Because I have been discussing TV and pop culture with you lately, and plan on continuing to do so, I have decided to share with you one of my first college documented essays in freshman year in which I discussed reality TV and why it is so popular in today's society. I think this piece touches upon well what I have talked about in previous pieces. The assignment was to chose an American icon and what better American icon of today to chose than reality TV? (I apologize for the length. It was supposed to be a five page paper.)
Reality television has been a phenomenon that is sweeping the nation. Normally new episodes are shown week-by-week and home viewers are glued to the tube as they watch other people’s lives unfold, which has been the latest popular entertainment for all of America.
There are many questions about reality television that needs some answering, such as why do people love it so much? Why do they feel obligated to help others in their quest for success? What makes people actually want to participate in these shows as contestants? Is there any end in sight to the tirade? And finally, what does reality TV represent in America?
One possible explanation is that people love attention and as fellow human beings, we love to give it to them. Plenty of times people act like idiots and portray characters because they know they are being watched and the public feed on what they deliver, “For lack of a better term these might be called Schadenfreude shows: shows that allow the audiences to view and feel sorry for (or amazed by) the indignities people are willing to endure for their fifteen minutes of fame” (Timberg 202). American Idol, America’s famous creation that some people wish was never born, is well known for this technique. People, who probably know they are bad singers but would never admit to it, audition for a spot in Hollywood week and judge and producer Simon Cowell reacts to their lack of talent with sarcastic remarks. As the audience we look forward to these moments as they are shown in the previews. We wait anxiously during commercials to see the person suffer humiliation at the hands of Simon, and if we are lucky, we will see him or her bark a lame comeback. Let us face it. We are more likely to enjoy watching a Simon and contestant banter rather than all three to four judges proclaim unanimously, “You are fantastic! Welcome to Hollywood!” The overjoyed contestant then exits the auditioning room screaming and crying, sharing the news with his or her family, gold ticket in hand. Apparently we Americans do not like to watch joyful spectacles.
Reality television originated with the fascination of other people. It supposedly all began with “man on the street” interviews, when random people are asked opinions of a particular issue, thus combining documentary filmmaking, radio, and television. “We like to see how others live as well as hear what they have to say,” says Jacquie Jordan in her book Get on TV! The Insider’s Guide to Pitching the Producers and Promoting Yourself, “Understanding or even just observing their lives gives us perspective on our own.” (201). This suggestion proves that people choose to focus more on other people’s lives rather than their own. It is a fairytale life that is not ours and yet we feel that we can relate, so it is the best of both worlds. We watch with warmth in our hearts as Lauren Conrad of The Hills drives her fancy convertible as an intern at Teen Vogue by day while partying it up with her friends by night. She is an example of living life to the fullest as she works hard to achieve what she desires. Every moment in her life is recorded, both good and bad, and it is these moments we feel reflect our own. We like to know that others, even those that seem to live luxuriously, have the same experiences we do.
Reality TV also gives us a chance to look up to someone and we root for that certain someone to succeed. In much reality programming, the name and concept of the show says it all: Who will be the next American IDOL, America’s BEST Dance Crew, America’s Next TOP Model, LAST Comic Standing, America’s FAVORITE Dancer (So You Think You Can Dance)? Perhaps we want so much to be on top of the game ourselves that when we see others do so, we feel that we also have a chance at fame and fortune. Maybe if we find it so difficult to do it for ourselves that we think that we should help others reach for something we cannot. Even if we are not assisting the individual, we just love to witness success.
Even though viewers take pleasure in observing and experiencing happiness, we are also a society who thrives on turmoil, angst, and stupidity. It gives us something to talk about. We are able to poke fun at the most hated house guests of Big Brother or America’s Next Top Model and complain about how much we dislike them, when all the while that so-called villain is the main reason everyone watches in the first place, to see what kind of mischief he or she will get into that week. It is not the games or performances that draw the American audience but the drama and occasional scandal.
Because there are so many different types of reality television, let us try to distinguish them from each other. The first and most original kind is the documentary soap opera, where every moment is videotaped (Real World, first ever reality show that premiered in 1992, The Osbournes, Laguna Beach, and The Hills). The next is the famous duo of documentary and game show genres (Survivor, another original show that started the fad, Fear Factor, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, and The Apprentice). The only difference between this and the documentary version is that there is a goal or prize at the end. Another programming reality format is one that suffices the makings of such classics as Allen Funt’s Candid Camera and Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d, where the participants do not even know they are being recorded until it is revealed at the end of a prank they are meant to endure for a few measly minutes. Finally there is the talent search show (American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Star Search, Dancing with the Stars, and America’s Got Talent.) This genre includes audience participation, bother live and broadcast. (Jordan 199).
Even though for some of these categories it may not be intentional, but one constant theme in reality programming that all of these versions have in common is the competition aspect. For example, when Ryan Seacrest, host of American Idol, or Cat Deeley, hostess of So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol’s sister counterpart, announces that the phone lines are open for the rest of us couch potatoes to vote for our favorite contestants, we never fail to suddenly become airborne and tackle our phones and cells to place in our votes. Seacrest and Deeley often use the phrase “battle it out” to describe the intensity of the pressure the contestants undergo.
Competition in this setting resembles a minimized form of war and survival of the fittest while voting is a minimized form of government and suffrage, getting our voices heard in hopes for the best man or woman to win. There have been times when the tragedy of 9/11 and premiere of American Idol have been compared to display differing views of politics in the media:
“These two events—one tragic and the other a bit of a fluff—exemplify the contrasts of contemporary life in the United States; sometimes it seems that the defining problems of the era are so large and complex that many people would rather vote for their favorite contestant rather than become politically active and work for a change” (Dalton 134).
Reality TV reflects the drama in our own lives and many times we use reality TV as a reprieve from what is happening currently. Sometimes people would rather focus on a less serious form of competition to avoid worrying about the future.
A dilemma can either be as severe as a war or just a minor everyday conflict. Americans always find themselves in the midst of competition; whether it is for food, oil, shelter, jobs, money, or maybe even academics and sports, just to name a few. Competition is so prominent that even our children participate in it with their Spelling Bees, Little League, and any other activity. We are literally programmed to battle each other since childhood that it just seems normal. Our lives are run by competition, so why not gear it towards entertainment?
Reality TV represents different aspects of American life, some that have already been established, such as the obsession of viewers and fascination with other people’s lives, search for success and the ideal life, stereotypical roles, love for attention, iconography, money, and of course, competition. With this information realized, it is concluded that reality TV represents America itself as a whole! There is this need for the perfect American Dream and reality programming provides Americans with what is needed to reach this ultimate goal. Americans want a good-looking image, money, career, fame, love, and attention. Each reality show brings at least one of these components, if not all of them, to the table. They are all important to achieve the American Dream, proven to be true by every outcome of every reality TV show.
“Soon after Survivor burst onto the national stage with gigantic ratings, there was much media speculation that the reality TV boom was a fad that would run its course then go bust. But these doomsayers have been proven wrong. Reality television looks as if it has become a permanent fixture of our complex and colorful popular culture” (Jordan 202). There are so many concepts and shows out there that there seems to be no end visible over the horizon. There have been so many so many attempts at reality shows that they either have succeeded or failed, much like the lives of American individuals. The reason why reality TV is such a craze now is that it is not just a personal companion for us, it IS us.
Dalton, Mary M. and Laura R. Linder. Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television. New
York: Peter Long Publishing, Inc., 2008. 134. Print.
(Huff, Richard M. Reality TV. Westport: The Praeger Television Collection, 2006. Print.)
Jordan, Jacquie. Get on TV! The Insider’s Guide to Pitching the Producers and Promoting
Yourself. Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2006. 199-202. Print.
Timberg, Bernard M. and Robert J. Erler. Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 112, 202-203. Print.