Contemporary television hosts a wide array of popular reality television shows, which have become leading prime-time programs, dominating the TV ratings. The visible presence of ordinary people in unscripted situations has significantly contributed to the popularity of this genre. Reality television has altered the field of factual programming, establishing new priorities and requirements for program makers and shaping different expectations in viewers. Nowadays, Americans are excessively dependent on the entertainment industry that forms views, attitudes, and values. In attempts to increase the influence and extent of reality programs, programmers utilize current trends prevalent among audience members. Thus, in order to attract more viewers, reality television shows strongly appeal to the personal values that interest people in watching the programs, individual’s desire for status and recognition, and moral principles based on people’s experiences, which have considerably changed the television viewing in terms of the active participation of the audience.
The Essence of Reality Television Shows
Reality television shows are life programs that involve a combination of social and personal life experiments and game shows. They are associated with such creation techniques as the participation of non-professional actors, an unscripted dialogue, and the development of events in front of the camera. Such programs are usually about transformations in lifestyles, work, personal life, values, and domestic arrangements. The outcomes may be positive when participants end the program with a life-affirmative attitude and readiness to change for the better. However, more frequently, reality shows finish with a negative message. For example, people become highly judgmental of others and their own life experiences. The latter impact is connected with the values on which programs are based as well as the desires the shows intend to develop in the audience. It means that shows trigger certain emotions in viewers to attract and interest them in the events that are unfolding in accordance with the scenario created by the participants.
Such characteristics of reality shows contribute to the vast popularity of reality programs. For example, American Idol was the second most watched a television show during the season in 2011-2012. MTV’s Real World has been shown for 20 years since it first aired. In addition, Survivor, American Idol, Fear Factors, and Big Brothers have more than 18 million viewers per episode. In fact, these data demonstrate people’s excessive concentration on the programs that can present real-life situations, not a directed fictitious world. The reason for such a strong interest relates to the feelings the viewers receive while watching the shows. In these programs, people may receive the support for their own values or witness the situations that contradict their moral code. In both situations, they have an explicit reaction that makes them return to the programs. As a result, the TV ratings of the shows increase.
Values and Reality Television Shows
Personal values are viewed as “psychographic antecedent of connectedness” to a variety of reality television shows. Connectedness is viewed as the degree of intensity of relationships that an audience member has with the main heroes and the contextual settings of a program. In this regard, values act like the main drivers of decisions, behaviors, attitudes, and judgments. Therefore, audience members opt for certain television programs in an attempt to find the moral support for their beliefs and attitudes. Such connectedness is widely employed by the creators of reality programs in order to maintain and expand their central audience by making corresponding decisions in such areas as scheduling, media buying, and the product placement. Furthermore, viewer’s natural curiosity and interest in the lives of others is the major aspect in the appeal of such shows. Using the information about existing and prevalent values and aspirations within society, programmers may successfully develop and implement effective targeting strategies to attract more people to their products. Thus, show makers know which moral principles they need to appeal to in order to increase the audience and popularity of the programs.
Firstly, reality television programmers need to analyze the values that make people start watching the show. There has been a common view that people choose reality TV shows in order to discuss these programs later with friends and coworkers. However, in their study, Reiss and Wiltz have proved that the real and more objective reason relates to the values that TV shows utilize. For example, those who took an interest in watching Temptation Island, a reality show about provoked cases of adultery, were intrigued by possible illicit sex scenes. Nevertheless, the majority of people interviewed demonstrated curiosity in this program because they value expedience more than morality. These results prove that in such shows, people tend to anticipate not the possibility of watching the process of cheating but the ethical transformations and grounds that lead to adultery. In addition, viewers who admire reality shows with the competitive nature are characterized as ambitious people who place a high value on revenge compared to others. Thus, such programs appeal to such qualities as the spirit for competition combined with the chance to avenge. In fact, the desire for vengeance is tightly connected with the enjoyment of competition. It means that people who tend to avoid conflict situations, anger behavior, and competition in everyday life are more likely to avoid watching reality television programs rich in the depiction of interpersonal conflict and struggle. Thus, programs refer to certain values with the intention to attract a certain group of people that will be definitely interested in the product, which can be more successful than targeting at general audience.
Secondly, the most common value utilized in reality shows is the desire for status. Such striving can be also viewed like a means to receive attention and recognition, which increases self-esteem. People who participate in the programs believe that others’ attention to them and their lives makes them important in society. In addition, ordinary viewers who share the same values associate themselves with the heroes on a TV screen, dreaming of the same fame and recognition. They even ignore the fact that most of the contestants are often shown in an unfavorable light and situations. In brief, reality television enables people to fantasize about acquiring the desired status by virtue of automatic popularity.
The shows intend to convey that ordinary people can become so famous that millions will watch them with admiration. Many of such viewers believe that next time, they will become the new celebrities and role models. Moreover, according to Patino, Kaltcheva, and Smith, people who value popularity and are concerned with their own level of recognition are more likely to be connected to reality programming. Therefore, those reality television shows that can firmly convince the viewers of the possibility to become famous one day may receive the biggest audience.
