The prominence of cable television in recent decades has greatly expanded the amount of programs that are available to viewers on television today.Since television sets first made it into private family homes decades ago, watching television has been, and has continued to be, an American past-time.Though the interest in television has remained constant, the nature of programs broadcasted on television has changed along with the rest of American culture.This increasing diversity and variety of television programs aired in today’s age has given rise to a special genre: reality television.
Reality television first set down roots from the mid- 1940s to the 1950's.The first widely known reality program was Allen Funt's “Candid Camera,” which started as a radio broadcast in 1947.Funt used hidden microphones and cameras to catch unsuspecting people in random, funny, and embarrassing acts worldwide, all in the spirit of laughter.Funt's preoccupation with catching people off-guard and making them laugh at themselves became a huge phenomenon that ultimately evolved into a TV show on ABC Radio Network in 1948.The show became a massive hit because of Funt's ability to create good humor and laughter amongst the audience, as well as with the “victim” (“About Candid Camera”).
Reality TV later evolved from humor and laughter into documentary and drama with the emergence of the police show “Nightwatch” (1954-1955), which tape-recorded the daily activities of Culver City police officers.Furthering this phenomenon many years later was the hit show “COPS”, which debuted in 1989.Watching eager policemen chase and beat down criminals on city streets in an unscripted documentary format was unheard of at the time, and the excitement enticed viewers from the start.The production of these reality cop chases were especially elevated due to the 1988 Writers’ Guild of America Strike.With scripted sitcoms at this time put on hold, recording reality adventures proved to be a successful back-up plan.It was here that the “camcorder look” and “cinéma vérité” feel later associated with reality television was first introduced (Fishman and Cavender, 118).The use of low grade video quality is enticing to both artist and documentarist show-makers, as the “intimate and confessional style” of the image fosters a sense of subjectivity for the viewer, bringing him or her closer to the presence and process of the production (Dovey, 57).
The novel recording methods used in “COPS” and other reality shows redefined the costs of producing popular TV shows.Typically an hour-long drama can cost up to approximately $1.5 million per hour to produce, whereas a half-hour reality program can cost as little as $200,000 per hour (Hill, 34).With cheaper production methods and a growing audience, the value of networks’ investments in reality TV shows was inevitable.Since television networks could afford to produce more low-cost reality shows, they began to produce them in higher numbers, thus providing audiences with more reality content to choose from.
Because of the audience attraction to the genre and the wide variety of topics covered, reality television programs draw more revenue in advertisements than the top sitcoms.In 2000, the reality game show “Survivor” garnered staggering ratings, becoming the #1 television show in American network primetime (27 million viewers) and earned CBS, in the final three episodes of the season alone, an estimated $50 million in advertising revenue.In 2002, the finale of the talent show “American Idol” (Fox, USA) attracted 23 million viewers, and a market share of 30 percent, with almost half of the country’s teenage female viewers tuning in.With numbers such as these, “American Idol” became “the most watched non-sports show” in the history of the Fox network.While only 15 million viewers watched the #1 crime drama series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS) and sitcom “Friends” (NBC) in February 2003, the finale of the reality dating show “Joe Millionaire” drew 40 million viewers.With reality shows consistently drawing in ratings higher than those of other shows during primetime on American television (Hill, 67), networks continue to produce them in mass quantities.
As reality shows’ revenues have grown to monumental proportions, so have the entertainment career opportunities for their characters.For example, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from MTV’s hit show “Jersey Shore” is currently participating in the newest season of “Dancing with the Stars”, alongside veteran actors David Hasselhoff (“Baywatch”) and Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).Mike also just released his own top-selling iPhone application, aptly called “The Situation”.This application allows users to live the life of this reality star by participating in what the “Jersey Shore” cast calls “GTL”, also known as “gym, tan laundry”.The application also has a GPS navigation system that will lead users to their nearest gyms, tanning salons and laundromats as well as best clubs in town to live the life of the most-watched reality TV crew (“‘The Situation’ in Apple's Top 10-grossing Apps”).This is just one example of how reality stars have been able to branch their fame into other mediums of media, and the role of convergence in contributing to this cycle.With the fame gained through participation in reality television, reality stars have increasingly made themselves known in other realms of media, creating even bigger audiences worldwide.
Reality television substantiates a postmodernist world where media images inherently determine what society considers real.For instance, the MTV reality show “The Hills” documents the lives of hip young women, tackling the fashion and entertainment world of Hollywood while also juggling relationships and plastic surgery (see Heidi Montag).What show-makers neglect to impart to viewers is that characters on the show are on tight schedules and live out pre-scripted storylines in seemingly “raw” footage.After the show finished airing, star of seasons five and six Kristin Cavallari stated,“Nothing you see on TV is real.Fans need to understand that it’s all entertainment.I would never actually put my close friends or a real relationship on a show.”MTV’s “The Hills” is just one example of a show that accentuates a postmodernist culture because it muddles the line of what is real and what is not.
Reality television has additionally defined culture by creating solidarity among viewers.Reality television is exceedingly progressing towards niche marketing, a technique used by companies to target specific viewer demographics.For television networks, this is a strategic move to get high ratings and a loyal audience, but for the consumer, this technique creates solidarity and common bonds throughout society.These bonds define modern culture.For example, numerous shows produced by MTV and VH1 feature young, fit, and attractive people that young viewers aspire to look like, while shows like “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Maury” (NBC) are targeted to middle-aged Americans struggling through relationship problems.Makeover shows like Celebrity Fit Club (VH1) and Biggest Loser (NBC) provide viewers, who may either feel self-conscious about weight or simply enjoy watching inspirational stories, with a common interest.They spark conversation and create a common bond with other people in similar situations.There are even discussion boards on show websites where viewers can discuss with other audience members what happened on their favorite show that night.By marketing their shows to a more specific demographic of viewers, television networks create their own “niche” to enforce a bigger and more loyal fan base.
The reality TV phenomenon is indicative of a new age emerging in television, marked by continually growing viewership and new shows debuting regularly.With roots dating back to the 1940s, reality television is a sector of entertainment that has exponentially outgrown the success of its scripted counterparts.Drawing on the theory of classical liberalism, the prominence of reality TV makes it a more “fit” entity than other aspects of television, such as scripted dramas and sitcoms.The survival of the genre represents a change in cultural interests of television viewers--a deviation from allegiance traditional shows or sitcoms that experienced success in past years.This monumental progress has enforced the idea of reality TV as a modern cultural phenomenon in American media, and proves that it will remain prominent in media for years to come.
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Fishman, Mark and Gray Cavender.Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs. New York: Walter de Gruyter Inc., 1998.Print.
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"Kristin Cavallari: The Hills Is Basically All Fake - The Hollywood Gossip."The Hollywood Gossip - Celebrity Gossip, News, Pictures, and Rumors. 13 July 2010.Web.04 Oct. 2010.
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