“This is the true story…of what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real.”
Almost 30 years after the first season of The Real World, reality television has become ubiquitous, dominating cable and network television – not to mention social media platforms. What effect does this powerful television medium have on our reality? A certain former reality TV star turned former US president can attest to the far-reaching power of reality TV. So, has reality television signaled the end of polite society, as The Real World’s catchy opening promised? Or is it simply the point at which television started “getting real,” reflecting the full potential and precariousness of human experience?
Keep it Real
Reality TV allows us to peer into societies and lifestyles we otherwise might never encounter.
While most people relate reality TV with the Kardashians, there are less wealthy and sophisticated TV families. Where could a New Yorker go to meet a lovable, conservative Christian family? To A&Es Duck Dynasty. Over the course of 11 seasons, winning over viewers across the country, the show demonstrated the universal appeal of country values. (That being said, it is believed that the show ended due to controversial comments made by some of its stars). Similarly, reality television encourages society to include marginalized groups by presenting them with relatable casts. In its first iteration back in 2003, gay men rescued clueless heteros in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; the format was so popular that it spurred a reboot on Netflix in 2018. And Lifetime’s Little Women respectfully approached the lives of women with dwarfism. By allowing diverse stories to emerge from all corners of society, reality TV broadens our horizons and humanizes the unknown.
Reality TV can change society for the better.
Much has been made of the correlation between MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and dropping teen birthrates across the US. While many parents voiced concern that the show would glamorize teen pregnancy, a poll taken amongst teens who watched the show suggested that nearly 90% felt the show had educated them about the realities of becoming a teen parent, and few felt that the topic had been glamorized. NBC’s The Biggest Loser, which ran for 17 seasons (!) made an unexpected contribution to science, providing a large test group of weight loss patients that have helped scientists to understand that metabolism plays a larger role in weight maintenance that exercise and diet. A show set out to address obesity in America ended up advancing the science of weight management more than it ever imagined.
Reality TV promotes kindness.
Reality TV doesn’t always play to our lesser demons. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a feel-good tear-jerker, providing struggling families with home renovations, and proving that philanthropy can hold an audience as well as intrigue. Shows like Last Hope with Troy Dunn focus on family reunification, and Oprah’s OWN network pioneered a 10-show mini-series that followed the non-profit organization Operation Change’s delivery of over 100,000 hearing aids to Africa. Even major networks seek out reality platforms with positive messages. ABC’s Shark Tank has reinvigorated entrepreneurship in the US by encouraging (and even rewarding) people to pitch ideas for a business or product they hope to develop.
Reality TV destroys the lives of its stars.
Socrates proclaimed that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reality TV stars prove that the overexamined life isn’t worth living either. TV shows that center around romance seem to doom the couples who star in them – remember Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson of MTV’s Newlyweds? Or John and Kate Gosselin of John and Kate Plus 8? Let’s not forget Linda and Hulk Hogan of Hogan Knows Best (the Hogans were married over 20 years before filming). All of them divorced under the specter of reality TV fame. Individuals fare no better. Lamar Odom’s on-screen relationship with reality TV fixture, Khloe Kardashian, seemed to spell the end of his NBA career and his sobriety. But no reality TV star was more visibly affected by society’s microscope than Heidi Montag of the The Hills, who says her reality TV experience fueled her plastic surgery obsession. Afterward, Heidi’s star faded and left her broke, with only a crystal collection to show for her time in the limelight.
Reality TV is the ultimate exercise in schadenfreude, and that’s bad for individuals and society.
Explosive personalities and shenanigans make for great television. Who doesn’t (secretly) love to see a Kardashian marriage fail (more than once), or watch an undeservingly rich Real Housewife make a fool of herself at a party? But capitalizing on negativity treats it as currency, and currency affects both internal and external environments. As social creatures, humans are not only sensitive to the emotions that others create, but they also involuntarily mimic them. By mere force of our neurology, we internalize reality TV’s negativity, bring it into our own environment, where it lingers, and wait for the next person to pass it forward.
Reality TV not only exploits the poor – it laughs at them too.
Reality television has made poverty tourists of us all, reducing poverty from an important social issue to a sideshow. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo gawked at the primitive innocence of Mama June and her family. The show captured her preparing canned-food casseroles, or explaining sex with clunky food euphemisms. A&E’s Storage Wars, humiliates the poor by auctioning off the contents of abandoned storage units to strangers in full view of the public, making sport of those who are down on their luck – there is no recourse or even identity of those whose belongings are purchased and resold.
Bottom Lines: Reality TV captivates audiences through its offer of a multi-faceted view of humanity. It has the power to provide a looking glass for individuals and society. But whether this looking glass will provide a starting point for negative or positive action is purely the choice of the viewer.