Reality television programming has been around since the first broadcast of Candid Camera in the late 1940s, but this type of programming became more popular in recent years as a result of different factors. Rowen, (2000) attributed the debut of the Survivor in the year 2000 as the beginning of the infiltration of reality programming in today’s television landscape. This type of television programming has now becoming popular among different television audience globally and has also gained recognition of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences who in 2003 added “Best Reality Show” as an Emmy category. While studies in reality television are relatively limited despite the recent surge in its programming, efforts is hereby made in this study to review or summarize previous research on reality television programming.
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The increase in reality television programming may undoubtedly be related to with the increasing number of cable channels, which allows advertisers to reach smaller markets (Hiebert and Gibbons, 2000) with the majority of reality television programming is geared towards the individuals under twenty five years old (Frank, 2003). MTV has been presenting the Real World to this target younger demographic for more than ten years. Frank (2003) suggests that younger viewers are attracted to reality television programmes because the programmes show individuals and situations which relates to what they are used to on daily basis. According to Rowen (2000), the popularity of reality television began with the debut of Survivor which was first aired in 2000. From thence, this genre of television programming started gaining attraction and attention on network primetime television. This was when reality programmes started to target an older demographic. There is a variety of programmes that still target the younger demographic, but now there are more programmes that target a much wider demographic. For example, network primetime programmes such as The Apprentice target the 18 – 49 demographic (Rowen, 2000). Because of this age range, it is most likely that a greater percentage of individuals now watch reality television today than in the time past.
Nabi, Biely, Morgan, and Stitt, (2003) examined the genre of reality television programming itself. It was observed that a multidimensional space analysis of all television programmes indicates that reality television is a genre that is distinct from all of the other pre-existing genres. However, not all reality programmes can be considered as one cohesive genre. There are two dimensions with the first one is presented as a continuum due to its suitability for primetime programming. The second dimension is ‘fiction-real’, this is a continuum based on whether the programmes were portrayed as fictional or realistic based programmes. Some reality programmes have been listed as fictional because for some reasons, audience members do not perceive them as realistic (Nabi et al, 2003). Interestingly, not all reality programmes were classified as reality, and not all fictional programmes were classified as fictional.
In another study, Nabi, Stitt, Halford and Finnerty, (2006) used multidimensional scaling to understand the subgroups of reality television programming. There were two dimensions along which viewers thought about reality television – romance and competitiveness. Dating programmes were found to be a unique type of programming with no relationship with other programme types. The other subgroups of reality television programming were found to be fluid and difficult for viewers to separate one from another because of the overlap among the categories. As a way of creating better understanding, Nabi et al (2006) encourages reality television researchers to focus on the qualities of the programmes and not the categories.
Some research has sought to discover why people watch reality television programmes. Reiss and Wiltz (2004) in a study, asked individuals to rate themselves on Reiss’s 16 basic life motives and also to report how much they viewed reality programmes and how much they enjoyed these programmes. Results indicated that the appeal to reality television programmes was dependent on the amount of reality television programmes watched by the individuals. The more reality programmes an individual reported liking, the more status oriented the individual is likely to be. Individuals found to place a higher value on vengeance were found to be more motivated by social life, less motivated by honour, more focused on order, and more concerned with romance. Reiss and Wiltz (2004) found that the reality television programmes that people prefer to watch are those that stimulate their motives and fundamental values the most. For example, people who place premium on romance in relationships are very much likely to watch The Bachelor, but if they value work or entrepreneurship, then they may prefer to go for The Apprentice reality programme. Therefore, it can be concluded that the motif for watching reality television programmes is based on their individual values and desires. Many individuals would easily indicate that they enjoy watching other people on reality television programmes, but this is not to say that the competitors are not aware that they are being watched. Nabi et al (2003) in their study concludes that people watch reality programmes because they enjoy watching real people instead of actors and that the uses and gratifications sought by reality television audiences is the reason why regular viewers watch the programmes because they find it entertaining, for the enjoyment of watching other people’s life, and the self-awareness they receive from these programmes.
