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Why Reality TV Shows Appeal To Viewers In America

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Ratings show us that Americans yearn for reality TV about as much as Kim Kardashian’s family says bible each time they swear they won’t get upset about another run around story. But while we think we’ve come to know the authenticity of reality TV stars on the flat screen what is there to say about the viewers who regularly watch reality TV? In a media based society the attraction of reality TV programs can primarily be explained by the media uses and gratifications approach, made by Blumer and Katz, as well as the social comparison theory, developed by Leon Festinger. Evidence supporting Blumer and Katz’s approach, and Festinger’s theory are: the fascinations people began to have with reality TV, the Snooki Effect, The Ethics of Reality TV, and the difference between social experiments vs. scripted reality sensibility. Other points as they relate to the attraction of reality TV that will be made along the way are the differences between an experiment and survey, the significance of content analysis, and main ideas behind social learning theory, agenda setting and the cultivation effect. Nonetheless reality TV gives fans an extra-aesthetic satisfaction of entertainment.

The major influences that led to scientific media research in terms of the attraction of reality TV programs were the fascinations people began to have with reality TV shows such as: “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “Temptation Island.” The uses and gratifications model approach, made by Blumer and Katz, helps justify the fascination that led to the scientific research. Blumer and Katz’s approach suggests that we choose to watch certain programs because it satisfies a need or gratify a pleasure. In doing so the viewer has four needs that trigger the attraction; diversion (the need to relax and escape), personal relationships (using the media to fulfil personal relationships), personal identity (using media to find out more about yourselves), and surveillance (using the media to find out what is going on around us).

In her article, “Why We Watch Them Sing and Dance: The Uses and Gratifications of Talent-Based Reality Television,” Kristin Barton explores the demands of reality TV shows that bestow people’s talents and force them to contest. Barton begins by defining reality TV and discussing the genre in a comprehensive sense. She then goes on to address the sub-genres within reality television and states that it is simpler to analyze studies by inspecting the specific sub genres. The article uses a myriad of studies and surveys that observe the sub-genre of talent-based reality television. The first survey asked people why they watch reality television, with responses such as “I like to picture myself as the contestant” and “I enjoy watching real people not actors.” Based on the responses Barton stated “the sub-genre of talent-based reality TV generally captures the use of personal identity” (Barton 232).

The idea of personal identity relates to another major influence, the social comparison theory, a theory that was developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, which centers on the belief that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations in which they turn to reality TV for. In a study that was done by the University of Arizona – Department of Communication to assess the differences between regular viewers and casual viewers of reality television two gratifications related to personal identity were examined: self-awareness and downward social comparison. Based on the results regular viewers significantly responded that they tune in to reality TV programs “primarily because they find it entertaining; they further enjoy getting a peek into others’ lives and the self-awareness, they acquire through viewing” (Nabi, 322). The study also found that those regular viewers found para-social relationships appealing. Finally, “regular viewers mildly disagreed that they watch because they are bored, to escape, to gain useful information, or for the social utility such viewing might provide” (Biely, 322).

To elaborate of the two most used media strategies that are often used together yet are so different reference to a textbook, Mass Communication – Chapter 18: Social Effects of Mass Communication will serve as a platform for explaining experiments and surveys. They are the two main quantitative techniques used to study the effects of mass communication. Experiments have shown that TV can produce prosocial behavior, and some evidence of this effect has been found in surveys.

The differences between experiments and surveys as media research strategies in terms of the attraction to reality TV is taken one step further. An experiment is now a social experiment where you see human nature with no manipulative variables. Where you would wait out for a result in a regular experiment, reality TV’s social experiment gives the overall description of reacting in an authentic manner instead of having a scripted reality sensibility. Some say that shows such as Keeping up with the Kardashians and Jersey Shore have a scripted reality sensibility because the reactions of the small screen stars do not seem realistic or probable enough that the mass audience can relate to. However, Utopia, a show that aired on FOX yet is now discontinued, took 15 people into an isolated location for a year and challenged them to create their own world. In her article “Why TV Networks Are Buzzing Over ‘Social Experiments’” Nordyke discusses how television networks that are now using social experiments as a central theme to see how people react within the show and viewing a show. “With a social experiment, you genuinely feel like the people are going through something that feels real and authentic. We’re seeing how people react to a certain situation in a real and authentic way” (Nordyke, 3). This form of experiment attracts viewers because human nature is raw in this aspect thus relatable and sociable.

As for surveys they relate back to the social comparison theory. Surveys are able to gather any type of data based on the questions provided. Many reality TV surveys are pointed towards gathering how they make the reality TV viewers feel. According to a national survey by the Girl Scout Research Institute, “Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV,” Teen girls who often view reality television anticipate a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives, while measuring themselves predominantly by their physical desirability. The survey found that the majority of girls, 86%, think that females on reality TV shows are intentionally plotted against each other to motivate anticipation. “Girls today are bombarded with media – reality TV and otherwise – that more frequently portrays girls and women in competition with one another rather than in support or collaboration. This perpetuates a ‘mean-girl’ stereotype and normalizes this behavior among girls,” states Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Ph.D., developmental psychologist, Girl Scouts of the USA. “We don’t want girls to avoid reality TV, but want them, along with their parents, to know what they are getting into when they watch it” (Bastiani, 1).

