I was a big fan of MTV’s The Real World throughout my teenage years and into adulthood. The show’s intro “Seven strangers, picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped,” was my cache phrase. MTV had me and millions of other young people hook, line and sinker. I religiously tuned in every week for about seven seasons. The show was a hit and has spawned a plethora of knock-offs.
More than 15 years later, media and entertainment companies find that reality TV programming still garners viewers and is very profitable. You can find reality TV shows on both network and cable television. Popular reality shows in 2012 included Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, American Idol, Love and Hip-Hop (Atlanta), The Voice, Deadliest Catch, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Mob Wives and Real Housewives. The dominating force reality TV has in the lives of many Americans is as real as the shows are popular. How did we get here and is our culture better or worse off as a result of it?
Reality TV History
While the1990s may be the time period that many Americans associate with the rise of reality television, the fact is the first reality television show aired many decades earlier. The first reality TV show was Candid Camera with Alan Funt, which aired in 1948. “In fact, he started a year earlier with Candid Microphone on radio. Truth or Consequences started in 1950 and frequently used secret cameras” (Slocum, 2013).
Filming real people and airing it on television was a novelty that went from being the exception to the rule when The Writer’s Guild of America went on strike during the 1990s. Networks needed cheap television programs and reality television shows became the fix. A star was born with The Real World and it has created a winning formula that gives audiences drama, a voyeuristic look in to the lives of others and escape.
Reality Television Isn’t Real
I enjoy watching reality TV when I have time, which isn’t often these days. However, when I’m home folding laundry or cleaning up, there is usually a marathon on and I get sucked in. Like Lays, I can’t have just one. My biggest issue with reality television is that it isn’t real. We’ve been bamboozled. Reality TV is a set-up and creates a false reality for viewers. The people are real, but everything else audiences see is either scripted or heavily edited for dramatic effect.
I looked up reality television online and found the Oxford definition to be the most intriguing, “Programmes in which real people are continuously filmed, designed to be entertaining rather than informative” (Anonymous, 2013). My eyes focused on “designed to be entertaining.” Even the definition alludes to the fact that it’s a creation, not real, not factual. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really that bad. It’s just entertainment, right? Wrong. If reality television was an ice-berg, entertainment would be the tip and beneath the tip are the reasons why we watch that can have both negative and positive effects on us.
Effects of Reality TV
Unfortunately, many viewers tune into reality television because they want to see drama. The shows “fulfill certain desires – like power or influence, travel and living, survival and outwitting, beauty and satisfaction, revenge and honor” (Reny, 2012). Critics to reality television argue that some shows glorify behavior. Reality TV’s main characters eventually become caricatures of themselves. Shows like The Real World or The Jersey Shore glorify a partying, sexualized culture, where there are no apparent consequences for one’s action. In the real world we face them every day.
Last year, former reality TV star, Joey Jovar died of a drug overdose at the age of 29. He starred on The Real World: Hollywood and Celebrity Rehab 3. Was this a case of life imitating art or vice versa? I realize his substance abuse issues were his own doing, but I can’t help but wonder how his participation in both reality shows may have contributed to his drug problem. Having watched him on both, I’m left with an impression that his partying and erratic behavior on The Real World set him up to fail. He left The Real World because he thought he would relapse. One can argue that he probably would have relapsed anyways, but if you’re an alcoholic, the last place go to is a bar. In Jovar’s case, the last place he needed to be was on a show where producers and his housemates were enablers. On Celebrity Rehab 3 he tried to fight his addictions to alcohol and drugs, but in the end they got the best of him.
Reality television programing gives viewers a “cone-effect.” The cone-effect is a theory that states media content is exaggerated and distributed to help create a “perceived media reality.” This perceived media reality allows for individuals to see the media in themselves and create a relationship not based in reality. Sound familiar? We get the “cone-effect” in an array of media messages that we see because we’re inundated so many messages on a daily basis. The messages we receive and perceive from reality TV are often false narratives.
The A&E show Beyond Scared Straight is a prime example of a reality show that boldly creates a false narrative. Beyond Scared Straight is a show that claimed to be a groundbreaking series that showed troubled young people getting verbally thrashed by hard-core criminals in order to keep them on the straight and narrow path. Bob DeBitto, president and general manager of the A&E Network and BIO Channel, said that, “Beyond Scared Straight’ truly exemplifies our unique brand of highly engaging programming with a focus on excellent storytelling and first-class auspices” (Anonymous, 2013).
DeBitto and the show’s producers neglect to mention that programs like scared straight have been condemned and deemed ineffective by researchers and professionals in the juvenile justice field. The program was created with good intentions to help young people “straighten up and fly right” before it’s too late, however it was found to cause the opposite effect in studies. “Research makes it clear that youth exposed to adult inmates, particularly in prison or jail settings, are at heightened risk of emotional harm and anxiety and receive harmful messages that lead to increased potential for them to commit delinquent offenses” (Anonymous, 2013). The real deal is that Beyond Scared Straight entertains at the expense of troubled young people.
It’s Not All Bad, But
There is no denying the impact reality programming is having on our culture. I also have to remind myself that not all reality television is bad. It can motivate, inspire and help improve the lives of individuals. Shows like The Biggest Loser and Extreme Home Makeover capitalize on themes of community, leadership, perseverance and self-determination. People in these shows seek to bring out the best in their fellow man. However, even with positive-themed reality shows, what you see isn’t always what you get.
On The Biggest Loser, season one winner Ryan Benson admitted to not eating any solid food before the last weigh-in in order to reach his weigh-in goal in his blog. The show strictly prohibits the use of dieting drugs, but Benson worked around the rules using a concoction known as the “Master Cleanse,” a drink of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. He didn’t break the rules, but was starving himself the way he should have achieved his goal? I also want to know what certified fitness trainer would recommend such actions with intense workouts. The producers neglected to show us this. Five days after the final taping he gained back 32 pounds.
Where Do We Go From Here
A media literate society has the power and the fortitude to look at reality TV critically while still being entertained by it. Like life, reality TV isn’t black and white, it’s a shade of gray. As a society we have to get past the voyeurism and shock factor that grabs our attention. Recognizing and understanding its impact in our culture is a first step. Having an informed and rational conversation about the content and context is the second step. So next time you watch a show, find a few friends and family members to discuss it with.
Anonymous. (2013). Demand a&e tell the truth about ‘scared straight’. Retrieved from,
Anonymous. (2013). Reality tv. Retrieved from,
Reny. (2012). How does reality tv affect us? Retrieved from,
Slocum, C. B. (2013, May 28). The real history of reality tv or, how alan funt won the cold war. Retrieved from,