Cognitive and emotional predictors of reality television were examined by Nabi et al (2006) and found that happiness, para-social relationships, dramatic challenge social self-awareness, comparison and negative outcomes are factors which affect the enjoyment of reality television programmes. It was also found that reality television programmes did not appeal much to the audience when compared to other genres of television programming. However, this was attributed to the limited ability of the programmes to evoke positive emotions rather than the negative emotions which the programmes provoked. They also determined that perceived reality was not related to enjoyment from viewing reality television programming and that various dimensions of perceived reality were related, but not as a whole.
Hall (2006) conducted focus groups to understand why participants enjoy watching reality television programming. It was found that participants enjoyed reality programmes most because of their humour and suspense as well as the fulfilment of social functions which participants get from watching the programmes. The participants noted that they have watched reality programmes with friends, and also discussed about the reality programmes they watched with their friends too. The study revealed that the participants’ view of reality television programming as realistic was just weak as the criteria for judging (realness) were different from show to show and changed as new programmes were broadcast. This therefore, makes perceived reality to be a difficult concept to measure. Papacharissi and Mendelson (2007) examines the gratifications sought from reality television and their findings indicates that respondents reported watching reality television programmes mainly to pass the time or for entertainment purposes. They noted that the respondents who reported watching for entertainment reasons were most likely to perceive the programmes as being real.
Barton (2006) examined reality television programming and gratifications obtained by audience members. Findings from the study indicated that the content of the reality show influenced the gratifications obtained by the viewers. A new gratification known as “personal utility” which has not been studied was identified in the study. Personal utility was identified as one of the strongest predictors of overall gratifications obtained by reality television viewers. Personal utility refers to the viewer gaining something personally useful from the programme. It is therefore important to understand that viewers watch for different reasons. These reasons may lead to differing perceptions by viewers and thus differing effects. Therefore, individual difference variables have also been found to moderate why people watch reality television programmes (Barton 2006).
Nabi et al (2003) while examining the gratifications received from reality television programming, discovered sex as a significant distinguishing factor. For instance, men were noted to be more entertained by reality programmes and as such, formed para-social relationships more often than women do. Reiss and Wiltz (2004) in their study examined how sex moderates the effects of reality television programming on their respondents and reported that they did not find sex as a significant influence on reality television outcomes. Rather, age was found to be a significant influence on reality television outcomes. Younger viewers reported becoming more self-aware and entertained from watching reality programmes, while older viewers reported engaging in social comparisons from viewing reality television. Race was also found to have an impact on media use outcomes. For instance, whites were found to identify with the characters, while non-whites were found to learn more information from reality television programming (Nabi et al, 2003).
2.1.2 Perceived Reality and Reality Television Programming
Before the development of reality television programmes, perceived reality has been generating much interest among media researchers. Potter’s (1988) conceptual definition of perceived reality is a construct composed of three dimensions, with the first being defined as the “belief in the literal reality of television messages” (p.31). This component, known also as the magic window deals with how much the viewer believes that the mediated message from television reflects the outside world. Secondly, utility is defined as the practicality of the viewer applying what is viewed on television in his/her daily living. It also denotes the importance and extent to which people can relate the information they get from television into their own lives. Thirdly, identity refers to relating with a character or personality television programmes and this is also seen as the extent to which the viewer thinks a character plays a part in the viewers’ actual life (Potter, 1988). Magic window, utility, and identity are central to the understanding of a viewer’s perception of reality because each of these components will affect how a viewer perceives reality in a television programme.
