Channelling in to Television Cultures

Tag Archives: genre

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.




Annette Hill describes reality TV as ‘located in border territories, between information and entertainment, documentary and drama’ (pg. 2). She also mentions that it can be referred to as ‘popular factual television’, which I find interesting, as clearly, reality TV does not really depict facts. Or perhaps it does depict fact, but only in portions small enough to cloud the whole truth. The only way we can really observe truth, after all, is to witness it in reality and not from behind a camera lens.


However, as Roland Barthes once said, photography does have an ‘evidential force’ about it. This is something Arild Fetveit notes:


“The advent of digital manipulation and image generation techniques has seriously challenged the credibility of photographical discourses. At the same time, however, 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)


I find Fetveit’s argument very interesting, as he sees a ‘paradoxical’ relationship between the digital imaging revolution, and the proliferation of reality TV, which uses surveillance and ultimately relies on the ‘evidential force’ of cameras. While we perhaps do not watch all reality TV shows for evidence of real events (many shows needing a narrative, along with engaging characters and events to hold our interest), I think that this notion of ‘reality’ is the most important feature of the genre. It is the fact that what we are watching has actually happened that holds our interest – even though I would argue many of us are aware that we read the situation differently due to editing and structuring of events.


This is more so for shows like Big Brother and Masterchef, I suppose, wherein the audience enjoys the ‘reality’ aspect of what is taking place, yet is also vaguely aware that a story has been created using only snippets of actual action that happens in reality. Fetveit also points out the ‘reality’ factor that is essential to programmes like Cops, Crimewatch, and I if I can add my own: Highway Patrol. While these programmes use special effects such as recreation to construct a story, they also heavily rely on actual recorded evidence. He says:


“Though some of the reality TV programmes employ recreations… most rely on visual evidence of the following kinds:

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


Another important aspect of the reality TV genre as well I think is the stigma surrounding it, what Su Holmes calls a ‘nervousness’ which stems from:


“… a long history of fears both for and about the television audience which, it is implied, might be unable to engage with ‘hybrid’ or otherwise complex forms. Such fears are bound up again in issues of class and cultural value, and are arguably characterized by a paternalistic and conservative impulse that, within the terms of mass-society tradition, constructs the audience as vulnerable and malleable”. (pg. 10)


These ‘issues of class’ are largely what separate reality TV from ‘quality’ TV, at least at a status level. A lot more people in this TV Cultures class are going to feel comfortable admitting to an obsession with Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad than The X Factor or (Heaven forbid) Brynne: A Bedazzled Life (new series coming out soon – the ads make me cringe). And some of us are probably confused about reality TV: whether we love it or hate it – I think when it comes to reality TV there is a very fine line between the two. Holmes says, ‘there are people who love reality TV, and people who love to hate reality TV’ (pg. 2).


A psychological study conducted by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz entitled “Why People Watch Reality TV”, however, kind of goes against this assumption of mine. They found that ‘by far, the largest significant effect was for the motive of status. The more reality TV shows a person liked, the more status-oriented was the person’ (pg. 373). This suggests that people concerned about status will engage more in reality TV, despite the knowledge that it is a ‘lower’ form of television to those quality complex narratives we have discussed over the past few weeks in class. This makes sense too, as reality TV is accessible to all on commercial television, and can supply conversation topics (water-cooler conversation, one might say).


Reality TV is also dependent on certain construction values: selection of shots, camera positioning (angle, movement, shot type etc.), sound, and so on. Even in the episode of One Born Every Minute that we watched in the lecture today, these construction values were evident. We did not see the entire stories of the pregnant ladies played out exactly as they occurred (obviously that would take ages), but shots were selected so as to make an interesting story. The scene between Fabio and Joy arguing about the name of their baby could have been left out, but we were shown a lot of scenes like this where they were squabbling and complaining. I’m sure there were many moments of silence as well, or even times where they discussed other things and were saying lovely things to each other, but the editors played around with the footage and chose to just show us evidence of the couple’s struggle. This is what keeps the audience interested. As we saw in the interview of a man from Sylvania Waters, editors can even carry out events over several episodes so it seems that characters engage in the same kinds of activities all the time (i.e. getting drunk).


