Reality TV became an increasingly prevalent global entertainment genre in the 1990s and early 2000s. The popularity of reality shows with producers is due in large part to the fact that they represent a cheap, flexible form of programming that is easily customizable to different audiences and lends itself to forms of interaction and participation associated with new communication technologies. As an entertainment genre that relies on the unscripted interactions of people who are not professional actors, reality TV develops and discards formats at a rapid rate, parasitizing the permutations available in everyday life – including everything from romance to warfare – for raw material. Reality-based formats can be differentiated from news and other informational or documentary programming insofar as their focus is not on bringing the public realm of politics into the private sphere, but on publicizing the private and intimate. The emphasis is not on matters of public interest for the purpose of democratic participation, but on therapy and social experimentation for the purpose of diversion. Reality formats make their claim to reality on the basis of their lack of scriptwriters and professional actors, but they are, for the most part, highly edited portrayals of patently contrived situations.
The global success of the genre is based in part on the fact that since reality TV formats rely not on contrived scenarios and contests rather than on the talent of individual actors or scriptwriters, they are easily exportable. Successful formats rapidly replicate themselves from region to region, drawing cast members from local populations. Thus, for example, the Big Brother format, which isolates a group of strangers in a house where they compete to be the last one voted out by viewers, was pioneered in the Netherlands but became successful in local versions across Europe and in the Americas, Australia, and Asia, as well as in regional versions in Africa and the Middle East.
The reality TV boom in the early twenty-first century was built around successful blockbuster formats like Survivor and Big Brother, but reality TV, broadly construed, has been around since the dawn of television. For example, Candid Camera, a prank format that films unsuspecting people placed in humorous situations, was a format that migrated from radio (where it was called Candid Microphone) to TV in 1948. Game shows and talk shows, both perennial entertainment formats, share with reality TV a reliance on at least partially unscripted interactions featuring non-actors. The development of lightweight cameras and recording equipment facilitated the migration of reality-based formats from the soundstage to the home, the street, the school, the workplace, and beyond. As this happened, the scope and reach of reality-based programming grew to encompass a broader range of human experience, some contrived, some based in the events of daily life, many a combination of both. At the same time, the expansion of cable TV increased the demand for cheap, quickly produced content – a demand that reality TV was uniquely positioned to fill thanks to its reliance on the inexpensive or free labor of non-professional actors and, in many cases, on found scenarios, sets, and even video (as in the case of shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos – a format made possible by the advent of cheap, portable video cameras).
As the number of channels and the amount of programming time devoted to reality formats have expanded, so too has the range of the formats that can be described as reality-based entertainment. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette (2004), for example, list sub-genres including, the “gamedoc” (in which cast members compete for prizes as their daily lives are recorded), the dating show, the makeover show, the “docusoap” (a reality TV version of the soap opera in which the focus is on open-ended dramatic narratives), the talent contest, court and police shows, and celebrity formats that feature behind-thescenes glimpses of the real lives of the rich and famous – or the formerly rich and famous. The proliferation of formats has led to two new TV award categories in the United States and a cable channel devoted entirely to reality programming.
Reality fare ranges from expensive and highly produced blockbusters like, in the United States, Survivor and American Idol to cheap, quick-hit dating formats and even compilations of video images captured by security cameras. All of these formats rely on the interactive promise that characterizes the era of media convergence: that non-professionals can contribute to the creation of media content. This participation comes either in the form of selected members of the viewing population crossing over to the other side of the TV screen, or in forms of direct participation fostered by interactive formats that invite people either to send in their own videos or to shape the outcome of the show by “voting,” usually by phone, Internet, or text message. Viewers tend to describe the appeal of reality TV in terms of the ease with which they can identify with the non-professional cast members and the suspense provided by the fact that outcomes are not scripted in advance.
The booming popularity of reality formats represents not just the rise of a genre, but also a shift in industry practice. Even the most successful formats are expected to make most of their money during their first run rather than in rerun syndication. The flexibility of the genre has disrupted the rhythm of the typical television season in the United States, allowing producers to switch shows mid-season and to debut new shows during summer prime-time slots, typically devoted to reruns. Moreover, reality formats lend themselves to the integration of content and advertising, as illustrated by successful formats like American Idol in the United States, which features prominent product placement deals, and doubles as a promotional vehicle for the singers, whose albums and concert tours generate additional revenues for producers.
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