The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Idol, Project Runway, Masterchef, Big Brother, Love Island, Survivor, Insert-Country-Here’s Got Talent, The Voice, X Factor, The Real Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Next Top Model, The Biggest Loser, Married at First Sight…
All of these television shows have at least three things in common; they are all reality television programs, which have versions in multiple different international countries, and all have audience engagement through social media.
Reality television is an interesting beast. While there are typically two common agreed upon characteristics of reality TV – non-actors or real people as the main characters playing themselves, in an unscripted format – these are just the basics of what ‘reality television’ is. There is also added elements of narrative format, filmed in situations, as opposed to on a set or with a live audience, and with the primary purpose of entertainment (Glascock & Preston-Schreck 2018, p 428).
It is also one of the most popular television formats; in 2016, reality television made up 50 percent of the top 50 Australian television shows.
Why is the genre so popular? And why do so many reality television shows cross borders, getting their own local version of a show created somewhere else?
Firstly, if a show is popular in one, two, or three other countries, it is appealing to international media companies and television producers, as there is a minimal financial risk and a proven track record of it working with at least one, and often multiple, different audiences (Oren & Shahaf 2013).
This is because the themes and content in reality television programs are often uniquely positioned to speak to universal national identities; family, home, love and competition, to name a few.
Also, in 2018, reality television is easy to market and gain traction through the use of social media. “Live tweeting” during airings of shows such as The Bachelor, Married at First Sight and My Kitchen Rules, is now almost part of the show itself, and definitely makes up part of the entertainment. For example, the hashtags for the reality shows are often trending on social media on the night the shows are airing, and articles are written in the days following, made up almost exclusively of the funniest tweets from the show that week. This engagement by the audience on the internet is carried over through the creation of memes and gifs.
I’m just not entirely sure that anyone who goes on a TV show to compete for a boyfriend has the right to call anyone else ‘desperate’. #TheBachelorAU
— Jo Thornely (@jothornely) August 23, 2018
Another contributing factor, and one of the most universal, is the fact that “reality television is a staple in contemporary television and is a site of a considerable amount of aggression enacted by its male and female stars,” (Scharrer & Blackburn 2017) and audiences love watching ‘real people’ engage in drama and have disagreements, conflict and fights on-screen.
This is evident in the casting choices – there is always a ‘pot-stirrer’ character, or conflicting personalities, no matter the type of reality television show or the country it is set in – and in the tweets sent in by audiences, proving that those watching reality television are there for the fights, controversy, and to passionately rally against or with certain ‘characters’. Whether it is because we love sass, schadenfreude or seeing people fail (or succeed), the fact is, people love to watch ‘real life’ drama, hence, the popularity of reality television.
The proliferation of reality television merging with social media and the internet shows that people in today’s media landscape want to engage with the shows they’re watching in more than one way, and reality television is easier to do this with than other television genres.
Glascock, J & Preston-Schreck, C 2018, ‘Verbal Aggression, Race and Sex on Reality TV: Is The Really The Way It Is?’, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol 62, no 3, pp 427 – 444, (link).
Oren, T & Shahaf, S 2013, ‘Global Television Formats: Understanding Television Across Borders’, Routledge.
Scharrer, E & Blackburn, G 2017, ‘Is Reality TV a Bad Girls Club? Television Use, Docusoap Reality Television Viewing, and the Cultivation of the Approval of Aggression’, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, vol 95, no 1, pp 235 – 257, (link).