In examining perceived reality, Cavender and BondMaupin (1993) examined crime reality television programming, looking at programmes like America’s Most Wanted. This was done based on story selection, the techniques of cinematographic as well as the producer’s claims. Crime based reality television programmes were found to depict a very real sense of danger to the audience as they were found to be high in the identity component. Because of the images presented in crime reality programme programmes, it was easy for the viewers to identify with the characters that were presented as victims. Cavender and BondMaupin (1993) notes that participating in reality programmes means that the viewers are now part of the reality. This obviously makes it difficult to distinguish the reality in the programme from any other aspect of life. Their study suggests that reality programming has a unique form because of the presentation of realistic characters, settings, and plot. Another study which examined the perceived reality of reality television programmes is Meng and Lugalambi (2003). The study found that respondents did not view reality programmes as real. Perceived believability of the program mediated the relationship between the type of programme viewed and the perceived utility. The researchers argue that the best manner to examine perceived reality is by the degree of personal utility that the viewer receives from the reality programmes.
2.1.3 Defining reality television programming
Reality television programmes are gradually becoming the toast of television stations and networks in recent times (Hall, 2006 and Stern, 2007). Since the success of the genre’s first big network hit, the Survivor (CBS), the number of reality programmes on television has multiplied, both on broadcast and cable networks. To Seibel and Kerschbaumer, (2004), Reality television programmes were first recognized as an official genre of television in 2004 even though it has become immensely popular in the years prior.
Reality programmes or, as they are alternatively known, “unscripted” dramas have been somewhat difficult to define, due to the rapid growth which has caused the genre to expand into various forms (Hall, 2006; Nabi et al., 2003). While they are all considerably different, programmes like the Big Brother Show, Biggest Looser, The Apprentice, Gulder Ultimate Search, Survivor, Fear Factor, etc. have all been considered to be reality programmes, although each is structured in a slightly different form. There must be caution in describing reality television as simply programming that represents reality because this would force the inclusion of news programmes and talk programmes, which, are generally not considered as part of the genre. Nabi et al (2003, p. 304) while attempting to situate the precincts of reality television programming described them as “programmes that film real people as they live out events (contrived or otherwise) in their lives, as these events occur.” This description becomes Important as it assumes that the events on the television screen are chronological, and that the participants are not working from a script, the show is filmed in a non-studio environment and that the purpose of the programme must be entertainment. While it leaves room for a wide range of programming, this definition excludes talk programmes which, in some ways, draw upon some of the same appeals and strategies to attract viewers, and have been considered as forerunners of reality television (Reality Television, 2004). However, Hall, (2004) notes that the popular press has considered programmes, such as American Idol and Shocking Behaviour Caught on Tape, to be reality fare, even though they do not meet these criteria. Deery (2004) notes that reality television does not necessarily have to be “realistic”, nor does it have to depict common or everyday experiences. Deery further notes that the reality of reality television programmes is usually translated as the experience of real or ordinary people (i.e., unknown non-actors) in an actual and unscripted environment. It does not require that the situation must be ordinary, but that there should be a particular kind of viewer access.
The definition of reality television to audiences seems to be as inconsistent as it is in academia, though slightly more inclusive. In a study of the public perception of reality programmes, Hall (2006) notes that some programmes such as Real World and Cops were unanimously considered by most respondents to be of the reality genre. Most of the respondents in the study believe that the presence of non-actors behaving independently from any sort of script was a mandatory criterion for reality television. Additionally, for some, a competition element helped define a show in the reality category. Hall noted that this was not necessarily a criterion because the competition was realistic, but rather that it seemed to be a central element for a large number of programmes that have been labelled as “reality.” The most defining characteristic for these research participants was the realism factor.
Perhaps the most central element in determining the strength of a particular programme’s membership in the programming category, however, was the nature of the show when compared to real life situations. Hall (2006, p. 198) notes that “the understanding that the programme was non-scripted, which carries the implication that the behaviour of the cast members is self-determined and a true expression of their own personalities and wills, was repeatedly implied to be a determining factor of whether a show should be considered a reality programme.”
