Fist-pumping beachgoers. Singers competing for millions. Survivors outwitting, outlasting and outplaying. Turn on the television and chances are you’ll see all of these things. Whether you’re watching MTV, OWN or a main broadcast network, nearly every channel is home to reality television.
Reality TV exploded in the early 2000’s, and still remains one of today’s most popular genres. In 1999, the most popular shows on TV were E.R., Friends and Frasier, according to the Nielsen ratings. During the week of March 12, 2012, Nielsen’s top three shows on primetime, broadcast network TV were American Idol – Wednesday, American Idol – Thursday, and The Voice; all reality programs.
While reality television has increased in prevalence for more than a decade, the effect it’s having on viewers is still widely unknown.
Dr. Peter Christenson, a professor of rhetoric and media studies at Lewis and Clark College, said that because the medium is still new, comprehensive studies of reality television and its effects are limited.
“I don’t think we know that much yet,” Christenson said. “It’s difficult to draw the cause and effect type of conclusion.”
Christenson co-authored a study in 2006 that analyzed reality television programs with medical and health themes. He found that, while the shows did seem to inspire healthier behavior in some viewers, there was a lot of emphasis placed on superficiality – something, which over time, he said, may have an effect on viewers’ body image and self esteem.
Dr. Brad Gorham, chair of the Communications Department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said studies have shown that television does have an effect.
“All TV shows, not just reality shows, help construct scenarios that demonstrate how some behaviors will be rewarded or punished,” Gorham said. “The concern is that frequent viewers of these shows will learn these behaviors, see them as desirable and then model them in the actual real world.”
Gorham said one of the reasons there are so many reality shows currently on television is because they are profitable for networks.
“Reality shows are much cheaper to produce than scripted dramas or sitcoms, so they need fewer viewers in order to become profitable for the network,” Gorham said. “It all comes down to money, and reality shows are good short-term performers.”
With the focus on profit, some worry networks don’t pay enough attention to the negative stereotypes reality programs can illustrate and perpetuate.
Sherri Williams, a PhD. candidate and adjunct instructor at Syracuse University, said that casting decisions in reality television seem to be based on stereotypes – a notion she finds to be problematic.
“It seems that reality show directors and producers are not looking to cast whole, complete people. They’re casting types, and that leads to stereotyping,” Williams said.
Williams also notes that many reality programs demonstrate behavior, but never show the characters facing the results of their actions.
“There aren’t any consequences on these shows, and that’s problematic.”
While Williams said she does take issue with a lot of the reality programs on television, she acknowledges that it’s not all bad.
Williams, whose research focuses on media diversity, said shows such as The Family Crews and Being Terry Kennedy on BET are positive programs, in that they demonstrate counter-stereotypical black male behavior. Williams also said Mary Mary on WETV, and Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s on OWN are positive reality programs that combat negative stereotypes.
Jaime Riccio, a graduate student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, is in the midst of researching reality television and the effect it’s having on youth culture in the United States.
In 2010, Riccio said she began conducting a series of focus groups, interviews and surveys on the subject. What she’s found is that reality television is leading to more dramatic tendencies in everyday life among young adults.
“Because there is so much of that now that is being broadcast and that people are consuming, it is having an overarching effect on our youth culture,” Riccio said. “It’s an interesting area to look at, because it’s so new, and I think it’s something we’re going to have to look at even further in the future.”
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