Why do people watch reality TVI have said it before (and I’ll probably say it again) but I find reality tv annoying. I find it contrived and the amount of ‘drama’ which occurs in this augmented reality is far more than what we see in everyday ‘real’ life.  The strange thing is that what is termed to be ‘reality’ is actually far from the truth, as this recent article states about a cooking show in Australia. That’s right, the situations, arguments, backstabbing and back stories are mostly made up for television. Shows like Big Brother and Survivor, while I don’t watch them, are passable, but the ones I really have an issue with are those which tend to promise a positive outcome in life for the participants after the show has finished (such as The Bachelor/ette, The Farmer wants a Wife, The Apprentice). These shows, while not just promising a prize, also promise some social benefit – whether this be a job or a partner.

This post is not about the evils of reality television and production companies, but rather a look at how these show appeal to an audience and therefore encourage the further production of similar show.

The reason that people watch reality TV, I think, is that it gives us access to ‘risky’ or antisocial behaviours without actually having to bear any of the consequences ourselves. By watching the back stabbing and the snarky comments, we get the thrill without having to actually engage in that behaviour ourselves and therefore we aren’t actually exposed to any potentially awkward or challenging social situations.

As it appeals to our baser psychological instincts and our desire to understand human relationships, many people watch these shows and as a result many are currently in their 20th-odd season. This is good for production companies and television channels, as they are able to use this to capitalise on advertising space. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, but rather the reality of how many free to air channels generate their income. In simple economic terms, if more people watch a show, then advertising space can be sold for more to advertisers, due to exposure of a product to a wider audience. In addition to this, the cost of making shows like this are lower than the cost of producing actual drama shows particularly due to the fact that the ‘talent’ in the shows are paid minimally and there is very little need for CGI or other after effects – besides editing and music, this results in the revenue being higher for the channel, due to large volumes of watchers and then a higher demand for the ad-space.

So what happens from here is that production companies then have to produce work which is interesting to people, creating a demand. Unfortunately, shows that were pitched as reality tend to become something which is really better termed ‘drama-reality’ It uses real people (that is not actors – mostly) who are put in situations that do not require actual scripting, but they do engage in story lines that do not actually reflect the reality of what they are thinking and feeling. When people engage in this, I have no problem, but unfortunately some people who have been on these shows have only found out when the show goes to air what their ‘character’ is and therefore they find that they actually have to explain themselves to friends and family in real life, due to the editing that took place well after the actual events transpired.

As I mentioned earlier, the shows that I find most problematic are the ones which promise an outcome such as marriage, or a job. The problem is two-fold, firstly, any major life decision based on the above editing and manipulation is likely not to last and will be plagued with problems (you can probably name a few relationships that have ended after a reality TV show has finished). Secondly, and even more problematic is that these major life decisions are sold to viewers as though this is how they happen in real life. Much like the pornography vs real sex debate, the idea of ‘this is how you win a man’ or ‘this is how you get a job’ promotes unrealistic expectations especially for younger and impressionable viewers, which can cause later psychosocial difficulties.

So in saying all of this, yes, it is only entertainment, but for those who are impressionable there may be some consequence of this later on. Treated on their own, as solely entertainment, they pose no risk, but how do we decide where the TV ends and reality begins?

So what are your thoughts on reality television, what are the best and the worst ones out there in terms of manipulation of ‘subjects’ and on the other hand, which ones tend to stay pretty true to the reality of the events which unfold?

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Written by The Psychologist

4 Comments

Aaron

Hi Cameron,

I have always wondered why some “Reality shows” are even called that. I do enjoy watching Survivor. I have watched every season of it but I don’t consider it a reality show. I consider it an extended game show. It’s a contest with non celebrities competing for a prize. Only difference is that it’s filmed over a longer period, the contestants don’t go home at the end of a day of filming.

The others, like “Real Housewives” are the ones I just don’t get. Why watch what I consider a bunch of wanna be celebrities air their dirty laundry and act like fools on TV? I guess because like you said, some people want to watch that but would rather not have to deal with it in their own lives, even though I’m sure they could if that’s what they really wanted.

The one thing that is becoming a new trend has me baffled. With reality shows the networks can put together a premise (often silly or ridiculous) and hirie inexpensive “talent” to put in front of the camera for cheap compared to casting real stars. So how come we have shows like Celebrity Game Night where there are real actors basically playing games on air that people could be playing at home with their friends??!! Seems backwards to me!

There is one show in particular that does sometimes have a direct impact on me and that’s The Biggest Loser. Some people watch it and don’t realize how unrealistic it is. The worst part is then they expect to be able to get the same results by doing maybe two or three workouts a week. Then I have to explain to them what is really going on behind the scenes and that in order to get those kind of results it’s going to take a much greater commitment in time, effort and money.

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The Psychologist

Thanks for the comment Aaron, I agree that ‘reality’ is sometimes a misnomer especially as you say with shows like Survivor.

Whilst it is an animated movie – I think that Wall-E is a great representation on humans in the future and what we are hurtling towards, we would prefer to sit and watch rather than engage in the same behaviours. Wall-E sees humans sitting all the time, with screens in front of us and robot servants and this watch rather than do attitude is exactly what I see through these game shows (and also through the proliferation and preference of social media over social engagement).

And I totally agree with the Biggest Loser comment – the promise of a prize (money, car…) is very different to the promise of a new life. Obesity is a biopsychosocial issue and not simply an issue that is addressed through doing heaps of exercise. I saw a story a while back that looked at ‘Where are they now’ and due to not addressing other lifestyle and psychological issues, many contestants were already back at their starting weight.

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Aaron

Hi again Cameron,

I remember seeing the show that followed up on some of the former contestants too. I agree that there are many issues they need to fix before their physical selves are truly fixed.
One thing the follow up show proved was that what they endured during their stay at the ranch was far from reality, which is another reason why so many regain the fat they lost during the filming. I think that every season should have an episode or some time devoted to following up on the former contestants, that way the audience would really see some “Reality.”

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The Psychologist

I would love to see a series of photos done by people going through real weight loss, not this fake stuff and not the typical Before/After shots, so that people can see that it is a process. I think a lot of people give up on diets because they don’t see that they are making those massive losses, which in real life, are very hard to do.

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