So to sum up, I think some of the key defining features of reality television as a genre are the ‘truth’ aspect of it, the baggage it carries relating to status and quality, and also the construction values that allow producers to formulate story lines using real evidence.





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

Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Factual Entertainment and Television Audiences. Psychology Press. 2005.

Holmes, Su. Understanding Reality Television. Routledge. 2004.

Reiss, S. and Wiltz, J. “Why People Watch Reality TV”. Media Psychology Vol. 6: 363-378. 2009

What kind of show is Big Love? That is the question.


What a broad, strange thing to ask. Do we even think about this when we watch TV? Do we strain to think about what genre it is? What audience is going to watch it? How the identity of the network company alters our view of it? Do we care about how complex it is, or if television scholars consider it ‘quality’ TV?


For the most part, no. We don’t think of these things. We don’t care. We just watch what interests us. For some people this is shows that display ‘narrative complexity’, for others a simple soap opera will do the trick. We why have to categorise them all is beyond me, but okay.


A commenter on Michael Kackman’s piece on Flow TV, Jeffrey Sconce, highlights how unusual it is that we equate complexity with quality:


“…the unexamined equation of quality with complexity is a particularly strange move for television studies to make. It reached its apotheosis in the Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You” book from a few years back, with its rather hilarious charts demonstrating how much more complex and thus worthy “The Sopranos” were in relation to “Starsky and Hutch.” Complex TV is apparently better because it forces you to make more neural connections, in the same way that video games are good for hand-eye coordination!”


Considering Big Love was Brian’s choice this week on our discussion on quality TV, I suppose it falls under this category. Michael Kackman loosely describes such narrative complex programs as:


“those that blend episodic and serial narrative techniques, build upon extended back stories of both plot and character, are often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself.”


I would say that Big Love is more of an episodic structure than a serial. The focus is on the overall movement of the plot, rather than the small conflicts and resolutions that take place episode-to-episode. The main driving force of the show is that the family situation is so unusual: the main character has three wives, and has had children with all of these wives, yet they all live together as one family entity. This challenges the notion of the typical American nuclear family, and the institution of marriage, while also strengthening the idea that the Big love family is unusual, and that the normal family functions better (*statement open to criticism*).



In terms of genre, I like how Jason Mittel puts it:


“My concept of genre is as a cultural category bearing assumptions and associations – and probably no television genre is as laden with assumptions as the soap opera!”


Sure, soap opera is a fairly solid genre with all of its respective assumptions, but this notion of complex television shows… is this a genre in itself? Given what Mittel describes as the function of soap operas – “immersive, slow-paced, dialogue-driven melodramatic storytelling that rewards long-term accrual of character knowledge” – it would appear that there is a parallel between soap operas and these long form complex narratives.


In Big Love, we rely a lot on what the dialogue provides us: it demonstrates the jealousy of the wives, the feelings of the children, the strong stance on polygamous marriage that Bill Henrickson has. It is also true of Big Love that viewers are rewarded with ‘long-term accrual of character knowledge’. Watching the final episode of the series after watching the pilot, I actually began to tear up when Bill was dying and looking up at all of his wives. I was able to see from the pilot episode that he had feelings for them all and loved them deeply, and it was truly rewarding to see how far they had come as a family. It would have been even more rewarding had I seen all the problems they had encountered between the first and last episodes as well, I am sure.



So, to answer my original question, Big Love is an HBO branded (and therefore a “quality”) television show. The brand literally does carry ‘baggage’ with it, and works to form the genre along with the show’s specifics. While it shares aspects of soap operas and melodramas, the way in which it blends episodic and serial structuring, as well as its position within the HBO brand leaves it categorised along with other shows of narrative complexity. I would also argue that this is also due to the time in which it was created, as long form complex narratives have been developed and studied at large during the early 21st century.



Michael Kackman, 2010, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’

Jason Mittel, 2009, ‘More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality’