Sorry it’s been a while. I’ve been swamped/crazy the last couple of weeks. Last night was one of the few times I’ve had to stop and relax while my boys were out trick or treating and I was handing out candy. I was watching “Storage Wars” (The Redneck’s favorite) and got to thinking about why reality shows work.
1. It gives the illusion of “real”.
I think people want to drop the walls, connect, but find it difficult. But here, they can watch a show where there is the illusion of no secrets, nothing hidden. I think that draws people in.
Thom DeBeers, the executive producer of “The Deadliest Catch” and many other shows, is one of the experts at finding interesting people that are watchable. Phil Harris died on DC and there were many who mourned him, people who had never met him before. Phil was a Crab fisherman, not a rock star or an actor. I watch Storage Wars because of Barry and Jerrod and Brandi. Interesting people that I feel like I KNOW from watching the show.
3. The Illusion of Intimacy
The idea that cameras will be present and capture someone’s life is fascinating to us. It’s like we want to experience human contact…without the contact. It’s kind of weird, but true.
One of the reasons that fiction is so popular and requires conflict is, I think, that we human beings want to see conflict and resolution. But human beings aren’t satisfied with a cardboard copy conflict. With reality shows, we ostensibly get conflict that’s real and yet, we are as distant from it as if it was an episode of “CSI”. Producers of these reality show often demand resolution, even though that changes the “reality” to something else.
We live vicariously through these people. In 1992, when The Real World came out, I was skeptical. Why would I (at the time a 24 year old, the demographics MTV aimed for) want to watch seven strangers get real? But you know, I got to see interactions and conflicts and fighting that I would never have viewed in my life. In my opinion, Mary-Ellis Burnim understood that my generation wanted the excitement, the drama, of mixing oil and water (personality wise) and standing back to see the results. I lasted more than a few seasons watching the show until I outgrew it. It’s hard to believe it’s on its 28th season.
6. Attachment without risk
I think it’s easier for us to watch someone “real” and feel connected in some way, but there’s no risk of involvement. We don’t actually have to participate in their lives, just watch them. I said that many people mourned Phil Harris’s death. I should mention that Jonathan Hillstrand has received numerous marriage proposals. That people genuinely hoped Jake Harris would get his life together after going to rehab. That so many people felt CONNECTED to these characters. But there’s no risk to that connection. If Jonathan Hillstrand said “Yes” to one of those proposals, what would happen? Disaster. And they’d probably have a show. LOL!
7. The Content
Where The Real World used human interactions as the basis for their content, many of the shows have actual professions (crab fishing) or hobbies(Toddlers and Tiaras) or families with interesting challenges (Little People, Big World). As viewers, we find something that catches our attention and let someone else deal with it. It’s like a documentary only without the dull factor. In a way, done right, a reality show can educate, inspire and show consequences.
8. Living Vicariously
I think the Housewives phenomenon fits this bill. Women who will never marry a rich man can live vicariously through the Housewives of New York. Mob Wives, Basketball wives and the others give us insight into the lives of the people who fascinate us without having to BE in that life. The series The Real Housewives is based off the success of Desperate Housewives on ABC and is not one I watch. But a surprising number of friends do and they seem to connect on some level to the women depicted.
There is an illusion created by shows like this that make these people seem more approachable. When we watch our favorite fictional shows, we know those people are actors and that they are not really the characters they portray. As warm and friendly as a character may seem on a show, we know that’s not them and we can’t treat them that way. But on a reality show, part of us still believes that we can walk up and talk to them as if what we see on the screen is true. Even though my conscious mind knows that cameras rolling can change the way a person behaves, I still think what I see is who they are. I don’t think I’m alone there.
10. The romance/sexual tension
Fictional sexual tension, is (we know) well…fictional. It’s created by the producers. When it happens on reality shows, it seems more genuine, more real. We see it on Survivor and Big Brother. We want to believe in romance. There is a sense of outrage and betrayal from an audience when it doesn’t work or when it’s part of some manipulation to win the game. We WANT the real thing. On the first few seasons of The Real World, that was a lot of the conversation and the draw for the show. The hook ups were encouraged, but shocking. We loved it. We still do. Even on a tense competition like “Hell’s Kitchen”, some of the most popular episodes were when there was sexual tension between competitors. Again, it’s the idea of watching without risk. No emotional involvement for us, but we can be a part of it vicariously.
11. The illusion of Success
We root for characters on these shows. They become our TV buddies. We WANT them to win. On Deadliest Catch, the Redneck and I choose our captains and wish for them to succeed. And when they do, WE feel good. Of course, we didn’t have to make the choices, eat five million Tums or lose sleep, but we feel a part of it. I notice it on Toddlers and Tiaras, on Hell’s Kitchen, on Survivor. We pick our “person” and their success is our success. It’s like a weird version of sports.
Some of these reality shows are about things I never knew about and learned about from watching. Mining for Gold or Crab Fishing, or pageants were all things I never would have tried on my own. Now, I’m a documentary watcher, so I don’t mind watching narrated information about things. But reality shows can do everything a documentary can do with sparkles. It makes it more interesting. The Deadliest Catch was, in its first incarnation, a documentary. And yes, the Redneck had that one on a video tape. Now, of course, it’s so much more. Shows like Storage Wars showcase a profession or hobby that we’d never know about otherwise.
13. Entertainment with a purpose
If someone wrote a script that followed the twists and turns that happened in The Housewives of New Jersey, we’d never buy it. But we are entertained by it, I think, because it’s REAL. Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that producers manipulate the content through editing, through setting things up. But the truth is that it’s real people. Regardless of how slick and fake those people can get when the cameras are rolling, they aren’t Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. They’re real people. I’m not sure what that says about our culture. That’s another debate. But I do know that reality shows are damn popular. I think we can all name one we’ve watched at one time or another.