Real or Imagined: What are You Watching on TV?
Given the current writer’s strike in the entertainment industry, our television viewing habits may have to change. While late night and scripted shows are in early re-runs, “unscripted” shows are sure to vie for our attention. Reality shows are sold to us as unscripted quasi-documentaries or as competitions rife with drama (although they do employ writers). In any case, these shows have multiplied dramatically in recent years because they are inexpensive to produce and profitable.
Are you already a frequent viewer of reality shows? Do you have your favorite? Do you prefer the competitions and drama of Survivor or Road Rules? How about American Idol or Rock Star? Cowboy U or Coyote Ugly? The Bachelor, Beauty and the Geek, or A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila? Extreme Makeover or Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style? The Apprentice, Miami Ink, Iron Chef, or Project Runway? The Real World or Amish in the City? The Simple Life, Tommy Lee Goes to College, or the Two Coreys? Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance? Kid Nation?
Each of these shows offers a slightly different take on the reality formula: collect a group of people to take on tasks that seem formidable and watch to see who annoys you the most, who you want to prevail, and who actually wins or stays the course.
Shows like Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood, the latest in the Anna Nicole Smith and Osbournes tradition, don’t have winners or a specific competition as they are based on witnessing the life of the subjects. However, competitive elements may intervene as family members vie for attention or they realize better ratings come from upping their “odd” quotient.
Celebrity reality shows have gained such popularity that a new word has emerged: celebreality. Language does change in response to how cultures accept or reject ideas and concepts about which people communicate. We’ll have to wait a few years to see if this word makes it into the dictionary. If it does, that would signal the cultural acceptance and lasting appeal of watching celebrities ostensibly live their lives in front of the cameras.
Most people are aware that reality shows, whether competitions or quasi-documentaries, really do not depict reality. The first show on television that documented family life was on PBS in the 1970s, called An American Family. However, that show has more in common with the documentary genre than what we now think of as reality TV.
Game shows are similar to reality shows in that they are unscripted and relatively cheap to produce, but there are some important differences A competition on a game show typically last only an episode and do not intend to depict any type of reality outside the studio in which it is filmed. Some competitive reality shows (such as The Bachelor) are similar to game shows but the competition spans the entire season and the drama of the experience is emphasized over the game.
The difference between reality shows today and those in the past has to do with the degree of reality that is presented and assumed. Contestants on the Dating Game and the Newlywed Game (popular shows in the 1960’s) never left the studio. The shows were limited to asking and/or answering questions, often about sex. These dating game shows are vastly different from current dating reality shows. The current shows encourage obvious sexual references and activities, offer a range of racial and ethnic pairings and do not restrict their participants to those who appear heterosexual.
In addition, on the current shows participants tend to date many different people at one time whereas on the Dating Game the bachelor or bachelorette could not date all three of those vying to be chosen. I welcome the diversity of participants in the newer shows, as it is a step towards living up to many of our country’s ideals, not the least of which is equality for all. Depicting those who are not heterosexual, white, protestant, or middle class, has the potential to normalize those formerly subordinate or deviant groups of people. This can happen if they are presented, not as foils or best buddies, but as people equivalent to those who fit the dominant status model.
Reality shows are similar to the more traditional soap operas that have long dominated day time TV. The differences rest not only with the “actors” but to whom the show is marketed: reality shows are aimed at the younger generations while soap operas target women who are home during the day. With the advent of Tivo and DVD recorders, not to mention changes in our economy and labor practices, a more diverse audience may be watching daytime soaps, however, one look at the advertising between show breaks tells you quickly who they define as their audience.
Take a closer look at the television shows that you watch: do they reinforce or challenge our society’s norms? To whom is the show marketed? Does the advertising that is paired with your show illustrate any notions the network, station, or producers have about their audience? If you do not watch television, what is your reaction to this discussion?