Reality TV

Innovative or Not? Reality TV

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Reality Television comes under our microscope:

Innovative: Turn on your TV to a random channel any night and you’re likely to be watching reality television – a format that allows the viewer to watch real people go about their daily lives, overcome challenges, and showcase talents. Because reality television has been around since the 1940’s in various formats it would be easy to assume that shows like Around the World in 80 Plates or The Real World are the television equivalent of a new flavours of ice cream, just new riffs on an old idea. That thinking would be to miss the point entirely. The magic of successful reality television is that it is culturally relevant and utterly unpredictable.

Most entertainment, be it a drama, comedy, or thriller, has a set of conventions that the viewer can expect to see play out. Reality television tosses these conventions out. Shows like What Would You Do continue to thrill viewers because they offer raw and real emotion and behaviour through an ever changing lens. It is a format that by nature requires endless innovation. Producers constantly reframe what reality television is: who are the stars, what are the situations, what is the story. They must innovate to find new insights that connect deeply with the viewing audience. In an ever changing world this is no easy feat. Reality television is innovative because it is an ever evolving mirror of our culture and our norms with real people as the stars, allowing each frame to connect deeply with us as viewers.

Not: Reality TV is not innovative in any way.  Reality TV is simply society’s latest version of a very common and human activity, voyeurism. If we can agree that voyeurism existed before television (it did) then the argument for the affirmative has to be that putting it on TV is somehow innovative.

Reality TV; real people doing real things while the rest of us watch.  How new is this idea?  Can you remember Candid Camera?  Maybe not the original but it was the granddaddy of reality TV back in 1947.  Oh how our grandparents laughed at the confused faces of real people in real (albeit staged) situations (hum Big Brother theme tune here).  At least they would have if they had a TV,  which they didn’t,  because back in 1947 total television production was only 178,000 units.1

In 1947 the majority of Americans were actually listening to Candid Microphone2 on their radio set (yes, you heard me) and only wishing they had access to a TV. So here is the thing, reality shows were part of the original programming as television became popular in the 20th century and they built off the success of reality radio that had enjoyed many decades of success before that.  While reality shows currently seem to be ubiquitous they are no more an invention of the television age than sports, news reporting or game shows. Reality TV is today enjoying its moment in the sun but we cannot confuse popularity with innovation.

Judgement: Innovative! Although reality TV has been around for some time, it is the way in which it is currently delivered that differentiates it from its predecessors. Candid Camera was simply people doing staged stunts with a camera hidden somewhere. If you think about it, there was still some sort of script that was followed by the people who were “in” on the joke. A scene was set and actors were sometimes still needed to ensure events happen to trigger the response. However, in todays format, we have the camera simply follow people around while we sit back and watch the resulting social and emotional interactions develop (or fall apart). Another aspect of reality TV is the judging shows like Americas Got Talent and American Idol. Here we get to watch people place themselves completely out there and they either make complete fools of themselves, or we get new stars (think Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson). In both examples, no actors or script is followed and it is a complete deviation from hat was done since the beginning of TV. Therefore for that reason, I judge reality TV to be innovative.


2.  Beth Rowan.