Development of Reality TV Genre

Modified: 10th Oct 2017
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How are reality TV shows constructed and how do they challenge ideas about the television audience?

Everyone has to have come across a reality television show, at least once while watching television, since the genre has become one of the most popular genres of television programming in our contemporary society and keeps on becoming more and more enjoyed by people worldwide. Ever since this, considerably new, television genre has appeared a lot of changes in the ways of entertainment, television programme constructions and audience studies have been noticed. That is why several studies have been contacted around the genre, in order to better identify and explain it, in relation to the audience and other media theories. The views around it between scholars though, are divided, between the ones who support the genre and ‘others who consider it to be voyeuristic, cheap, sensational television’ (Hill, 2005). Regardless of the two opinions, the reality genre becoming one of the most discussed subjects in media studies is a fact and in this essay I will try, based on several academics’ research, to identify what the reality genre is, how it was developed through the years, from what programmes it has originated, which subgenres it has produced and how those subgenres influence the television programme production today and finally, how the reality genre’s concepts challenge several ideas about the audience reception, taking into consideration the latter’s point of view.

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It is undeniable that television has a big impact on the ways people spend their free time and each genre of television programmes has its own impact on audiences and society, with probably the reality genre being the most controversial one. Due to several studies around and different opinions about the genre there is no specific definition about it. It is generally thought to be the genre which documents unscripted, real-life situations of ordinary people (Hill, 2005). The genre is more focused on drama and entertainment contexts rather than simply educating the audience, since it usually encompasses unscripted dramas, games, tasks and just about any competitions that make it more fun to watch.

Reality television genre first appeared during the 1950’s as a new form of factual television and social record for post-war observers, based on Allen Fund’s work in 1947, which was a reality television series called Candid Camera focused on hidden cameras that filmed ordinary people facing unusual situations (similar to the latter Just for Laughs: Gags). Even though some people viewed this technique as an invasion of privacy, others viewed it as a ‘valuable educational visual record’ (Murray and Ouellette, 2004) and thus the genre continued to develop. The growth of tabloid journalism, documentary television and popular entertainment during the 1980s, influenced the reality genre even more, resulting in new hybrid programming, developing reality television as we know it today (Hill, 2005).

Studies around reality television have become an important concept in media research, since the ways in which the genre works influence new types of audience gratifications, as well as media effects, due to the way they are constructed. Usually, reality television shows are directed by segment producers or story editors, who assemble storyboards and shooting scripts to make the shows happen. Since these people are not acknowledged by the Writers Guild of America as normal writers, they cost less than what a drama writer would cost (Hill, 2005). Additionally, since no actors or sets are required for reality shows to be made, the cost of production is much cheaper than the majority of other television genres, which explains why they are so famous and massively produced. In order for a reality show to be produced and eventually successful though, certain aspects need to be taken into consideration. People tend to get easily bored of a television programme and can easily switch off their television or change to another channel. In order to keep them interested, reality shows need to have highly marketable concepts and subjects to gain their audience’s attention. Catchy titles that provoke conversations and smart catch-phrases, which tell you exactly what to expect to watch but at the same time intrigue your curiosity and imagination, are usual characteristics of such shows. Reality television shows also need to provide exactly what their name suggests, ‘reality’. Focusing more on storylines containing elements of competition, potential for conflict, tasks, winning prizes, reality show producers aim to capture real-life situations about ordinary people, exactly how they happen in front of the camera. Usually, in every reality show there is a host who or a voiceover that explains to the audience what is going on, who they are watching and what they will be doing during the show. In order to convince the audience that what they are watching is real and unscripted, they attempt to stimulate real life situations and reactions from the people who participate in the shows and by surveillance with cameras, they make the private life visible to everyone. The idea of non-actors or professionals participating in each show and the non-scripted presentation of events make reality programmes an unpredictable source of entertainment for the audience and the idea is enhanced by the fact that people feel like they are active participants in these situations, removing them somehow from being a passive audience. One of our era’s most popular reality show has been the singing competition series Idols (also known as Superstar), which first aired in the UK in 2001. Equipped with all the basic reality show elements, such as mass auditioning of ordinary, non-famous people, audience participation with people voting their favourite artists from home, unscripted dialogs and reactions by the participants, as well as the judging panel, live performances, backstage drama and marketable concepts, the show has come across huge success worldwide. The main purpose of the programme is to discover the ‘idol’ in each of its series, with that idol being the most talented singer who competes in the show. Auditions are held and the judges choose the participants, who eventually compete with each other during live performances and the winner is announced after only two singers are left in the show and the one with the most votes, from the audience and the judges, wins a money prize and a recording contract.

