Reality TV is trashy, right? Many people think it plays to our basest desires, giving us cheap, stupid entertainment without forcing us to have any of those pesky thoughts or feelings related to actual art. Reality TV is the modern circus, the opiate of the masses that religion once was. It holds no true value in the world.
The attitude that reality television is low culture and thus undeserving of study is common in the Ivory Tower of elite college campuses, academic think tanks and news media. But despite this distaste for reality TV, nothing about it is meaningfully different from any other form of television: Studios balance high upfront production costs with the hope for massive ad revenues from a successful show. Each show is thus beset by a series of sometimes conflicting incentives: to maximize viewership, win over advertisers and stay on the good side of studio executives. Pop culture tends to focus only on the first of these incentives, critiquing and examining what leads people to tune in to “Jersey Shore” or “Cake Boss.”
The rise of reality TV, however, came largely due to studio executives rather than the public. Compared to a scripted program, with paid union actors and expensive location shots, reality programs can be filmed for a far lower cost per episode. For many less successful niche cable TV networks, from The Learning Channel to the Food Network, reality television offered an easy way to fill up timeslots with original programming that didn’t break the bank.
The easy production process of reality television sometimes results in shows with problematic premises. For example, fetishization of the exotic is a driving staple of reality TV, with television programs focusing on polygamy (“Sister Wives”), weight management (“Biggest Loser”) and many other specific lifestyles (“Amish Mafia” and “Duck Dynasty” come to mind). These representations can drive intolerance or ignorance regarding the groups that the shows focus on.
When “Biggest Loser” couches their unsafe weight loss program in a rhetoric of personal success and responsibility, it absolutely affects the way its viewers think about weight management. The “real” element of reality TV can cause viewers to take the shows’ biases more seriously, potentially fueling prejudice and ignorance toward the shows’ subjects.
Reality TV is not, by its nature, regressive. Positive media portrayals of oppressed groups can challenge stereotypes incredibly effectively. When Pedro Zamora appeared as an HIV positive gay man on “The Real World” at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, millions of people saw a positive representation of life with HIV for the first time. In a climate of fear, where many people saw AIDS as divine justice from God and many more were afraid merely to touch gay men because they might be infected, this positive portrayal led to real advancement in promoting better public health policies.
Given that reality TV has done both good and harm to the world, it seems that a debate on whether or not reality TV is “good” is beside the point. Instead of judging TV, make it better. Reward shows you find innovative and inclusive, and reject those that are offensive or prejudiced. Take part in fan communities and challenge viewers who spout offensive views. Whether we like reality TV or not, it’s not going anywhere, so instead ought to challenge reality TV providers and viewers to use the medium of reality television for good.