Reality Tv Shows

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What Reality TV Tells Us about American Culture

Reality TV (RTV) and tabloid journalism have often been compared to each other. (Hill 80) Are both bringing out the worst in American culture or and they merely an example of what American culture is all about, holding a mirror up to the audience? Western culture in general and American culture in particular has always been fascinated by two things in regards to what fascinates and intrigues their interests and holds their attention, love and war. It is no different when it comes to reality TV. These polar opposites are almost always found together in life, as well as in reality TV. In Robin L. Nabi’s research presented in the journal article, “Determining Dimensions of Reality: A Concept Mapping of the Reality TV Landscape,” he draws the following conclusions from the data gathered, “The MDS [Minimum Data Set] results from both sets of data suggest that the two characteristics most salient to audiences when thinking about reality-based programming are romance and competition.” (371) These can come under many names; sex and violence, drama and action, and so on.

But first we need a definition of reality TV in order to limit the scope of this analysis. Dr. Nabi and associates found that the authorities in Television production companies have not set a particular definition in regards to what is and what is not reality TV. Dr. Nabi offers us the following parameters:

[There are] several key elements that characterize such programs: (a) people portraying themselves, (b) filmed at least in part in their living or working environment rather than on a set, (c) without a script, (d) with events placed in a narrative context, (e) for the primary purpose of viewer entertainment. In essence, reality programs are marked by ordinary people engaged in unscripted action and interaction. (Nabi 371)

While this guideline certainly makes a good rule of thumb, one other thing must be remembered when dealing with the genre. Unlike real life, reality TV is heavily edited by its producers to synthesize and often even contrive and misconstrue events to make them look more powerful than they were in real life. Most frequently the time frame is condensed from a week of production into twenty or so minutes of RTV. This condensation eliminates some of the nuances of real life, but often makes it more exciting.

Also, editing after the fact has certain advantages as evinced by this analysis of the popular RTV show, “Cops:”

[The] narrator provides viewers with information about the suspects that may not be known by the officer at the time of the chase, stop, or initial interview. The audience… may be told at the beginning of the anecdote that the driver of a fleeing car has an outstanding warrant or is intoxicated. The pursuing officers may only know this information after the suspect is apprehended. Nonetheless, according to the programs, the officer is clearly making the appropriate choice by following his or her hunch. Viewers are provided the illusion that they are watching real events unfold but with knowledge based on hindsight (a product of editing), which the officers do not have. (Prosise & Johnson 73)

This poses to the audience that the arresting officers are clear in their duty and response, but in the reality of the scene, they may have not had such clear cut motives in stopping the suspect. One of the most prevalent problems associated with this type of programming and across the nations police force, is the dilemma of racial profiling that can be exacerbated by such justifications. (Prosise & Johnson)

There is also a paradoxical twist to the predilection of Americans watching RTV. We, as well as many other technically proficient nations, are a culture that is inundated with news, twenty four hours a day seven days a week. There is news even when there is no news to tell. Broadcasters begin to focus on the mundane events of...
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