Are you for real?

What the hell is Reality TV? A slice-of-life-documentary-soap-gameshow self-reflexive form of escapism that is loved and hated in equal parts, yet continues to thrive and flourish because of audience contempt? Well, yes.

In her review of several key TV studies theorists, Helen Piper identifies what we call ‘Reality TV’ as an ever-expanding range of programming that emerged, in its current state, around the turn of the century. She cites Big Brother as a catalyst for this change, and highlights the necessity for reality tv programming to exist within  an ecosystem of histrionic commentaries – reliant on magazines, websites and tabloids to validate / exacerbate the slice of life being shown.

Speaking of histrionic commentaries, check out Reality TVGIFs. Incredible.

In her overview of reality television, Kimberly Little also recognises an evolution of the genre, crediting the history of television programming as a whole to endowing reality tv with such a variety of qualities from the gamut of genres. As such, Little struggles to define reality television, but summarises it through the possession of four characteristics:

  1. The attempted use of passive camera surveillance.
  2. Illusion of reality.
  3. Focus on ordinary people.
  4. A certain extent of voyeurism.

Elizabeth Jensen, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, also struggles to define such a versatile genre, often referring to “Reality TV” as “unscripted television” throughout her article. She fuels her fascination for the genre – ‘a juicy mix of fact and fiction’ – by drawing upon a wide spectrum of sources, appropriating theorists’ questions to accentuate the boundlessness of the genre. What do we mean by a culture as ‘real’? How can something that claims to be real present itself as a game? And what of the school of thought that says reality tv shows are merely ‘human experiments that social scientists would perform if their code of ethics allowed them…’?

James Poniewozik from Time Magazine used network executive’s description of sitcoms and dramas as “comfort television” – familiar and boring- to then position reality television as “discomfort television” – rattling viewers through provocation and offence, and dragging them from the habitual television viewing rut they had fallen into. He recognises the humiliating aspects reality TV that often drive the genre, but tells of how these are balanced by moments of triumph. Rather than deny the presence of bad behaviour such as sexism and misanthropy within reality TV shows, Poniewozik illustrates the hypocrisy of a critical audience who views the same behaviour as ‘nuanced storytelling’ in a show such as The Sopranos’.

(And of course, the cyclical nature of television has been at play throughout. Now we see fictional shows created with reality television traits – confessional style interviews in The Office, handheld cameras in Kath & Kim.)

So the question still remains. What the hell is Reality TV?



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