The attraction of reality TV can also be explained through content analysis which is a method for summarizing any form of content by counting various aspects of the content. This enables a more objective evaluation than comparing content based on the impressions of a listener. Content analysis is significant as it relates back to media research strategies. The main reason for doing content analysis is to be able to make links between causes (e.g. reality TV) and effect (e.g. viewers). Content analysis is primarily used for statistics. The following statistics are provided from Time magazine: “Seventy-five percent of girls say that reality TV depicts people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Furthermore, 65% say such shows introduce new ideas and perspectives, 62% say the shows have raised their awareness of social issues and causes, and 59% have been taught new things that they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise.” Based on these statistics content analysis shows that there is a correlation between reality TV and its viewers. Each statistics also relates back to most of the needs of the media uses and gratifications approach.

There are many main ideas behind the social learning theory, agenda setting, and the cultivation theory. Those of the social learning theory are human behavior is learned through cognitive factors, behavioral factors, and environmental factors. Behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning, proposed by Elbert Bandura in 1965 and later called social cognitive theory. To test his theory he created the Bo-Bo Doll experiment in 1966 that posed when children were shown aggression they were going to model it. Bandura’s social learning theory parallels that of Festinger’s social comparison theory. In terms on reality TV viewers are using observational learning, also known as the monkey-see-monkey-do effect, primarily while watching reality TV to help gain accurate self-evaluations.

The main idea behind the agenda-setting effect allows the media to have the ability to choose and emphasize certain topics. Agenda setting typically concerns itself with information media. In the book The Ethics of Reality TV: A Philosophical Examination edited by Wendy N. Wyatt and Kristie Bunton, James Poniewozik asks in the foreword if reality TV is ethical and then answers his own questions by saying it is not. In chapter two, ‘Stereotypes: Reality TV Both Creator and Confronter’, Burton explores the ethical critique of reality TV stereotypes. Burton begins by describing ABC’s The Bachelor as “its most highly-rated, popular romance reality series which features a handsome bachelor looking for his soulmate from among 25 bachelorettes” (Burton, 10). She then goes on to use The Bachelor as a platform to answer two primary ethical questions (i) do reality producers have a duty not to cast and edit their shows in ways that foster stereotypes? (ii) do reality viewers have a duty not to accept the stereotypes some reality programs contain?

To answer the first question Burton explains the findings of eighteenth century philosopher Kant who said people are not driven by good will. “Producers actively foster false impressions of groups of people for ratings or profit” (Burton, 12). What she means by this is producers bestow an unrealistic way of finding love in the ABC show The Bachelor in hopes that viewers will watch the drama that will most likely unfold given the circumstances of an extreme case of an open relationship between a man and 25 women. To answer the second question Burton uses Kant’s findings and applies them to viewers by saying “The most vulnerable stakeholder in the reality television stereotyping situation would seem to be the person who shares the identity characteristics of those who are stereotyped by the program but who has not volunteered to participate in a program that depicts those characteristics stereotypically” (Burton, 12). Burton means to say viewers who watch The Bachelor identify with the characters who are genuinely there to find love (viewers accepting stereotypes), however, they do not participate in the love at first sight concept (viewers rejecting stereotypes). Having these tolerant and intolerant ideas cause the viewer to be more attracted to reality TV because they are fascinated with the overall idea of a deliberate fairytale existing.

Lastly, the main idea behind the cultivation analysis suggests that heavy TV viewing “cultivates” perceptions of reality consistent with the view of the world presented in television programs. To further elaborate on this idea the question of whether the “Snooki effect” causes people to watch surveillance-type reality television shows to develop attitudes as a result of the show is asked. Or do people simply enjoy watching shows that emphasize their own prevailing beliefs about the world? In his article “Is There a ‘Snooki-Effect?,’” Romeo Vitelli provides statistics to present the effects of the “Snooki-Effect” to further explain the cultivation theory. People who watch significant amounts of television violence are more likely to be desensitized to violence while people who watch dating programs cultivate unrealistic ideas about real-life romantic relationships. Vitelli goes on to say “as always, correlation proves causation.” (Vitelli, 3). In other words Vitelli means to say the “Snooki-Effect” does indeed cause faithful reality TV viewers to perceive the world as the programs depict life on TV.

The attraction of reality TV is primarily explained by the media uses and gratifications approach and the social comparison theory. In addition other factors contribute to explaining the effects of the attraction and viewing reality TV such as social learning theory, agenda-setting, and cultivation analysis, which hugely affects how girls perceive the outside world.

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