What is it that makes reality television so incidiniarily, hair-grabbingly, #!@&* popular? Unlike other forms of entertainment, it creates characters that are larger than life and transcend screens (as well as the limits of syndicated airtime) to the point where it’s impossible to tell where the TV reality ends and true reality begins. But the most compelling and enduring factor behind reality TV’s success is its inextricable link with human nature. It exposes how endlessly curious we are about each other, and the hours we’re willing to spend lost in someone else’s world. We look for an escape from our own lives, but we also look for ourselves in the experiences of others. And the most dangerous part is, unlike scripted content, we can all too easily believe it’s all real.
Reality TV was around long before The Slap Heard Round the World — as early as the 1940s. Candid camera shows delighted viewers with a furtive look at people’s unscripted blunders; they could point and laugh at Joe-Shmo making mistakes they’d surely never be foolish enough to make. Social scientists, too, exploited human nature in experiments via hidden cameras. While the goal was simply to highlight prevailing social constructs, what they proved (ironically) was that people love to watch these human realities unfold onscreen.
Surprised to learn that scientists conceived the genre that would spawn Keeping Up with the Kardashians? Well, you can also thank PBS, who officially started this ultra voyeuristic ‘structured reality’. It’s thanks to them that, decades later, MTV’s The Real World was born - thrusting a group of fame-starved young people under one roof, plying them with alcohol and watching the fire burn. The reality fever that followed changed TV forever. And it created a dangerous conflation of reality and fiction that’s kept a strong grip on us.
A reality show connects with people in more salient ways because it facilitates a much stronger connection to a character, keeping viewers invested in their stories over time. Reality stars freely share with the camera (and viewers at home) intimate confessions, milestone moments, ugly crying, and first-thing-in-the-morning yawns (after a stint in the makeup chair of course). Seeing the good, the bad and the ugly is enough to create a feeling of intimacy – even through a screen. In feeling intrinsically connected to the characters, viewers can experience the effects of vicariousness or even escapism — feeling like they, too, are spending their days in an extravagant LA pad, on a remote island or even in a baby-filled home in Arkansas (hey, whatever floats your boat).
This intimacy multiplied tenfold with social media as fans engaged with their favorite reality stars beyond the shows themselves. That constant connection fuels interest between episodes or seasons, and has the added benefit of using stars as powerful PR tools. Social media also allows their TV persona to take on a more realistic shape (although ironically, a social persona is equally as curated and misleading). Social media also serves as a tool for fans, enabling them to congregate and feed off each other — even creating alliances around their favorite stars.
And with several celebs’ social media followings topping that of world leaders’, their real-world influence cannot be dismissed. Nor should it be underestimated.
The saturation of drama in stars’ lives makes it seem like an obligatory part of life. Due to efforts to make shows seem more like reality, audiences can forget that it is, first and foremost, entertainment. Things that would be outrageous in real life would make for yawn-worthy TV. In every episode, audiences expect blow-up fights, tears, injury, partying, extravagance, some big twist or reveal…the list goes on. The danger of this is that an inflated ‘reality’ starts to color expectations for our own lives. Beyond making us yearn for more drama and action, ‘reality’ content like this can normalize risky or questionable behavior. Look at the evidence: the show ‘16 and Pregnant’ famously garnered criticism for glamorizing teen pregnancy. Wild partying and risky behavior on Jersey Shore made many eyes roll - and as many fists pump. And a man posing as a successful boss on television was accidentally misconstrued as a competent leader on a national scale.
We’ve created a bit of a monster in reality TV. The screen acts as a warped funhouse mirror, showing us an exaggerated and laughable reflection of ourselves and our society. But will we tire of that reflection when we realize it’s depicting a world we no longer want to see or live in? How much longer will the melodramatic lives of others continue to capture our attention? As VR becomes more closely integrated into our lives (with Facebook Spaces already creating accessible virtual worlds), the lines of reality and fantasy will continue to blur. That begs the question: when we can create our own realities, will we still be fascinated by the trials and glamorous (or not so glamorous) lives of strangers? Perhaps our yearnings for voyeurism and human connections will keep us coming back for more. After all, watching Kim cry over her lost earrings never gets old.