Reality television, once referred to as “Trash TV” by scholars and commentators, has captivated the viewing habits of individuals throughout many countries.
The global interest in reality television exhibits regional variations, as indicated by a recent Statista’s Consumer Insights study on September 28, 2023, authored by Katharina Buchholz.
South Africans and Indians are notable for their high consumption of this genre, displaying a strong affinity for talent contests, celebrity dramas, and lively cooking competitions.
In contrast, it is seen that audiences in Mexico, Spain, and France exhibit a higher level of restraint, as only a small proportion of their respective populations, ranging from 10 to 20 percent, partake in the consumption of reality television programming.
In the United States, it was observed that approximately 36 percent of the television and streaming audience exhibits a preference for reality TV shows (Buchholz, 2023).
Figure: Latest detail of Highest viewers of Reality TV around the world.
Source: Statistita (2023)
The emergence of reality television may be traced back to the 1990s. The emergence of early formats such as MTV’s ‘The Real World’ and the long-lasting ‘Survivor’ can be credited with pioneering the reality television genre, despite the existence of less widely known European predecessors (Piper, 2006).
The emergence of reality TV was facilitated by a notable characteristic, namely its cost-effectiveness in production, rendering it a financially feasible choice for television networks (Hill, 2005).
It is worth noting that the emergence of the acclaimed crime reality drama ‘COPS’ can be attributed partly to the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, which resulted in a scarcity of scripted programming (Andrejevic, 2004). During the 2000s, reality television programming was primarily characterized by competition-oriented formats.
However, in the subsequent decade, the 2010s, there was a notable increase in the popularity of reality series centered around celebrities. One of the pioneering examples of this trend was ‘The Simple Life’, which aired from 2003 to 2007 and featured Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie (Holmes and Jermyn, 2004).
Reality TV in West Africa:
In the West African context, with Ghana being a focal point, reality TV has witnessed an escalating interest over the past decade. Ghana, in particular, has produced and consumed a slew of reality shows that focus on themes from talent discovery to entrepreneurial skills (GhanaWeb, 2023). Programs like ‘Ghana’s Most Beautiful’, which seeks to celebrate Ghanaian women’s cultural heritage and diversity, and ‘MTN Hitmaker’, a musical talent discovery show, have enjoyed significant viewership.
Similarly, West Africa has embraced reality TV with shows like ‘Big Brother Naija’ in Nigeria gaining national and continental traction. This spike in consumption can be attributed to several factors including a burgeoning youth population hungry for representation, increased access to satellite and digital television, and a general shift towards localised content that speaks to the region’s unique sociocultural nuances (Pahad et al., 2015). This trend aligns with the global upsurge of reality TV, but with a distinct West African flavour that merges entertainment with socio-cultural reflection.
The allure and impact of reality TV:
The evolution and adaptability of reality TV have been truly unparalleled. This genre boasts a vast array of sub-genres, ranging from documentary-style productions to competitive game formats and romance-driven shows. Intriguingly, the ascension of reality TV can be correlated with a larger societal gravitation towards a surveillance culture.
In this evolving landscape, individuals have grown more comfortable both as subjects under observation and as observers themselves, facilitated by technological advancements (Andrejevic, 2004). This synergy between reality TV and surveillance culture has culminated in a ‘participatory culture’. No longer are viewers mere passive recipients of content; they now play an active role in contributing to, discussing, and engaging with the narratives they watch (Jenkins, 2006).
Delving into the psychological intricacies of reality TV’s appeal reveals deeper layers. Academic discourses suggest that such shows offer a platform for viewers to identify, introspect, and perhaps even evolve. Hill (2005) has posited that reality TV mirrors societal constructs, reflecting its hopes, principles, and underlying tensions. This genre masterfully balances escapism with realism; while the allure of entertainment and drama remains a pull factor, audiences are equally captivated by its ostensible portrayal of ‘real life’ and genuine individuals (Couldry, 2003).
However, reality TV is not devoid of criticisms. Its portrayal of ‘real life’ can, at times, be misleading. Production techniques, such as selective editing, intentional staging, or even scripting, are employed to heighten the drama, potentially distorting genuine narratives and perpetuating stereotypes (Escoffery, 2006). The incessant observation and the resultant pressures associated with being perpetually ‘on show’ can adversely impact the mental well-being of participants. Many grapple with the challenges of public scrutiny, cyberbullying, and heightened stress (Nabi et al., 2006).
From an audience perspective, particularly among younger demographics, there are legitimate concerns about internalizing the aggression, materialism, and shallow values that some reality shows might propagate (Bryant, 2014).
Moreover, the overwhelming presence of reality TV on certain broadcasting networks may inadvertently stifle the creation and broadcast of more intellectually stimulating and artistically rich content (Collins, 2009).
Reality TV, with its vast expanse and multifaceted appeal, undeniably holds a firm place in contemporary media culture. While it offers an intriguing blend of entertainment, representation, and interaction, viewers and producers alike must navigate its landscape judiciously, recognising both its merits and its potential pitfalls. As media consumers, fostering a discerning approach ensures that we appreciate reality TV for its strengths while remaining critically aware of its limitations.
Andrejevic, M. (2004). Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Rowman and Littlefield.
Bryant, J. (2014). The Children’s Television Community. Routledge. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/4ch7uhmr
Buchholz, K. (2023). The Nations Keeping It Real on Their TV Screens. Reality TV. https://www.statista.com/search/?q=The+Nations+Keeping+It+Real+on+Their+TV+ScreensandSearch=andp=1
Collins, K. (2009) Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows. Continuum.
Couldry, N. (2003). Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. Routledge.
Escoffery, D.S. (2014). How Real is Reality TV? Essays on Representation and Truth. McFarland and Company. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/5cm86dsf
GhanaWeb. (2023, September 28). US-based Ghanaian family makes it to Hollywood with new reality TV show. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/47w9brjc
Hill, A. (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. Routledge.
Hill, A. (2014). Reality tv. Routledge.
Holmes, S., and Jermyn, D. (2004). Understanding Reality Television. Routledge. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/2kzjemnr
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press.
Nabi, R. L., Biely, E. N., Morgan, S. J., and Stitt, C. R. (2006). Reality-based television programming and the psychology of its appeal. Media Psychology, 8(1), 27-47.
Pahad, A., Karkare, N., and Bhatt, M. (2015). Influence of Reality Television Shows on Society. Social Science, 5(4). ISSN – 2249-555X.
Piper, H. (2006). Understanding Reality Television – Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television – Reality TV: Realism and Revelation. Screen, 47(1), 133–138. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/hjl012
Source: Ghana Web