“Vancouver is a goldmine and I love to go digging,” announced Christina — one of the stars of the new Real Housewives of Vancouver — in the promotional video for the reality show. For most viewers watching the newest installment of the Real Housewives shows, the fact that the setting is so familiar makes the ‘reality’ of Vancouver life that is portrayed so much more bizarre. In his article “Reality TV: A Dearth of Talent and the Death of Morality”, Salman Rushdie pondered: “Who needs images of the world’s rich otherness, when you can watch these half-familiar avatars of yourself — these half-attractive half-persons — enacting ordinary life under weird conditions? Who needs talent, when the unashamed self-display of the talentless is constantly on offer?” And yet, despite this cynical and negative view of reality TV and everything it stands for, there is nonetheless something about reality TV that keeps people coming back for more, which raises the question: what exactly fascinates us about reality TV?
Reality TV as we know it started with the rise of COPS in 1989 and MTV’s The Real World in 1992. With the 2000 debut of Survivor, the genre shot upwards in popularity, and has since expanded to include a variety of styles and sub-genres. Predominantly, there are documentary-style shows — such as the Real Housewives — where the camera follows around the subjects in what is supposed to be an unscripted and candid look at their lives. This type of reality TV is further divided to include documentaries starring celebrities (e.g. Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Simple Life). Another popular type of reality show deals with makeovers and lifestyle changes, such as Extreme Makeover or The Biggest Loser. Additionally, there are reality competitions, such as The Amazing Race, and talent searches (e.g. American Idol), both of which appeal to the thrill of competition. Each of these sub-genres seems to appeal to a certain demographic or a certain sentiment, which makes the question of our society’s fascination that much more complex.
One of the reasons for this fixation may be the sense of voyeurism that we experience, especially in shows such as Big Brother, whose main purpose is exactly that: to give the audience an opportunity for voyeurism. Unlike scripted television, reality shows provide the audience with an intimate view of real people and real events; most shows not only film the arguably candid interactions between characters, but also confessional asides where the characters divulge their true thoughts to the camera. As an audience, we are given the ultimate insight into the lives and minds of the people on screen.
Another reason for watching reality TV is that it provides viewers with the opportunity to live vicariously through the characters they are watching. “The type of reality shows I watch, they’re mainly about people that live lavish lifestyles, which [are] different from mine,” says Chelsea, a 21-year-old student. “So I find it interesting to see how different it could be.” It is true that many of the more popular reality shows follow people living in extravagance — the Real Housewives series and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, to name a few. A survey at Ohio State University found that regular viewers of reality TV shows were more likely to agree with statements about social status than those who were not fans of reality TV (e.g. “Prestige is important to me”). “Reality TV allows Americans to fantasize about gaining status through automatic fame,” wrote one of the researchers, Steven Reiss, in an issue of Psychology Today. “Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on television.” Reality television provides viewers the opportunity to vicariously experience extravagance safely; we can watch those on screen do things that we would never dare do in reality.
On the one hand, reality shows give viewers glimpses of lifestyles different from their own; on the other, the fact that the premise is one of ‘reality’ means that viewers internalize the content and compare their lives to those of the people they are watching. This is exactly what some dislike about reality television. “It paints ‘reality’ of other people’s lives as much more exciting [than] what real life is actually like, so people get this false notion that their own reality doesn’t make par,” says 25-year-old Saeid. For others, however, it is a way to feel better about themselves. Some reality shows — such as MTV’s True Life and Intervention — concentrate on the downfalls and negative aspects of people’s lives, which comfort the average viewer with the feeling that their own lives, though ordinary, are at least not as messy as those on screen.
One of the more popular sub-genres of reality TV is that of competition shows. Viewers follow the competitions with excitement, picking favorites and reacting to their successes and downfalls. It’s clear what draws the audience to these shows: the same adrenaline rush-inducing devices that draw people to watch competitive sports — or competitions of any sort, at that — are used in reality show competitions. An added feature of reality television, however, is the personal aspect; viewers are introduced to the competitors, providing them with a sense of a deeper personal understanding of the characters. The same can be said for reality shows that deal with lifestyle changes and personal makeovers: the stylistic devices used in making a reality show (mainly the participants’ confessions to the camera) can create a sense of empathy among viewers. By watching someone speak about how unhappy they are in their current life situation or their current body, the audience develops a desire to see them change and improve their standard of living. Shows like The Biggest Loser or Extreme Makeover have received criticism for many reasons — including the harshness with which they work the competitors — but there is no denying that the way the transformations are presented to the audience provides a happy ending; a problem and the succeeding solution.
While all of the above explanations are certainly valid, the answer could be as simple as amusement. Chelsea cites Jersey Shore as one of her favourite reality shows. “Entertainment value,” she says, is the main reason she is such an avid fan of the show. “I love hot messes and partying and it’s basically just an hour of rowdiness every episode.” Perhaps what we enjoy about reality shows is that they take us along for the ride.
“The problem with this kind of engineered realism is that, like all fads, it’s likely to have a short shelf-life, unless it finds ways of renewing itself,” predicts Rushdie in the same article. It seems, however, that reality TV appeals to every possible aspect of human nature: the voyeurism of candid shows; empathy, and the desire for a happy ending; the adrenaline rush of competition. This is perhaps why the audience is so vast: because it is not just one audience. People watch reality TV for different reasons, just like they watch scripted television for different reasons. The foundation of reality television is that it reflects and documents reality, however, the appeal seems to be a reality distorted enough from our own that it provides an escape from everyday life.