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What Makes Reality TV Successful: Overview

Just last week, one of Conversation’s newest team members posted a Facebook status questioning her love of reality television shows:

To which I felt comfortable replying:

And while I know it’s true, I can’t help but question why. Why is it that in a culture where everyone seems to claim there’s “nothing good on TV” and blame reality shows for the diminished quality of cable entertainment, we continue to tune-in week after week to watch them? And even more so, why should we feel bad about these guilty pleasures we all love to hate?

Maybe it’s because we really don’t hate them at all…

Reality TV has redefined television and pop culture for better or for worse, rivaling Facebook stalking as an enabler of our daily dose of voyeurism, and I believe its success can be attributed to three main factors:

1.)    Characters

What would the Jersey Shore be without Snooki, The Situation, or Pauly D? What fun is The Apprentice without head honcho Donald Trump to fire anyone? Who even watches American Idol now that Simon has moved on to the X-Factor? We grow to know and love these real-life characters as if they were our friends. If we don’t tune-in to see what crazy things the Real Housewives are up to or who is this week’s Biggest Loser, it’s like we have missed out on something big in life of someone really important to us…although we’ve never actually met…awkward.

2.)    Genres

“Rising Star” – American Idol, X-Factor, Biggest Loser, America’s Got Talent, Top Model

Who doesn’t love to witness a success story in the making, where some likeable person from humble beginnings rises to achieve merit-based success? Who doesn’t love to see deserving people receive the help they need to turn their lives around? Who says the American Dream is dying? Sure, there are also the shows whose popularity are more driven by the competitive spirit, the battle for cash prizes, the alliances, and the betrayals (a la Survivor), which make for an interesting watch!

“Day in the Life” – Teen Mom, Hoarders, Toddlers & Tiaras, Keeping Up with the Kardashians

Thanks to reality TV, you don’t need live like a guido, have eighteen kids, compulsively clip coupons, or marry a Kardashian to get a peek inside an otherwise unfamiliar lifestyle. We can creepily peer into the personal lives of little people to see what it’s like to live in a big world or get a taste of what it’s like to be Hugh Hefner and live at the Playboy mansion.  Like a good book, good reality TV exposes us to a world we would have otherwise never known.

“Forced Cohabitation” – Jersey Shore, Real World, Road Rules, Big Brother

Drama, drama, drama! (Enough said.)

“Celebrity Competitions” – Celebrity Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, Celebrity Cookoff

Everyone loves to see what their favorite D-List celebrities are up to! Even better, we like to see them compete against each other and battle to regain cultural relevance and legitimacy by welcoming viewers to hyper-critically judge their performances, as they frequently fail to live up to our expectations. Surely, this must be what makes America great!

3.)    Train Wreck Effect

Sad, but true fact: Much of the enjoyment that comes from watching reality television comes from watching other people “face-plant.” Sometimes we can relate to the struggles of the characters or sometimes their realm of “reality” is so foreign from that of our own, it’s entertaining to discover what they consider problematic. And other times still, we can’t help but cringe as we point and laugh at the expense of others. Yet, for many of the characters, these obstacles only make them more endearing – especially when we see them overcome or ultimately humble themselves to learn from their mistakes. (Or, for those who choose not to take a lesson away from their experience, we laugh even harder!)

To truly understand the appeal, we’d have to more closely examine a few of reality television’s most honorable mentions…Stay tuned for case studies!



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