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Definition: reality TV from The Macquarie Dictionary

a television program format which uses actual footage of events as they occur, often in a contrived situation and with some competitive element providing the motivation for people to interact.

Summary Article: Reality TV
From Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture

The genre currently known as reality television emerged with the broadcast of the first series of Big Brother in the Netherlands in 1999. The concept merged audience surveillance and manipulation of participants, or “housemates,” and the celebrification of the ordinary (made celebrities out of the ordinary) as the content consists of the nominally routine activities of nonactors. While broadcast media includes a long history of consumer involvement and the incorporation of the everyday into entertainment, reality TV introduced new production methods and direct consumer participation. These new patterns of production and consumption persist through variations such as the Idol and Top Model programs over time and have been adopted on a global scale through local syndication. Theoretical implications of these developments draw in theories of surveillance, democracy, celebrity, and culture as the expectations and practices of consumption intersect with concurrent technological developments.

Boundaries between media space and ordinary space have long been blurred, as consuming audience members have appeared on television in crowd shots, vox pop segments, game and talk shows, and live studio audiences. The contemporary Funniest Home Videos has its origins in Candid Camera, first broadcast in the United States in the late 1940s, and talk and game shows have gradually increased studio audience participation. There are two primary differences between these incidental appearances of the ordinary and orchestrated audience participation and reality TV. The first is a shift in production values, which elevates the ordinary and creates the appearance of the democratization of televised entertainment. Graeme Turner describes this as the demotic turn, emphasizing the misleading nature of production methods that exploit the cultural value of fame and celebrity. The second is the nature of audience participation in the form of voting, with complex ramifications beyond the phenomenon of reality TV. For example, voting for reality TV contestants is the first experience of democracy for Chinese consumers, and text messaging with mobile phones was uncommon in the United States before reality TV encouraged its use. Both shifts are profit driven, as one reduces production costs and exploits product placement while the other generates profits through partnerships with telecommunications companies.

The recruitment of nonactor members of the public represents a production cost saving as the remuneration of professional actors is replaced by the award of sponsored prizes and the promise of fame for contestants. Settings such as the Big Brother house offer product placement opportunities, and the selection and elimination of contestants can be incorporated into the content, such as the audition segments common in the early phases of many series. These selection processes can represent considerable savings, particularly where several episodes consist of video auditions produced by potential contestants. Televised selection processes contribute to the appearance of the democratization of entertainment, while continuing to discriminate on the grounds of photogenic and personality qualities. The cultural desirability of fame and celebrity ensures the supply of “talent” while the phenomenon of reality TV itself perpetuates the impression that fame is a realistic expectation.

Winning contestants are routinely offered prizes in the form of recording contracts, broadcast appearances, or other promotional activities beyond the series; however, these rarely evolve into careers. Promotional exercises using winners rarely extend to the next season, let alone beyond. With a new season, a celebrity series, or the production of a new reality TV concept, consumer attention turns to a new aspect of ordinariness, and the promise of celebrity is extended to a new round of contestants.

The regular televised appearance of ordinariness converts the everyday into content for consumption, while elevating it into the extraordinary space of media. Stephen Coleman draws on Michel Foucault to argue that consumers become the instruments of their own surveillance, particularly with reference to the 24-hour surveillance of Big Brother housemates, which normalizes the monitoring of private space. The sinister aspects of Big Brother in George Orwell's novel 1984 are subsumed as contestants modify their behavior to meet the normative requirements of the voting audience. Consumers thereby shape content while contributing to the behavioral norms of untele-vised private space, as behavior deemed unacceptable in a domestic setting is punished with elimination from the show. Coleman also notes the much larger proportion of votes cast in reality TV finals than in democratic elections. Similar observations have been made in several democratic countries with voluntary voting systems, opening new avenues of research in disciplines not usually concerned with consumer culture.

Consumer participation in the form of voting for contestants is only nominally democratic, however. Telecommunications companies profit from text message and phone votes, which are generally priced at higher rates than person-to-person communications. There is no limit on the number of times a single participant can vote, and voting does not have the potential to affect the conditions of life beyond the current series. Reality TV was responsible for a shift in the behaviors of mobile phone use in the United States and has offered a gateway to the Internet through interactive and participatory elements of program websites. However, its impact on other aspects of consumer culture are contestable.

Both Nick Couldry and Graeme Turner take a critical perspective and theorize a connection between broadcast ordinariness, the desirability of celebrity, and the do-it-yourself celebrity potential of the Internet. Given access to the means of production and the cultural value of fame generated partly by reality T V, the production of mediated selves seen in YouTube videos and Facebook profiles are understood to be related to the consumption of televised ordinariness. With a focus on cultures of participation, Henry Jenkins argues the opposite. A case study of “spoilers” found an online network of Survivor fans working to identify the winning contestant before the series final went on air. Their efforts were so successful in earlier series that the producers were forced to modify plans for later series, and a modicum of incidental fame accrued to the higher profile spoilers that outlasted the fame of contestants in the earlier series.

The long-established participatory aspects of consumer cultures find a logical extension in reality TV, which requires consumers to participate as content and to participate in the shaping of series narratives. While one theoretical perspective finds consumers falling victim to their own involvement in surveillance and contestants being exploited for profit, another views these as gateways to the means of production and consumer participation working to undermine the previously privileged areas of production. Both blur the distinction between production and consumption, as does reality TV itself. When considering these perspectives, it is worthwhile noting that the most successful reality TV series rarely lasts more than a few seasons before consumer numbers fall and producers are forced to devise new shows based on different aspects of the ordinary, from home improvement to cooking to grooming and deportment. Given this consideration, consumption shapes the reality of reality TV more than reality TV shapes patterns of consumption.

See also:

Broadcast Media, Celebrity, Consumer Behavior, Fans, Mass Observation, Opinion Polls, Soap Operas and Telenovelas, Television

Further Readings
  • Coleman, Stephen “From Big Brother to Big Brother.” In Young Citizens and New Media: Learning for Democratic Participation, edited by Dahlgren, Peter. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Couldry, Nick Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1977.
  • Hill, Annette Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Jenkins, Henry Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
  • Turner, Graeme Understanding Celebrity. London: Sage, 2004.
  • Calcutt, Lyn
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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