Channelling in to Television Cultures

Tag Archives: cultural sphere

There is a page on Wikipedia literally called ‘List of reality television programs’ that tries to list all reality TV shows ever aired. Check it out here. While it DOES state that the list is incomplete, how could a project like this ever even come close to be being finished? In my opinion, as long as there is reality, and as long as there are people with video cameras, reality TV will never cease.

There’s something about it that draws us to it. Perhaps it is what I discussed in my post last week about the ‘truth’ aspect of reality TV that keeps audiences around the world glued to the screen. The knowledge that ‘this actually happened, this is real footage’, gives a different feel to a show than fictional television. Again I want to reiterate that Arild Fetveit notes ‘we are experiencing a growing use of surveillance cameras, and a form of factual television that seems to depend more heavily on the evidential force of the photographic image than any previous form: reality TV’ (pg. 787).

So why then? Why are we so interested in reality television? Why does the enjoyment of witnessing real life events never cease to capture our attention? Why is it that, as Su Holmes points out, reality TV ‘resonates so extensively in the cultural sphere’ (2004, pg. 1)?

Gary Edgerton says of the TV show Mad Men: “whatever says ‘This was them then’ connotes ‘This is us now’, mutatis mutandis. The characters’ smugness is undermined by our knowing more than they do, but that targets our certainty. Those foolish mortals are us, fifty years ago but us.” (2011, pg. 87) I believe with reality TV there is a similar sort of superiority complex that infiltrates audiences’ minds. We believe that what we are watching on the screen is some way related to us, but we are ‘above’ these people, as we as viewers know more than they do. Perhaps there is still an element of uncertainty, however, as we may consider that put in the same situation we may react much like these people do. Take, for example, a show like Candid Camera that exposes people’s embarrassing reactions to pranks:

I would argue that there are different ‘levels’ of reality TV. Those using surveillance type cameras depict a more accurate reality than those with cameras set up specifically. Take, for example, a show like Highway Patrol or The Force, in which footage is largely gathered from:

• authentic footage from camera crews observing arrests or rescue operations;
• footage from surveillance videos;
• recordings (often by amateurs) of dramatic accidents and dangerous situations.
(Fetveit, pg. 792)

With shows like this, the action is real and there is no chance to go back and redo a scene. However, a show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (or any game show) is largely staged and rehearsed, leaving little room for ‘reality’ except in how contestants respond and act.

Another interesting thing that I came across on the Wikipedia list of reality TV programs was also a list of different categories that reality TV can fit into. These are:

• Documentary style
• Historical recreation
• Science
• Dating
• Law Enforcement/Military
• Makeover
• Lifestyle change
• Fantasies fulfilled
• Docusoaps (starring celebrities)
• Hidden camera
• Reality game shows
• Talent searches
• Spoofs
• Parodies

In terms of ‘genre’ it is almost impossible to define a genre to allocate to reality shows, as they obviously cover an extremely vast array of issues and themes. Toni Johnson-Woods says of the reality genre:

“‘Reality tv’ is an umbrella term encompassing a host of television programs: from the news to talk shows… In the broadest definition, reality-tv shows are unscripted and their participants are non-professional actors. But other than such general guidelines, the term ‘reality’ can describe a wide range of television programs… Because it is such a broad (and misleading) term, it is easier to subdivide reality-tv programs into genres such as lifestyle shows, documentaries, talk shows and quiz/game shows.” (pg. 52)

So while it is evident that reality TV comes in many different forms, what holds them all together is the notion that they do in fact depict (at least in part) ‘reality’. There is much discussion in the media, however, about how that ‘reality’ is warped. In many cases we are given the indication that our lives require improvement to meet that unrealistic standard of reality. Frances Bonner notes:

“Television’s role is to alert viewers to the existence of more products and services for their utility in the endless project of the self.” (pg. 104)

Nowhere is this more true than in the production of reality TV. This form of ‘infotainment’ is riddled with product placement and marketing techniques that make audiences want more in an effort to “improve” themselves. Perhaps this is why reality TV ‘resonates so extensively in the cultural sphere’ as Holmes put it. Peter Balint Langmar defines ‘cultural sphere’ as follows:

“I use the term ‘cultural sphere’ to mean the open cultural market, creating goods and services, where individuals are also active participants or actors. The cultural market is a profit-oriented sub-sphere of the cultural sphere.” (pg. 4)

Therefore reality TV fits right in with the market-type nature of the cultural sphere. As Brian pointed out in the lecture, reality TV creates experts that inform us of what to strive for. Tania Lewis agrees with this:

“The past few years have seen an explosion of lifestyle makeover television shows with audiences around the world being urged to ‘renovate’ everything from their homes to their pets, a process that has seen the emergence of an army of lifestyle gurus on television advising us on what not to eat and what not to wear.” (2009, pg. 1)

Michelle Bridges on The Biggest Loser

For me, this brings to mind Michelle Bridges, who became a household name in Australia following her involvement with The Biggest Loser. Much of her success as a fitness trainer is due to her role on the show, and the fact that it allowed her to become a trusted and well-known expert in health and fitness. “Supernanny” is another example. As an ‘expert’ in child discipline, Jo Frost has also become well-known from her reality TV show. (I wonder how many people utilize a ‘naughty chair’ because of her?)

Jo Frost as “Super Nanny”

Experts, advertising, making us feel like we aren’t good enough, letting us laugh at people doing embarrassing things… we just love reality TV.


Holmes, Su and Jermyn, Deborah. Understanding Reality Television. London: Taylor & Francis, 2004

Lewis, Tania. TV Transformations: Revealing the Makeover Show. Routledge, 2009

Johnson-Woods, Toni. Big Bother: why did that reality-tv show become such a phenomenon? University of Queensland Press, 2002

Fetveit, Arild. “Reality Tv in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?”. Media Culture and Society. SAGE Publications. Vol. 21: 787-804. 1999

Balint Langmar, Peter. “Cultural Sphere and Public Interest: Combining Free and Participatory Culture, Cultural Democracy and Critiques of Value Regimes to Rethink Policy, Artistic and Institutional Practices”. The American University of Paris, 2011.

Bonner, Frances. Ordinary Television: Analysing Popular TV. SAGE, 2003.