It seems, however, that a viewer’s task of determining whether or not the content of a programme is real may not be a simple task. Stern (2007) points out that the reality element of reality television is, at best, only a claim. The desire of producers to create an entertaining programme often leads them to distort events to make them more dramatic. The result is a programme that dances on the line between truth and fiction, often leaving the viewers confused about what is real and what is not. Stern notes further that manipulation of reality can manifest as producers’ interference with the cast, in addition to creative editing techniques.
2.2 Features of reality television (Characteristics)
Within the confines of reality television programming exists two sub-genres: voyeur-based programmes and competition-based programmes with the emphasis within each being on the different dramatic aspects of the reality being captured.
The first sub-genre, voyeur-based programmes, can most closely be compared to a documentary-style production. Programmes in this category are sometimes referred to as “docu-dramas” or “docu-soaps” (Jones, 2003). The component of producer involvement which is generally lacking in documentaries is accentuated in the voyeur-based programmes. However, this is a major area of differences between voyeur-based programming and actual documentaries. That is to say, voyeur-based reality programmes highlight the fact that the participants are incorporating the production units into their daily routines.
The second sub-genre of reality-based television is competition-based programmes. These programmes tend to bear a resemblance with traditional game shows, with the distinguishing factor being that game shows typically do not offer comprehensive surveillance of the contestants. The competition-based programmes focus on how human interaction is affected when contestants are forced to interact with each other while trying to succeed against each other in various events.
The following are the qualities that make a programme reality based.
Reality-based programming is not scripted
The most fundamental criterion for a television show to fall within the reality genre is that is must not have a script for the participants or contestants. This means that their actions and spoken words must be spontaneous. In its place, reality-based programming relies on established rules that govern the way the contestants interact with each other and their environment. These rules in essence act as a substitute for scripted materials in that they provide the contestants with a framework that dictates how their exchanges will be enacted. The idea behind this is that it offers an alternative to the predictability of fictional programming (Andrejevic, 2003).
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Reality-based programming involves “ordinary” people instead of actors
It is argued that one thing that makes reality programming appealing is that it draws its contestants directly from the audience. Dovey (2000, p. 86) notes that “ordinary people and their dramatic experiences are the staple of Reality television” Syvertsen (2001 p. 319) describes “ordinary” people as, those “people who are not known in the media, they are not experts, celebrities or newsworthy for any other reason – people who are, in principle, interchangeable with one another.” Andrejevic (2003, p.4).) notes that part of what makes reality-based programming appealing is “its lottery-like ability to make a star out of ‘nobodys'”(sic)
Reality-based programming is characterised by spontaneous actions
The freedom for contestants to act on instinct or to adapt as they deem fit to any situation is a key element in what makes reality programming entertaining and unique. In most ways, the contestants are in control of the programme. There are rules governing the conduct of the contestants and operating within those set rules is an attribute possessed by reality programming alone. Andrejevic, (2003, p. 103) quoting The Real World and Road Rules producer, Jon Murray, said that “we don’t have a lot of control during the production process, what we have is the control to make choices during editing.” The naturalness and ingenuity displayed by the contestants is what makes reality-based programmes unique from other forms of unscripted programming such as traditional game shows. Ultimately, with reality programming, viewers get what really happens first hand since there are no re-takes or re-shoots as only that which is natural and uncontrived will be captured and ultimately aired. When looked at in terms of the benefits of spontaneity compared to traditional scripted programming, Andrejevic makes the case that the free-will of the contestants can prove to be one of the most powerful tools reality television possesses. Andrejevic, (2003) concludes that in reality programming, content becomes detached from the normal concept of scriptwriters and directors, which is now replaced by the spontaneous rhythms of real conflict and real romance.