Even though the reality formats share some common elements, the genre in general is made up of various diverse and distinctive subgenres that resulted from the mixture and hybridization of other prior, original programmes and it is this hybridization of successful genres that gives reality television its strong market values. Influenced by genres such as soap opera, documentary, sports or competition shows, reality genre is a very broad category and therefore it is quite hard to understand reality television ‘without considering its place within the context of other types of audio-visual documentation’ (Hill, 2005). As a result, there are several subgenres of reality television programmes such as, docu-dramas, game shows, dating-based competitions, self-improvement /makeover shows, hidden camera shows or talk shows.

Docu-soaps or ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries are the combination of the traditional observational documentary television with soap opera and they create a fictional setting to represent a series of events, with cameras set up to follow unscripted situations as they happen. The film crew is not seen or acknowledged by the reality stars and contrawise to traditional documentaries, which are often limited to one episode, docu-soaps span as a series of episodes, edited and scripted to follow normal people’s lives. A British example of a docu-soap, is the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary series called Airport, which was aired between 1996 and 2008, based at the London Heathrow Airport. The series followed the daily activities of passengers and staff of the airport. The dramatic behind the scenes plot and some memorable recurring characters, gave the show its docu-soaps feel. Make over shows such as Extreme Makeover, feature real people who present their own situations and life stories to explain why they are in need of a self-transformation. Extreme Makeover aired between 2002 and 2007 in the USA, with people volunteering to receive complete makeovers, including plastic surgery, exercise programmes, hairdressing and wardrobe renovation by beauty ‘experts’. Screened in three major parts; before, during and after the makeover shows like that focus on beauty and outer appearance in order to enhance people’s self-esteem. Also, the elements of surprise by the family members, who cannot see their relative until the end of their transformation, enhance the audience’s curiosity and excitement. Another successful reality television subgenre is the talk show genre, with programmes such as The Oprah Winfrey Show or Dr. Phill. Shows like that feature a host who interviews guests or discusses a chosen topic using the studio as a platform to inspire, educate or entertain the audience, usually offering people, who watch from their homes, the chance to call and express their opinions about the topics discussed live. Probably though, the most popular subgenre of reality programmes is the game show genre, with shows such as Survivor and Big Brother, which have had huge success worldwide over the years. With Survivor featuring isolated contestants in the wildness who compete against each other for money and other prizes and Big Brother, featuring a group of people known as ‘housemates’, living together in a specially constructed house, isolated from the outside world and competing with each other, facing weekly evictions in order to win a cash prize, both shows are based on competition and elimination concepts. Each episode of each show has the contestants faced against certain tasks, building up suspense and ensuring that the audience will watch until the very end to see the final result. With the participants being under 24 hour surveillance and all their actions observed, the audience can relate to them and decide who they like and who they do not.

Generally, reality television is one of the most popular television genres and with all its subgenres falls under the category of factual television, which documents non-fiction television programming and actual real life events. The fact that reality shows create a mixture of information and entertainment concepts for their audience is generally known as infotainment and is also another factor of the genre’s worldwide success (Hill, 2005).

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Apart from the ways reality television works though, it is also important to identify its success taking into consideration the audience’s point of view and how this genre challenges specific ideas about it. In the past, television asked only that people would sit back and relax, as scripted dramas, sitcoms or documentaries supplied passive entertainment and education. Reality television on the other hand, offers audience participation and shortens the distance between television celebrities and viewers. It is no wonder then that ‘one of the reasons the reality genre has been so powerful in the television market, is that it appeals to younger adults in particular’ (Hill, 2005). The reason is that people enjoy watching the elements of drama and competition of reality shows, since they can easily get attached to some of the characters, relate to them and feel part of their actions. They like to know what goes on behind closed doors, they find it intriguing and reality shows give them the chance to satisfy their curiosity. Also, reality shows reflect a freedom of speech that was not there before, since people can now comment about what they do and do not like about a show or a character and also change the outcome of a show with their votes. But no matter how much viewers enjoy the various reality formats, they are also distrustful of the authenticity, precisely because they know that the people’s stories are presented to them in an entertaining manner, and because of that they are sceptical about how staged and scripted those stories are.

