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