Some element of producer involvement exists in Reality-based programming
Reality-based programming can be seen as a contrived reality where the producers create the reality in which the contestants live in. This could mean the establishment of rules for how they will get food as on Gulder Ultimate Search, Survivor and Big Brother, or requiring that they regularly update the audience through confessionals or video diary entries as on Big Brother, Gulder Ultimate Search, and The Real World Show. This is one of the key distinctions that have been made between reality-based programming and documentaries. Dovey (2000) clearly notes that interviewing participants, involving directors, producers, or cameramen in the production or in any way interacting with the subject of a documentary is considered interference and is a serious taboo in documentary filmmaking. These techniques, however, have all been used extensively in reality-based programming.
There is a comprehensive surveillance of subjects in Reality-based programmes
The primary component that distinguishes reality-based programmes from similar forms of entertainment including traditional game shows and programmes is that it provides the viewer with a perspective of how the participants are feeling and behaving outside the confines of a limited event. For example, viewers are not given the opportunity to see how contestants interact with each other after the final round has been played. This is exactly what separates reality-based programming from traditional game shows (Andrejevic 2003). According to Andrejevic (2003, p. 102), the difference between reality-based programming and traditional game shows lies in “the fact that they (reality television programmes) are based not on the documentation of exceptional moments but on the surveillance of the rhythm of day-to-day life.”
This last criterion shows programmes such as The Debators, Maltina Family Dance All, and NBC’s Fear Factor cannot be considered as reality-based programmes. This is because, the producers of these programmes shows film exceptional moments and do not offer comprehensive surveillance of the contestants’ behaviours and interactions with others.
2.3 Reality television programmes and young audience
Reality programmes has generally been thought to appeal to a lower-income demographic (Nabi et al., 2003). The reality genre in general has been criticized as being exploitive of some of the worst characteristics, behaviours and ranks of the human race, and was long considered by the television industry to be low-brow entertainment (Freeman, 2001). Even as reality television programmes began to be accepted by the networks, advertisers were still sceptical about investing in them, primarily discouraged by audience demographic and possibly questionable materials in the programmes. Supporting Freeman’s view, Atkinson and Fine (2004, p. 1) averred that “Advertisers once didn’t like the thought of associating with what they regarded as often sleazy down-market fare”
A study in 2001 confirmed advertisers’ suspicions when it found that 58% of regular reality audiences were in the middle to low income bracket, with annual incomes falling below $50,000 (Gardyn, 2001, p. 1). Carter (2003) notes that reality television appeals to a younger group of viewers between the age ranges of 18 – 49 years, or even narrower, between 18 – 30 years. This demographic profiles of the audience he notes, represents a coveted demographic for advertisers.
2.3.1 The appeal in reality television
The appeal of reality television ranges from mere voyeurism to a hope that it offers insights into the human condition. Nabi et al. (2003) found that the initial draw for casual viewers is generally related to boredom, while regular viewers of reality television tune in to be entertained. Some of the appeal may be the lure of watching “real people” on television. A study in 2001 revealed that 37% of the Americans polled preferred to watch real people on television, as opposed to scripted actors (Gardyn, 2001).
However, Nabi, Finnerty, Halford and Stitt (2006) suggests that some of the appeal of reality television may not reside in the quality of the “reality”, but rather in the drama and suspense, elements of good storytelling, that are often found in reality programmes. Voyeurism has also been cited as a gratification of watching reality television (Hall, 2004). Although Nabi et al. (2003) questions whether or not voyeurism is an appropriate term to describe audience’s motivations for viewing because cast members are aware that they are being watched and network constraints assure that explicit material does not make it on the air. Rather than the desire to view forbidden or immoral contents, the audience simply sit and enjoy watching other people’s lives and interpersonal relationships. There is also the notion that reality television fulfils the ever growing American obsession with celebrity and stardom. Conlin, (2003, p. 1) avers that by making perceived nobodies into overnight superstars, reality programme seem to appeal highly to a set of American audience who are obsessed with stardom and those who crave for something different from Hollywood’s celebrity system. Andrejevic (2005) also notes that part of the appeal of reality programming is the viewer’s sense of access, or the thinking that the participants in the programmes could just be them. On a more basic level, reality programmes require minimum commitment from its audience.
