Reality TV: Origins and Contexts

“Reality TV can encompass anything from teen-pregnancy shows to cooking competitions to shows about addiction to documentary serials to travel and home-design series – everything from Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days to ABC’s 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show. Arguably, the most widely agreed on definition of “reality TV” is “non-fiction television of which I personally disapprove.” ”                                                                                         – James Poniewozik

“If there is one thing that reality TV fans generally agree on, it’s that they should be ashamed of themselves for watching it.”           – James Poniewozik


Reality TV is defined by certain features typical to its genre: the spontaneous, ‘unscripted’ nature of the shows; the impression of authenticity; as well as the general idea of a game, whether in a team as in Survivor or based on the looks of an individual in Top Model.

James Poniewozik posits, in his chapter of The Ethics of Reality TV, the most effective reality TV is really satire “boiled down to one extreme gesture. It takes a commonplace piety and skewers it: that team spirit is the key to winning (Survivor), that everyone has a special talent (American Idol), that success goes to the deserving (Real Housewives).”

Zizi Papacharissi explains in the article An Exploratory Study of Reality Appeal: Uses and Gratifications of Reality TV Shows that “reality TV places the audience member on the opposite side of the entertainment arena, providing all viewers with the possibility of becoming potential entertainers.”

Reality TV is also known for its adaptability. A plethora of reality shows have transgressed the borders: the ‘Idol’ franchises, Big Brother, MasterChef, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore/The Shire/The GC, etc etc etc.

Aaron Barnhart, in his article entitled How reality TV took over prime time, articulates thats “Reality TV not only validates people’s lives, as some say, but is credited with legitimizing a variety of behaviors and lifestyles, for better and worse…

“The profusion of gay characters on reality shows is credited with easing public attitudes toward gay marriage. Obsessive-compulsive disorders are destigmatized by shows like “Hoarders” and “The OCD Project.” Susan Boyle proved you don’t have to look like an opera diva to sing like one. Shows like “Little People, Big World” and “19 Kids & Counting” celebrate families of all shapes and sizes.

“But reality TV also introduced Americans to the bridezilla, the Guido, the Kardashians and, yes, the “real housewife.””

Reality TV covers a multitude of sub-genres or formats, anything from infotainment, ‘cinema verite’, game shows, talent shows, life experiment shows… the list truly does go on!

Poniewozik describes in his article What’s Right With Reality TV that the immense inclusion of reality TV in everyday life illustrates an even bigger culture shift: “Big as reality TV is, it’s also just a facet of a larger shift in popular culture: changing attitudes toward privacy and self-expression. If you grew up with reality TV and the Internet, your default setting is publicity, not privacy. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, recently argued that sharing has become the “social norm.“”

“Thus comes what you might call the realitization of reality: the evolution of once private, or at least obscure, acts into performance. The diary becomes the blog. The home-movie collection becomes the YouTube channel. The résumé becomes the public search-result page.”

Poniewozik makes the point that “one thing reality TV has trained people to do is to be savvy about its editing. That’s how people watch reality TV: you can doubt it, interrogate it, talk back to it, believe it, or not”. This sentiment is certainly true: we know that what we see “isn’t really what goes on in the house” as many a ill-perceived housemate will hurry to tell us. We think that maybe those toddlers in tiaras aren’t quite as tantrum-y as producers would have us believe.

“In 1992, reality TV was a novelty. In 2000, it was a fad. In 2010, it’s a way of life.”

– Poniewozik

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