What’s ‘reality’? Whatever it is, we’re completely fascinated

Cast of the MTV show “Jersey Shore”

Reality TV has found its way into American homes in more ways than one.

First, there are those who watch reality TV. Second, there are those who actually have TV cameras installed in their homes.

No matter what side of the TV a person is on, reality-based programming has proliferated at a tenacious rate from the summer of 2000, when “Survivor” and “Big Brother” were the only two reality shows offered on network TV, to the dozens of shows now running on channels ranging from TLC to Animal Planet.

“Survivor” started its 21st season Wednesday, Sept. 15, and other reality-based shows soon will follow when the fall TV season gets into full swing by the first week of October.

Mixed among new fall comedies or cop shows are “old” programs such as “Dancing with the Stars” with its 11th season beginning Monday, Sept. 20, and “The Amazing Race,” which begins its 17th season on Sunday, Sept. 26.

Although it could be debated as to whether shows like “Dancing with the Stars” are even reality TV — there’s no debauchery and drama a la MTV’s “Jersey Shore” — it is significant that people talk about, even argue over, the merits and popularity of reality-based shows.

Mesa State College social psychologist Brian Parry has some ideas why people are fascinated by reality TV; however, even he admitted that the phenomenon is so recent — 10 years or so — that his peers are still collecting data to find a definitive answer.

Initially, Parry said, psychologists thought people watched reality TV as voyeurs wanting nothing more than to peek into the lives of complete strangers. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, according to a report in the September 2001 issue of Psychology Today magazine.

A study done via survey found that Americans who were drawn to reality TV were intrigued by the idea that regular people could become famous overnight. Furthermore, those Americans liked their role in making reality stars famous.

“The fact that millions of Americans were watching them, means (those reality stars) must be important,” Parry said.

An example of what the study, conducted early in the reality TV era, found was seen in the show “Survivor” and its early contestants, who were regular people selected to compete against strangers with friendship and betrayal to win cold hard cash. Some of those first contestants, and dozens of reality TV personalities since then, parlayed their reality appearance into money and notoriety.

The notion that people saw themselves becoming rich and famous by being on “Survivor,” or on reality TV in general, is an integral part of the success of that type of programming, Parry said.

“Ordinary people imagine themselves doing it on their own,” he said.

The lure of reality TV doesn’t stop there, of course. Some shows that aired in the past three years feature “stars” whose lives are so upsetting that it helps some viewers feel better about themselves, Parry said.

Some examples of shows that fit the mold of train-wreck TV include:

“Jersey Shore,” which highlights the lead characters’ love for fighting, partying and hooking up.

“The Bachelor Pad,” in which contestants from previous seasons of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” live in one house and compete for a grand prize. The producers promised “drama.”

“The Cougar,” a dating show featuring a 40-something divorcee/mother who dates men in their 20s.

“Jon and Kate Plus 8,” which had Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children — twins and sextuplets — living in front of cameras. The Gosselins’ marriage very publicly failed, leading to discussions of divorce and fighting on TV ... while millions of people watched. The show was canceled, only to come back as “Kate Plus 8.”

Reality-based shows have become popular and continue to be popular with millions of people because it can be difficult for some to believe that there are real people who have no shame, Parry said.

“People kind of like to see people fall,” Parry said. “It reminds us, in some way, shape or form, that we are still good in terms of being better than someone else.”

Katie Landers, a Grand Valley mother of five, loves watching reality TV and can understand Parry’s points.

But, she noted, there is an additional, simplistic reason why she watches the shows,  and it has nothing to do with feeling better about herself or wanting to be famous. She loves the drama.

“It’s the best part,” said Landers, 29.

She estimates that she watches more than five programs regularly thanks to her DVR system, so she can stay up late and catch up on the drama after her children go to bed.

Landers has a wide interest in reality-based programming, tuning into MTV’s “Real World,” which began in 1992 and may be the inspiration for this era of reality TV, as well as “Survivor.”

Landers’ husband watches the History Channel’s “Top Shot,” a competition-type of format along the lines of “American Idol” or “The Next Iron Chef.”

Both Landers and Parry said it has been interesting to watch the evolution of reality-based programming, from those early-decade shows with normal folks (or at least those thought to be “normal”) to more recent shows with people who have become famous for no other reason than that they are on TV — “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or “Real Housewives of Atlanta.”

It all makes Parry question whether reality TV is even properly named.

“It should be called fantasy TV,” Parry said. “It’s an escape from reality to ‘reality.’ ... What’s going to happen 10 years from now?”


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