There have also been several critiques and arguments about the reality genre and most of them are focused around the ‘reality’ of it, since the ways in which these shows reflect reality are questionable. The detractors of the genre claim that the reality of it is inaccurate, since the dialogs or situations presented are staged and scripted by the producers, or even the choosing of the participants in each show is done specifically, in order for certain participants to have high chances of engaging into conflict with each other. Also, producers can attempt to stimulate several events to present them as real, with various formats or editing techniques, which can create different degrees of ‘reality’ (Hill, 2005). For example, the way particular environments, related to each show, are unreal, because of how they are specifically constructed by the producers for the needs of the show or how the day by day activities, tasks or competitions that participants face are also controlled by the production team (e.g. the large house of Big Brother, or the tasks of the Survivor participants). Other critiques focus around how certain shows, like The X-Factor: Auditions for example, depend on humiliating and exploiting participants that might not be as talented or suitable to be on television, in order to increase the ratings of the show, or depend on the show’s voyeuristic elements, such as performances of intimate elements in public, in order to satisfy some viewers’ needs to observe other people’s lives (Bagdasarov et al. 2010). Also, some shows rely on stereotypes along with humiliation of participants, resulting to more criticism about them. A famous incident of people judging someone on their appearance instead of their talent is Susan Boyle’s audition (YouTube) for the reality programme Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. By the time she had set food on the stage, the audience, as well as the judges, were expecting her to have no talent and make a fool of herself, because of her modest introduction on the stage and her age. But after she started singing and proved to be extremely talented, everyone was applauding in shock. Stereotyping is a usual element of reality shows and many people criticize the genre for having a negative cultural impact, since such notions and ideas are easily spread and absorbed by society, especially if they come from the most popular television shows.

Additionally, based on Blumler and Katz’s (1974) uses and gratifications approach, the audience is active and able to select the media content that, based on their gratifications, will satisfy their needs. Therefore, their viewing motives can help the television programme producers predict activity (Godlewski and Perse, 2010). Also, reality television seems to fulfil the alleged, by the uses and gratifications approach, audience needs, which are surveillance, personal relationships, personal identity and escapism. That way they provide a type of show suitable for everyone’s taste.

Based on the aforementioned research though, how real can reality television formats be considered and what does the genre’s huge success show about how the audience responds to it? If people enjoy watching reality television programmes then they are also aware of how they can be edited to appear real and authentic to them, when in fact they are not. They are able to identify what they perceive to be good and bad programming and they are not usually watching reality shows to educate themselves about several subjects or understand more about the world. On the contrary, people watch reality shows to entertain themselves, to relax after a tiring day, to laugh and to feel intrigued and excited. They know that the more ‘real’ and entertaining a show appears to them, the less real and authentic they believe it to be (Hill, 2005), therefore they observe the participants of these shows in order to witness how people handle awkward situations and social dilemmas in front of cameras.

All things considered, it is undeniable that the reality television genre is still one of the most popular genres today and even if audiences are aware of the genre’s illusion of reality, it still has a big appeal on them because it amuses them and because of its entertaining and relaxing concepts. For a short period of time, people can feel like a part of the show, a little closer to being the celebrities and the stars of television. Therefore, scripted or not, real or not, the reality genre will continue to be successful and as television programmes continue to develop and allow more interaction between the programmes and their audiences, it is very important that research around the interactive forms of reality television, which encourage increased audience activity, continue to be contacted.


  • Godlewski, Lisa R., and Elizabeth M. Perse. ‘Audience Activity And Reality Television: Identification, Online Activity, And Satisfaction’. Communication Quarterly 58.2 (1976): 148-169.
  • Hall, Alice. ‘Viewer’s Perceptions Of Reality Programs’. Communication Quarterly 54.2 (1976): 191-211.
  • Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Audiences And Popular Factual Television. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Murray, Susan, and Laurie Ouellette. Reality TV. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
  • YouTube,. ‘Susan Boyle Audition HD – FULL’. N.p., 2015. Web. 08 May 2015.


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