The Reality of Reality TV

This spring break, I was fortunate to enjoy a full-blown line up of cable channels for the first time in over 6 months, and I have to say I was super excited and intrigued to catch up on Reality TV’s finest: anything from a Jersey Shore marathon, the latest ice-trucking adventures, Junior still battling his old man at American Choppers, Swamp People, or state troopers out in Alaska – I feel totally cultured now and realize that I’m missing out on all this great stuff for my research!

But to get serious here for a moment, what I noticed last week is that Reality TV apparently still draws audiences despite or rather because of our post-network era in which “Television might continue to provide a cultural forum for those who tune in to a particular show, but it has become increasingly unlikely that television functions as a space for the negotiation of contested beliefs among diverse groups simply because audiences are now more narrow and specialized” (p. 33) as Amanda Lotz argues.

Reality TV is just as much “in fashion” as it was during its initial Big Brother boom in the early 2000s. Reality TV as a format is clearly not in decline despite several critical Frankfurt School followers probably desperately wishing for its demise. So what should we make of Reality TV and what does it say about our culture, society, and identity? What follows is a quick look at some of the more recent literature in Critical Media Studies that I came across in different classes during my MA and over the past year engaging with these questions.

In “Performing the Real” John Corner (2002) examines Big Brother as a form of “post-documentary,” in which scopical appeal, forms of talk, and narrative system are radically re-addressed with a different emphasis on “exchange value,” as well as a point where documentary is no longer classifiable as a “discourse of sobriety.” One can hereby wonder whether formats such as Big Brother are to be hailed as exemplary when there are many issues of the infringement of civil liberties, 24/7surveillance – “whereas Orwell’s Big Broter used surveillance to inhibit terms of normal living in private space, Big Brother promotes abnormal terms of living within surveillance space” (Corner, p. 257)?

While more enthusiastic scholars such as John Hartley praise the emergence of Reality TV as a deployment of “democratainment” and Nick Couldry lauds that “ordinary people have never been more desired by, or more visible within, the media; nor have their own utterances ever been reproduced with the faithfulness, respect and accuracy they are today“ (Couldry, 2003: 102), Graeme Turner (2006) argues that the way “ordinary people” are allowed to participate in these Reality TV formats is not democratic, but rather constitutes a “demotic turn,” in which the accelerated commodity life cycle of the celetoid has emerged as “an effective industrial solution to the problem of satisfying demand” (p. 156).

Beverly Skegg’s “The Moral Economy of Person Production” (2010) takes a critical stance on Reality TV as well by highlighting how it offers “a visible barometer of a person’s moral value.” Skegg’s nicely demonstrates how Piere Bourdieu’s notion of social class as comprised of capitals – economic, symbolic, social, and culture – is notably visible in these formats as these reality TV shows repeatedly code the working class as abject with their emphasis on “proper emotion management” and “self-responsibility.”

Similarly, in his freshly released book “The Cultural Politics of Post-9/11 American Sport” Michael Silk (2012) explores (bio)-pedagogies of the self – contrasting the valorized neoliberal corpus and the ‘post-9/11 pariah’ of reality TV’s The Biggest Loser. Engaging with Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” Silk shows how TBL explicitly maintains the boundary between the bodies proper that fulfill the ‘obligations’ of participatory democratic citizenship (through fitness consumption) and those constitutive socially, morally, and economically pathologized and demonized outsiders— ‘the public pollutants’ (p. 86) who are unfit, unhealthy, and present a national threat demanding a domestic war on terror.

David Marshall’s “Celebrity Studies. The Promotion and Presentation of the Self” (2010) argues that with Reality TV and social networking sites, we have entered into a phase where celebrity discourse of the self both forebodes and works as a “pedagogical tool” for presentational media and its users. It is no longer enough to be represented by media, but the emphasis is now on active performance and construction of the self, whereby “The public self is constantly worked upon and updated in its on-line form to both maintain its currency and acknowledge its centrality to the individual’s identity, which is dependent upon its network of connections to sustain the life of the on-line persona” (p. 42).

Now, Marshall’s notion of “pedagogical work” for my taste here sounds rather naively positivistic and I’m a bit apprehended by his deterministic perspective that “celebrities teach the world” where narratives of divorce, drunkenness and other deviant social behavior create “a different public sphere than that constructed through the official histories of a culture” (p. 37), however he may actually get us to a better understanding of the populace’s expanding desire to be part of such a widening public that is provided by these numerous Reality TV formats.

Lastly, in “Watching Television Without Pity,” Mark Andrejevic’s (2008) observes some official and fan websites of popular television series and explores the TWoP portal to “elucidate the ways in which creative activity and exploitation coexist and interpenetrate one another within the context of the emerging online economy” (p. 25). He hereby takes a rather “demystifying” look at interactivity and audience participation and arguing that the recent hype about interactivity has not transformed media but symbolizes “participatory submission”: “Such is the fate of the savvy viewer: to search for the redeeming value of the media not in the content—over which their newly enhanced, interactive participation has little influence—but in understanding why their participation must be ineffective, in their insider knowledge of how the system works. Within this context, the lure of interactivity loses some of its luster. Rather than a progressive challenge to a nonparticipatory medium, it offers to divert the threat of activism into the productive activity of marketing and market research. Interactivity turns out to be rather more passive than advertised“ (p. 40).

As these scholars demonstrate Reality TV provides ample research material, whether one looks at characteristics of the format, people’s participation and performance, or larger issues of “governmentality” in a neo-liberal context. Next time you tune into “American Weeds” or “Shahs of Sunset” you may want to keep some these thoughts in mind …

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Reality of Reality TV

  1. Somewhat off topic, but I’ve found it increasingly ironic that I have no time to watch television or movies (and no cable or Netflix) because of my graduate program in media studies.

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