role in reality television, mainly if surveillance-based shows and shows based on merit are conditioning society to become comfortable with living in a police state. While the idea may seem extreme, it’s interesting that the same reality TV program formats are used in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, with the details changed to fit their society and cultural norms.
Overall, the book does a good job of bringing reality television into the academic realm, and certainly the genre raises issues about where the culture of television, and beyond, is headed. However, the book fails to answer where this will leave television in the future. Are we headed for more reality TV or will viewers get tired of being manipulated? And is it possible to ever go back to a more objective way of presenting the “truth” when the idea of “truth” and what is real seems like an idea of the past? Only time will tell.