Reality television shows are also created to appeal to experiences of people in order to attract the vast audience. For example, in The Real World, participants rock climb, sail in the Pacific, and share a dwelling, where ordinary and boring things become entertainment not only for the heroes but also for the audience. However, not every viewer will be captivated by such a scenario. Only those who share the same value for excitement and adventurous life would be the most connected to such type of a show. Similarly, people who place high importance on socialization are attracted by shows that portray fun, friendship, big groups of people, and their interaction. Thus, depending on the values hidden in the reality programs, people make the decisions about which kind of a show to watch.
In addition, people watch TV not only for entertainment and relaxation; they become engaged in the critical assessment of the attitudes, thoughts, values, and behavior of people in the programs. When characters share the same values of a viewer, he or she can easily identify himself or herself with the celebrity. For example, a person may imagine being the media character, adopt the beliefs and attitudes demonstrated by the hero, and view the media content from participant’s perspective. However, despite being called “reality” shows, these programs are directed by the producers who control the situation, the environment, and the basic rules. It means that many characters’ reactions and deeds are not based on their own values and intentions. As a rule, program makers tell a participant to behave in a certain way in order to induce the emotions in viewers, which increases the ratings of the program.
Apart from the positive feelings and impact the reality shows foster, many programs now appeal to the values that people should avoid and suppress. However, exactly the desire to witness ungraceful behavior, life crisis, and conflicts make people watch reality television programs. Audience members eagerly follow the lives of contestants because of the possibility to see unpleasant details of their lives. Americans have allowed and continue to support the prevalence on television of the worst situations and often antisocial behavior. For example, many critics agree that such programs as Temptation Island and Survivor appeal to a low level of morals and involve exploitation of participant. In general, programs depict the events and people that represent the antithesis of what every person should aspire to become and reach. Paradoxically, these are the factors that attract audience the most.
The Change in Television Viewing
The biggest change associated with the reality programs in television viewing relates to the opportunity for audience members to express their emotions and share values while watching the shows. Such inclusion of audience has made possible the active participation of viewers in the production of the shows. For decades, people have been anticipating bigger interaction with the entertainment media. The reality television has made it possible. Nowadays, people may be directly involved in the creating the favorite shows. Viewers can feel that they are important part of a shared national project. For example, they can vote via toll-free numbers and text messages, which gives an enormous level of influence on the events they can follow on a daily or weekly basis on TV. For instance, American Idol is one of the most popular TV shows not only because it detects and reveals talented people but also due to the fact that ordinary viewers are involved in the process of star-making.
As a rule, reality television shows are based on dramatic life events. Participants are obliged to either perform uncommon tasks such as wilderness survival and international travel or handle the tasks that are more mundane. As a result, viewers have a perfect chance to compare and contrast their own lives, values, and aspirations with those of the program’s celebrities. Ordinary people can relate their own experience and moral principles to the decisions and actions made by the participants who were the same typical people in the non-distant past. Such engagement has created a new type of television viewing known as the “active consumption”. This genre is characterized by its interactivity. Such reality shows not only entice viewers to watch, but they also encourage viewers to participate, offering the audience a participatory experience.
Modern viewers become mentally and emotionally involved with the participants of programs. Due to the nature of such shows, ordinary people can identify themselves with heroes. The wide spread of Web sites has enabled viewers to review program video, find additional information about the show and its participants, and gain access to an unaired video. Moreover, the audience member can discuss events, news, and participants with other viewers and participate in various online polls. Interaction through the Internet influences the gratification viewers receive during watching reality shows. In fact, this form of post-exposure opportunities has been new to television audience. Such involvement allows viewers to take control over the media.
The nature of reality television shows contributes to the attitude activation and attitude accessibility of viewers. During viewing such shows, certain attitudes are spontaneously activated. For example, if a person watches a program that conveys a message or theme that is close to values and norms of a viewer, viewing reinforces the existing positive attitudes. Thus, such perception increases the effects of the message of the television program, which maximizes the enjoyment of viewing entertainment shows. In case a message bears negative connotation, this undesirable aspect is suspended for a viewer to be completely absorbed into the program, which is expected to bring satisfaction. In both situations, program makers intend to maintain the existing audience and attract new viewers.
Reality television shows break the monotony of the media and life in general by creating extraordinary concepts and innovative ideas. In fact, reality television shows increase their audiences by appealing to certain values and desires of viewers. Thus, viewing ordinary people on screen that share the same moral principles, audience members may become more emotionally and cognitively involved in the programs. In addition, reality television programs have completely changed the television viewing due to the innovative approach that implies the involvement of viewers in the creation of shows based on their free sharing of the impressions about the TV product. Thus, reality shows encourage higher degree of audience activity, which can both create the program and promote it.