2.4 Criticisms of reality television programmes
The actual realism of reality television (or lack thereof) and its presentation as “real” has been a subject of criticism. Nabi et al. (2003) found that while viewers perceived the casts of reality programmes to be real, they did not however see events in the programmes to be sufficiently real. Bagley (2001) says that much of what may be marketed to the public as “real” may actually be a creatively manipulated or faked reality brought about by the process of production and editing.
In his criticism of the Real World, Bagley discusses the potentially misleading production practices that attempt to give reality programmes the appearance of being real by borrowing from the documentary style. Real World, one of the first and most taunted prime examples of the reality programming, hold its authenticity to both its means of presentation and by direct statements. Every reality programme begins with the same claim of being original and authentic. In fact, Bagley (2001, p. 62) notes that “this is a true story of seven people, picked to work together, have their lives taped and find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real” Deery (2004) describes the reality genre as “postdocumentary”. This implies that the genre has been transformed from its parent genre, documentary, but still retains some of its original elements, which are mainly in the form of its production. This semblance to documentary production is what Bagley (2001) refers to as “deceiving.”
Real World’s manner of presentation critically determines its acceptance as faithful documentation of material existenceâ€¦ with aspirations perfectly coinciding with other forms of nonfiction productionâ€¦ Being patterned after the television journalistic style, Real World borrows on the confidence that genre provokes in its audience, and manages in the process to evoke its own mystique of authenticity that, in the final analysis, furnishes viewers with the rationale to successfully negotiate the show’s authorial ambiguity (Bagley, 2004, p. 61-62). Other scholars (Murray, 2006; Bagley, 2001) have argued that the Shaky, camera being moved about, the normal day light, natural environmental sounds, the cheap production values, the surveillance as well as the interview sections by way of confessions help to further boost the claim that Real World reality programme actually depict reality.
Some or all of these presentation tactics can be seen in various other reality television programmes such as Big Brother (CBS) and The Bachelor (ABC). At best, reality television, according to Bagley (2004) is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. Bagley (ibid) notes specifically that most people, when placed before a camera, perform in one way or another, rather than behaving as they would in their natural settings. Again, the long period of editing which is required to reduce long hours of daily footage down into a 30 minute storyline is done with little objectivity in the mind of the produce. The production process is not influenced by the desire to accurately present situations as they are in their traditional forms of non-fiction media, but rather by a desire to entertain and sell. Bagley (2001) notes that this fact alone discredits the genre as a subjective representation of reality because its purpose goes beyond capturing unmediated human relations and events but has veered into the commercial realm.
2.4.1 Third person-perception
Other criticisms of reality television have emerged indirectly from studies of third-person perception, and have indicated that reality programmes may be “socially undesirable” in the minds of audience members. Materials that are not socially desirable have been the focus of some studies conducted on third-person perception (Paul, Salwen, and Dupagne, 2000). As noted by Bissell, Peek, and Leone (2006), numerous studies have supported the idea that people perceive others to be more affected by media messages than themselves, particularly the negative contents.
The phenomenon of negative contents has been shown in studies of political campaign messages, political advertising, commercials, rap music, and public service announcements, among other types of media (Bissell et al., 2006). In their 2006 study, Bissell, Peek, and Leone (2006),in a study which examined the perceptions of 640 college students’ concerning reality television (Real World, Fear Factor and Joe Millionaire) found that the students believed that reality programmes negatively impacted others more than themselves, which the researchers suggested indicated their perceptions of reality television as “socially undesirable.”
Although it has not been extensively documented, the content of reality television tends to be hyper-dramatized – turning seeming unimportant events into crises. This is not surprising, given that its purpose is to entertain audiences. Real World producers carefully select cast members to produc