Media Representation and the ‘Real’ – Reality TV

Reality media dominates mainstream British TV schedules, even in prime-time broadcasting slots. These shows also dominate newspaper headlines, gossip magazines and generate widespread discussion and interest amongst mass audiences. They offer us a legion of reality ‘stars’ that many want to know about. Reality media is often criticised for the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture, but if we look at it from a ‘uses and gratifications’ perspective we can suggest that reality media serves a clear social function. We might talk regularly about it with friends or watch the shows together with friends or family.

Annette Hill: Reality media is ‘a catch all category for a variety of different one-off programmes, series or formats that follow real people or celebrities through their 08a29304376eeb53_best_of_2009_popsugaruk_series_which_is_your_favourite_reality_tv_show_poll_featuring_big_brother_the_x_factor_strictly.jpgeveryday or out of the ordinary experiences.’ (Hill, A., Restyling Factual TV, London: Routledge, 2007, p5).

Breaking Down ‘Reality Media’ Genre Sub-Categories

Documentary – part of a long media tradition serving to document and to represent real people and places.

Docu-Drama – constructed in part from real footage and in part through fictional elements or dramatic reconstructions.

Reality Game Show – this combines ordinary people or celebrities with some form of competition or game-show structure.

Scripted Reality/Constructed Factual – Based on real people and their relationships, but shaped and staged by producers for entertainment purposes.

Lifestyle – focuses on improving some aspect of our lives, our appearances, our homes or our gardens, with the help of ‘expert’ advice.

Reality Media Does Not Equal ‘Reality’

Reality media does not provide an accurate window on the world. Reality media is closer to being an escape from reality instead. It allows us to leave our often mundane reality for a while. The name of ‘reality media’ is an ironic title because the majority of it is far more contrived, far more manipulative and far more about self-conscious performance than a lot of fiction/drama is. We’re not seeing the stars of these reality TV shows living their everyday lives in some authentic, unmediated fashion. Instead, we’re seeing people who are acutely aware that they’re being observed. They are acting out a version of themselves that they want the public to see, or that they have been told to act out by the show’s producers. binoculars-looking-me-300x263.jpg

William Labov: The Observer’s Paradox

When knowingly observed, people will never behave the same way as they would when unobserved. The observer’s paradox offers a big problem for audience researchers: how can we ever observe ‘authentic’ audience behaviours? However, this paradox helps to explain many elements of reality media: the emphasis on ‘being fake’ versus ‘being genuine’, and the tendency of reality participants to self consciously ‘perform’ certain versions of themselves. (Labov, W., Sociolinguistic Patterns, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

Often the most satisfying aspect of watching reality shows comes when those performed identities slip a little: we see the real (sometimes unpleasant) personalities. If someone’s being fake it blocks the possibility of intimacy that viewers are hoping to get from the show, which frustrates many. If we’re reminded that people are performing, it can really annoy viewers. This is why Big Brother has the diary room.

Why Reality Media? What is its appeal?

In a highly competitive, cost conscious media marketplace, reality content is a relatively fast, cheap, cost-effective form of media to make, when compared with more expensive and time-consuming fiction formats like films and TV dramas. Annette Hill: the ‘rise of reality TV came at a time when Networks were looking for a quick fix solution to economic problems within cultural industries.’

All media genres evolve over time, but reality media is a particularly adaptable and hybrid form. Reality media thrives by absorbing elements from other popular media genres.

Bill Nichols: Reality media feeds our desire for an ever-present sense of anticipation in our lives – you never quite know what is going to happen  next. Ad breaks and transitions threaten to ruin this so shows use other techniques such as; ‘and coming up next’, ‘after the break’, ‘still to come’, to continue the sense of anticipation. (Nichols, B., Reality TV and Social Perversion’, in C. Bassett, P. Marris and S. Thornham [Eds.], Media Studies: A Reader, Edinburgh: EUP, 2009).

‘Humilitainment’ is the idea that we gain pleasure from seeing others humiliated. A lot of comedy works in this way. ‘Superiority Theory’ within the study of comedy is the notion that we find it funny when we see others embarrassed or humiliated, because it makes us feel superior and better about our own lives. ‘Schadenfreude’ is a German word expressing the pleasure that one receives from the suffering of others. ‘Democratisation’: reality media offers a world where ordinary people seem to have a voice, and where everyone seems to have a chance to become a reality ‘star’.

Annette Hill: ‘The focus on emotions has become a trademark for many factual programmes, where the premise is to observe or put people in emotionally difficult situations’. (Hill, Restyling Factual TV, London: Routledge, 2007, p5).


The Emotional Values of Reality Media

  • Emotion as a social bonding tool (it can bridge divides).
  • The healing power of ‘a good cry’ (catharsis).
  • Emotion as an educational tool (we can learn from the painful mistakes of others).
  • Emotion of entertainment (ridiculousness, conflict, melodrama and ‘humilitainment’).
  • Emotion as social reinforcement (‘there’s no place like home’).

By looking at these values and functions that could be used to explain reality TV we can also explain why reality media is so popular.

Theories Regarding Reality Media

Cultivation Theory 

First developed by American media theorist George Gerbner. Over-prolonged periods of exposure to certain types of media can cause an audience’s understanding of reality to gradually change over time. ‘The primary proposition of Cultivation Theory states that the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television’. (Cohen, J. & Weimann, G. [2000], ‘Cultivation Revisited: Some Genres Have Some Effects On Some Viewers’). We are cultivated by media representations to perceive the world in certain ways.

Gerbner’s ‘Mean-World Syndrome’

This argues that prolonged exposure to TV promotes viewer belief that the world is a dangerous and frightening place. Key ‘mean-world’ beliefs promoted by TV are:

  • most people are looking out for themselves.
  • you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.
  • most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance.

Beliefs That Reality Media ‘Cultivate’ In Audiences

  • Everyone’s opinions are valid.
  • All events (however intimate) should be captured by media technologies and offered to the public to share, experience and comment on.
  • All private matters should be made public.
  • Immediacy and ‘now-ness’ are more important than considered reflection, comment and debate.
  • Everyone has a right to be a ‘star’.
  • Everyone can attain success, wealth an beauty (if they want it enough).
These notes are from my semester one lectures and seminars.
I do not own the images in this post, they are from:, and

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