As a dominant force in television entertainment, reality TV programs are cheaper to produce and draw larger viewing audiences than standard programming -- but truthfully, some of them have little to do with reality. Psychologists, TV critics and industry pundits have debated the pros and cons of reality programming since "The Real World" debuted on MTV in 1992. The short answer is that reailty TV programming has both negative and positive effects for viewers and participants alike.
How 'Real' is Reality TV?
Many forms of reality TV programming have little to do with reality. On the surface, these programs give the impression that shows are unscripted and natural. But the truth is far less glamorous.
Most reality shows are tightly scripted and controlled. Stories and situations are developed in advance. Dialogue and lines are created for the participants by industry writers, while producers control and monitor episodes to elicit specific emotional responses from "real" cast members. While writers for the genre have long complained about not receiving credit for their work, the viewing audience believes they are watching real people act and respond in truthful ways.
Spotlighting the Villain
This genre has a proclivity for spotlighting meanness, greed, deception and other negative personality traits in competitive platforms. For example, reality shows such as “Survivor," “Big Brother, and “The Apprentice” expect participants to be crafty, deceptive and mean-spirited as a general rule.
Oftentimes, the winners are those who have the least amount of moral scruples. Many of the topics on "The Real World," for example, focus on jealousy, pettiness, partying and substance abuse because producers believe that problems and conflicts create more engaging television. Former Black Sabbath rocker Ozzy Osbourne's daughter Kelly criticized executives and producers of her family's reality TV show "The Osbournes" in a 2011 documentary for exploiting her father's substance abuse problems.
Uncovering Hidden Gems
While it may seem easier to point out the negative effects of reality programs, some critics and psychologists highlight the genre's positive influences as well. Shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” and “American Idol” are similar to traditional television variety or talent shows. These programs provide a showcase for talented young models and artists.
For some participants, these shows become a steppingstone to a successful career. Some of these shows allow the viewing audience to participate and vote for their favorite participants. These contestants often serve as role models for aspiring singers, models and entertainers.
“Intervention” and “Celebrity Rehab” are reality shows that treat real people struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. They present the cold and cruel face of addiction without making it glamorous. Viewers have an opportunity to see the inner workings of rehabilitation, the challenges participants face and treatment outcomes.
Similar shows tackle mental health issues such as depression, hoarding, obesity and heart disease. “Dr. Phil” is a favorite daytime talk show that tackles a wide range of issues from abuse to relationship problems and those struggling to create work-life balance.
Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.