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?



Moody’s monsters

In the 1990s HBO revolutionised long-form drama. And in the 1990s HBO’s catch cry was “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

Was it the work of highly effective advertising strategy (amazing brand positioning, kudos!) that saw complex narrative shows (as typified by those screened on HBO) deemed “Quality TV”? Or was it rather the more upper class educated audience that posited these shows as intellectually and culturally superior to the ‘soapbox trash’ favoured by your run of the mill Darren and Sharon? I’ve come to think it may well be a case of the chicken and the egg.

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” came about through brand positioning exercises conducted within the company, including establishing what HBO did NOT want to be. As a pay to subscribe service, HBO had to make sure viewers were getting what they paid for each month – something different and something better. In defining themselves by something they’re not, the branding line became the driving force behind HBO’s programming, and as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy (Adamson 2006).

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” remains such a touchstone for quality within HBO that it even extends to the advertising. Says Adamson, “HBO’s advertising is a branding signal that no ordinary television network could use. Like the programming, the advertising is groundbreaking.” Indeed, world famous photographer Annie Leibovitz is often called upon to provide photographs for HBO programs, most notably The Sopranos.


So is it merely a direct comparison to ‘ordinary television’ that elevates other programs to ‘quality television’? Not so, says Mittell (2006) who argues that ‘the model of television storytelling distinct for its use of narrative complexity’ elicits ‘unique pleasures and patterns of comprehension’ (p.29) within a more niche, more passionate, and more educated audience. Interestingly, this “boutique” audience is comprised of people who usually avoid television, but when it comes to the shows that get their eyeballs twitching in anticipatory delight their dedication and consistent cult-like following is enough to make the shows economically viable (and advertising agencies twitch in delight everywhere else).

As technological advances have meant that the viewer has more control over what they watch (and when and how) the dedicated fan base of “Quality TV” can collect episodes, if not series, of their favourite shows and binge on them season at a time. But it doesn’t stop there – collectability means rewatchability which leads to a deeper knowledge of (and, arguably, obsession with) these shows, attributes that reward the viewer of a complex narrative program with the ability to actively and attentively comprehend and decode the mode of storytelling.

Although “Quality TV” may be seen as a genre in itself, the programs that fall within this category span a number of traditional genres, The Wire, Queer As Folk, The X-Files and Sex & The City demonstrate but a few. In fact, it was Mittell’s discussion of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer that really highlighted the trope of quality across seemingly disparate programs. As Mittell drew upon monsters-of-the-week and underlying conspiracy theories to demonstrate one of the major demands of narrative complexity – the delivery of both episodic and serial storytelling – I started to think about Hank Moody. Ah, Hank Moody.


(Only realised the David Duchovny connection as I was searching for images. Could Duchovny be the face of Quality TV?)

Hank’s monsters-of-the-week, be they Mia, Surfer Girl or Trixie, are the episodic storytelling elements that serve to ‘advance various narrative arcs…’ (serial storytelling aspects) ‘as characters reveal key secrets and deepen relationships to move the season-long plot forward’. Hank’s weekly dance with a she-devil disrupts any traces of domestic harmony with Karen and Becca, yet fans of the show understand that the love Karen and Hank share might be enough for them to come together in the end (the equivalent of The X-Files’ conspiracy theories). It might event be enough to withstand the murder-suicide pact of a psychotic ex-girlfriend…

Series 6, I await you.



Adamson, A (2006) BrandSimple: How the best brands keep it simple and succeed, Palgrave Macmillian, pp.83-86.

Mittell, J (2006) ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’, The Velvet Light Trap, vol.58, Fall, pp.29-40.