The Unreality of MTV’s Reality Shows

MTV’s early ’00s reality shows were entertainment for the channel’s younger viewers, but they also provided an “identity workbook” for their audiences.

Millennials Killed the Video Star: MTV's Transition to Reality Programming
Amanda Ann Klein
Duke University Press
February 2021

The MTV television channel launched in August 1981 with a form of programming that had never been seen before: nothing but music videos, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, by the mid-’90s, the appeal of that format was starting to falter, and the channel turned to another programming innovation: reality shows. That change is chronicled with wit and insight in Amanda Ann Klein’s book, Millennials Killed the Video Star: MTV’s Transition to Reality Programming.

The book is a fascinating analysis of media construction and presentation of identities, and how audiences respond to or reject those identities. MTV targets a highly specific audience demographic – viewers between 18- and 34-years-old. As viewers at the upper end of that demographic start to “age out”, the channel must reinvent itself for the younger viewers who are just starting to “age in”.

MTV’s reality shows in the early 2000s, in Klein’s words, taught a largely white, urbanized audience “how to think and act in order to clearly portray an identity”. By unpacking that process, Klein raises important questions about how gender, race, class, and youth are understood in America.

In addition to a changing audience, several other factors drove MTV toward reality shows. Music videos were becoming increasingly elaborate, as artists sought to outdo each other to gain more airtime and attention – but record companies were starting to balk at the escalating cost of producing these extravaganzas. MTV had successfully added some episodic shows to its programmings such as MTV News, game shows, and specialized music shows so it knew that audiences were not resistant to seeing something other than music videos. Plus, reality shows used non-union casts and writers, and so were relatively inexpensive to produce.

But reality shows also represented another significant cultural shift: from the audience as passive observers to active participants in identity construction, both as stars of reality shows and as consumers of those shows. Klein’s analysis doesn’t include all of MTV’s reality shows; she largely excludes “celebreality” shows such as The Osbournes and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, and instead focuses on shows that presented “real” people – albeit carefully cast, photographed, and camera-friendly people.

MTV’s first such series was 1998’s The Real World, which drew on the format of earlier television documentaries such as 1973’s An American Family. The Real World initially used the premise of chronicling what happened when seven strangers moved into the same apartment, but eventually devolved into showcasing geographic locations and deliberately fomenting conflict among the cast members. However, it set precedents for other MTV reality series by pioneering segments such as the “confessional”, where participants speak directly to the camera

Shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills were “aspirational”, showing the lives of “wealthy, white can-do girls” and implicitly telling viewers that they too could have this lifestyle if they looked and acted like these women — even though, as Klein points out, most of the cast members were white, rich, and privileged before they were on the show. In contrast, shows like Teen Mom were framed as moral tales in which young mothers were expected to seek redemption after their “mistake”.

Shows like Jersey Shore and Buckwild presented regional and ethnic stereotypes of “otherness”. This was reinforced by the “home video” style of filming and the participants’ outrageous behaviour, which encouraged audiences to feel contempt for them.

Klein also examines two MTV reality series that failed – Washington Heights and Virgin Territory – and attributes their lack of success to a lack of identity. Washington Heights focused on young Dominican-Americans in New York City, but since this group, in Klein’s view, has no “strong stereotype” in the broader American context, the participants’ lives could “not be spectacularized”.

Virgin Territory had more diversity among its cast than other MTV reality shows, but Klein speculates that its diversity was also part of its downfall, since the cast members had varying reasons for maintaining their virginity. On a more practical level, there was limited potential for drama on the show, since the only real source of suspense was when or whether the virgins would cease to be virgins.

Klein concludes with an analysis of the current MTV series Catfish, which she contends is possibly the first MTV reality show to appeal to the entire age range of MTV’s audience – because by now both older and younger viewers are familiar with the Internet, and with the potential for online deception. Catfish also upends the tropes of reality shows because its topic is unreality. Its storylines focus on tracking down the real people behind fraudulent online identities, and the outcomes of bringing them together with their unwitting victims.

The one thing that’s missing from Klein’s analysis is some attention to how identity construction in MTV’s reality shows compares with identity construction in reality shows on other networks during the same era. American Idol, for example, was aspirational in that it suggested that anyone who really wanted to could become a musical superstar if they were lucky enough to be chosen for the opportunities the show offered.

However, this absence doesn’t significantly detract from the overall strengths of the book. Klein’s writing is thoughtful and crisp; for example, she describes Jersey Shore’s Pauly D during a live DJ event as “often [being] on his phone, though it was unclear whether he was consuming content, making content, or both.” Her writing blends an academic perspective and a fan perspective to produce a thoroughly entertaining analysis.

Coincidentally, Klein’s book has been released at the same time as the launch of a reunion show with the first Real World cast. The new show has sparked a retrospective recognition of the importance of The Real World’s presentation of meaningful personal conversations about race and privilege – public conversations that were almost absent everywhere else. That recognition further reinforces Klein’s overarching point: MTV’s reality shows for millennials played a significant role in the evolution of 21st-century American culture and society.

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