How and why reality TV appeals to people.
This essay discusses the appeal of reality TV using the Cultivation Analysis Theory and Cognitive Dissonance Theory to explain why humans are attracted to this genre of television. Big Brother, Australian Idol, and so you think you can dance are used as examples of realty game shows that are popular and widely watched by people around the world. The idea of human interest is discussed to portray why realty TV has been so successful, explaining that realty TV shows appeal to the “common” person because they are made interesting to people that don’t have to be intellectuals. The interaction between the consumer and the program is discussed and portrayed as a reason why people are attracted to reality TV because of the interaction they have with the shows.
Reality television has become one of the biggest revenue makers for television channels and is one of the most popular genres of media provided by television, with pay TV now having niche channels just for reality TV. One of the biggest reality TV shows to hit the world in recent years has been Big Brother, with this year in 2008 Australia having it’s 8th season and other countries clocking up to 16 series. People love reality TV so much because they can see themselves in the people on their TV screens and can relate to them or their situation. Reality TV includes shows such as Big Brother, through to more fictional shows such as Law and Order, any show that is based on reality can be deemed a “reality TV” show.
People watch TV to experience things that they cannot or haven’t experienced in their lives, TV creates a link for them to what they would like to experience. Shows like Law and Order capture our imagination and we like to think that that is the way police officers are and shows like this convince us that crime rates are higher then they are, because we see it all the time on TV. As described in the Cultivation Analysis Theory, people watch TV like a religion and this affects their lives, “most of what we know, or think we know, we have never personally experienced. We “know” these things because of the stories we see and hear in the media.” (West, Turner 2007, pp 407) The Lindy Chamberlain case in Australia is a prime example of people thinking they know something because they saw it in the media. The Australian public were convinced of Lindy Chamberlains guilt because the media portrayed her in a bad light, and only showed footage depicting that she was guilty. As a consequence the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to gaol time. Later it was found by an inquiry that she was not guilty and yet everyone believed she was guilty because of what they saw on TV.
In recent years, reality TV specifically reality game shows such as Big Brother have increased dramatically in the number of different reality shows there are and the amount of screen time they occupy. In Britain there are “30 reality programs during peak time every week night on the core terrestrial and digital channels” (Hill, Weibull, Nilsson, 2007) This is a reflection on the TV that the consumers want to watch, these reality TV shows have come to great acclaim by the public and are in high demand, not only in Britain, but around the world.
The growth of TV shows such as Big Brother or the Australian and other Idols can be accredited to the want by the public for seeing “ordinary” people on TV. “Ordinary” people being on TV means that the consumer can relate to the program directly because the people they are watching are not famous and are not acting on the show, they are being themselves and the public feel they can interact with these people because they are seeing them as “ordinary” people. “Reality TV is of course a construction, what has become significant is the way these formats have exploited the reality effect of television’s “liveness”; that is, the fore grounded liveness enhances the illusion that what is being watched is real or genuine, thus challenging the competing suspicion that it is only being staged and produced for the camera.” (Turner, 2006 pp 155) People like to watch “live” and “real” things happening on screen so they can connect with the TV and the people on screen, they feel the get to know the people on screen and then have a voting process to vote people off the show that they don’t like. People feel they are a part of the show when they feel they are influencing what happens, and they are able to “control” what happens in the show by evicting the people they think they have got to know by watching and have decided they don’t like.
“A popular literature of true stories, by making the local and the remote world human, may be a substitute on an extended scale for those intimate encounters of direct perception which are the basis of any understanding men have of each other” (Hughes, 1936) Though this is an old theory it still holds relevance in today’s society and can help us to understand what the appeal of reality TV is. Hughes talks of true stories making our local and remote world “human”, when considering reality TV game shows and other reality TV formats, they are attempting to make the “fake” world that is television more “real” to the consumer, so that the typical person sitting at home on their couch can interact with the people that are on screen and can feel more connected to them. This idea of connecting with the consumer can be dated back as far as the early 1900’s with the idea of the “human interest” story in journalism. “By human interest, we refer to media stories that focus on the predicaments and circumstance of particular, but previously unknown, individuals in which the events are presented as irrelevant to public policy.” (Fine, White, 2002) This idea of “human interest” has been adapted from the news genre to the entertainment genre, and can help to explain why reality TV is so poplar, it is because the producers of these shows create “human interest”. There is no advantage to watching these programs for political or educational enlightenment; they are predominantly just interesting to the common person.
The cognitive dissonance theory outlines that people will in the most part only engage with people or things that agree with their views and people try to avoid dissonance. “In their efforts to avoid feelings of dissonance, people will ignore views that oppose their own, change their beliefs to match their actions (or vice versa), and/or seek reassurances after making difficult decision.” (West, Turner, 2007 pp 133) Reality game shows and other reality TV programs provide a medium of television that is most likely not going to portray views that people disagree with, as they are generally shows only based on “human interest” and commonly try to avoid making political statements. This therefore creates a cognitive appeal to reality TV because the format of reality TV is trying to relate to people without creating a dissonance for them. Big Brother is the biggest reality TV game show in the genre, and the “election” to keep the contestants on the show has been compared to political elections. “Big Brother is easy to understand and speak about; manages to attract young people who are most likely to feel excluded from political participation; appeals unashamedly to pleasure rather then obligation or self-interest; and entails direct relationship between viewing, voting and visible consequences.” (Coleman, 2006 pp 457) Saying that Big Brother is easy to relate to for the consumer and is designed to appeal to the public, even if major issues are not addressed in the show. It still manages to capture millions of people around the world. “In Short, Big Brother, although substantially incomparable to a general election, is characterized by the very qualities that political participation lacks. Big Brother, in this sense, represents another side of democracy; a counterfactual democratic process in which conspicuous absences in contemporary political culture are played out.” (Coleman, 2006 pp 457) Big Brother along with other reality TV shows creates an appeal for its consumer that does not create a dissonance for them like a political election, or news and current affairs shows do and allows for the consumer still to interact with it.
Through the theories of Cultivation Analysis and Cognitive Dissonance it can be seen why people are so attracted to the reality TV genre. Many people tune into realty TV shows daily, across the world to see what happens to their favorite contestant on their favorite reality TV game show. Did Saxon and Bridgette hook up? Did David get evicted from the Big Brother house? Everyone is gripped by the experience of watching these shows and they feel they are connected to the show and the contestants. They get to know the contestants over the time they are participating on the show and the consumers views are more then likely not challenged by the show, they can sit and watch and not worry about political agendas or whether their Liberal or Labor views are going to be challenged by the shows. Especially shows such as “Australian Idol”, or “So you think you can dance” because these reality shows are aimed at gaining “human interest”. The idea of the show is to create a “human interest” that the majority of the population can relate with. People who can’t sing or dance can still watch “Australian Idol” or “So you think you can dance” and it interests them to watch the people that can sing and/or dance try and win these competitions and gain the experience of what is happening on screen by supporting their favorite contestant. However they have never experienced what is going on; they feel they have experienced it by watching on as the people on the screen complete tasks. This is why reality TV appeals to the world, and has become such a successful medium of television over recent years and will continue to be one of the most watched mediums of television.