Reality Television

Reality television is a genre of television programming in which the fortunes of "real life" people (as opposed to actors, or fictional characters) are followed.  Although there have always been television programs that would satisfy this definition (e.g. Candid Camera, The Real World, etc), it is within the last two years that reality television has achieved its greatest success in hits such as the Survivor series, Temptation Island, Big Brother, Fear Factor and so on.  A more detailed taxonomy can be found at Wikipedia.

For an explanation as to why reality television is so popular today, we offer an extended quotation:

There are several reasons that reality television has become popular today. The three that I will focus on are the concepts of money, instant fame, and the guilty pleasure phenomenon. The first catalyst for reality television being popular today is money. Todayís shows offer huge sums of money to people who do not necessarily possess the career skills that would make them a productive enough member of society to amass such wealth through honest work. Simplified, dumb people get lots of cash. Now, some shows do in fact have, at least at first, a pseudo-intellectual premise. Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, for example, offered up to a million dollars to people answering a set of questions. The questions, however, differed from related shows in that they were usually trivia oriented. Also, the audience was involved, as well as calling a friend and so on, which added to the drama aspect. The lighting, music, and editing all were contrived to produce the maximum possible suspense surrounding rather innocuous pop culture subjects one might find in any game of Trivial Pursuit for Children. The promise of money and the vicarious joy at someone winning lots of money, or more commonly spectacularly losing said money, is what draws millions of viewers.

The second reason I believe reality television has become popular today is that of instant fame. Reality television takes ordinary people, sets them up in extraordinary situations on a world stage with other similarly commonplace individuals, and makes them the focus of a nationís attention on, for example, an hour every Tuesday. Obviously the majority of the population has no chance of ever being picked as a participant for the show itself, but again the concept of vicarious living kicks in and the audience is hooked. The members of the show are satisfactorily every-day individuals for fans to willfully suspend their disbelief.  Thatís what keeps 35,000 twenty year olds auditioning every year for a chance to participate in MTVís The Real World, which offers no monetary reward save the endorsements from being an instant celebrity.

The third reason that reality television is popular today is what I like to call guilty pleasure syndrome. Sociology professor Mark Fishman of Brooklyn College, The City University of New York, has made a study of reality TV. "The Germans have a word for it, the appeal of some of these shows," he says. "It's called 'schadenfreude.' It means taking delight in the misfortunes of others. It's a guilty pleasure. You feel you shouldn't be watching. It's always been in good taste not to look at these things.... It's a moral envelope that's being pushed.... We seem to be in a new age of making public what [we used to think] shouldn't be seen."  In todayís society, with the massive technological revolution of home computing and the internet, and with the renewed interest in free speech and the protection of the arts, more and more people are finding premises entertaining that 30 years ago would have been considered obscene.

At this point I think it is important to reflect on what these reasons import for society as a whole. The existence of these justifications in and of themselves infers several valid assumptions about American culture, some less than pleasant.

The money impetus, or the dollar dilemma, as I call it, is pretty obvious; Americans have become even more infatuated with the concept of personal wealth and personal property. We have become a money-loving society, a society that has taken the inherently good concept of laissez-faire economy and extrapolated it to itís logical yet fallible extreme, that of total marketing-based consumerism. We care about what we can buy, what we can buy it with, and how fast we can get it. We indebt ourselves purchasing cars we cannot afford on credit we donít deserve for applications that donít require our excessive purchase. We super-size everything, from sport utility vehicles and fast food meals to football games and government bureaucracy. This is a dangerous cultural mindset for a society supposedly founded on the dual ideals of piousness and simplicity. While it may retain us the big kid on the block global police station economic powerhouse position we possess presently, in the long run it ensures avarice and corruption that will not fail to sabotage our economy. The corporate scandals that are just recently being unmasked are the harbingers of a dangerous trend. Our bear market, recessing due largely to lack of consumer faith in the market and government and more in personal property, is an omen of ill-portent.

The lack of faith in the market and government leads me to my next assumption concerning the instant fame catalyst. The reason that ordinary people are becoming celebrities has a fairly simple yet disturbing root; the complete vacuum where our store of heroes and idols should be.  While our current president does possess popular ratings, this is not due to an overall awe-inspired devotion to an enlightened political pundit.  Rather, our president tells the people what they want to hear.  He entertains with rhetoric such as ďaxis of evilĒ and ďthe evil onesĒ.  It is not just government that bears the onus of blame.  Hollywood is similarly discouraging.  From drug arrests for our most talented singers, to child molestation charges and assault arrests, it is a sad day when we have someone like anti-homosexuality aphorism spewing Eminem raising our youth.  Until we have real heroes to look up to, society has decided to manufacture its own.

The guilty pleasure inference is mostly self-explanatory.  While I do believe in the sanctity of free speech, in todayís society more and more people seem to be exercising what I call the assumed right to free noise.  As opposed to free speech, which seeks to actually make a comment about something, or contribute a thought worth considering regardless of personal beliefs, free noisemakers intend to sensationalize and shock behind a faÁade of pretentious ďartĒ mystique they mistakenly believe lends them an automatic air of credibility.  We as a society cannot continue to value entertainment which purposefully seeks to not inform.  The purpose of mass communication must shift to be one of entertainment coupled with enlightenment; else, we are headed for an ignorant renaissance in which ratings and advertising are the only currency.

In conclusion, I will say that the concept of reality television has several distinct flaws, both in its conception and popularity and in what it entails for our attitudes in society as a whole.  Until we address these problems, I for one will discourage everyone I know to avoid the latest episode of Survivor or The Bachelor, and hand them a book.

Just how popular is reality television these days?  We begin by citing some survey data from the TGI Latina study.  This portion of the data comes from seven countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru) in which a total of 51,253 persons were interviewed during 2002.  Within this sample, 20.7% of the respondents said that they watch reality television frequently.

In the next chart, we show the incidences by age/sex groups.  Without doubt, the viewing of reality viewing decreases by age.  Within any age group, females are more likely to watch than males.

(source: TGI Latina)

In the next chart, we show the incidences are shown by socio-economic level and educational achievement.  It is fairly flat for socio-economic level and lower for the better educated.

(source: TGI Latina)

For comparison, we cite comparable survey data taken from the United States.  The survey is the 2003 MARS study, which is a mail survey of 21,106 adults conducted during the first quarter of 2003.  Within the MARS study, 24.1% of the respondents said that they frequently watch reality television programs.  The next chart shows the incidences by age/sex.  This follows the overall outline as in the TGI Latina study --- a sharp decreasing trend by age.  But the USA data differ from the Latin American data by having a much sharper difference by age, and the gender difference is mixed.

(source: MARS survey)

The next chart shows the USA data by education and household income.  In the USA, the incidences show a more distinct educational break, being lower for those with post-graduate education (as in Latin America) and then lowest for people who never got out of high school (not obvious in Latin America).

(source: MARS survey)

(posted by Roland Soong, 6/15/2003)

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