Why Do We Tune In To Reality TV?

Survivor Guatemala
What accounts for the popularity of reality TV? People may find a certain fascination in contrasting what they think they would do in a given situation to the actions taken by the "real" participants — a group of individuals they perceive as their peers.

That's the conclusion of a new study that examines the ongoing popularity of reality TV. Unlike other shows such as news programs or sitcoms, reality TV allows viewers to imagine themselves as actual participants.

The research appears in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Blending Fantasy and Reality

In many of the reality shows, "ordinary" people are placed in exotic, unfamiliar surroundings where they are pitted against the elements.

Others focus on ordinary people engaging in common activities such as dating or home redecorating. In both instances, viewers are given the chance to compare and contrast their own lives with those of the shows' protagonists.

The resulting experience is a complexly constructed — and highly individualized — experience the researchers call "hyperauthenticity."

That viewers may be drawn by the chance to mentally "test" their behavior against that of the actual participants contrasts with the common criticism of reality TV viewers as passive voyeurs.

Researchers interviewed 15 reality TV viewers. The viewers were asked to keep a journal recording their thoughts, feelings, and experiences while viewing at least one of three reality TV programs that aired during the 2000-2001 American television season.

Exotic Locale a Draw

They were asked to choose a program to watch. Those with no preference were assigned one. Six participants watched Survivor II, while four each watched Temptation Island or The Mole. The participants also wrote about their thoughts on other reality TV shows.

Participants who watched The Mole said they were drawn to its exotic setting. "It's not like Survivor where you have to go to the outback, on a desert island, eat rats, and cook food, although that has its entertainment value as well. But these guys stayed in five-star hotels in Spain and France and ate grapefruit. That's great," writes Calvin, one of the participants, in his journal.

At the same time, Calvin thought The Mole had more basis in reality because, unlike the other shows, players in The Mole control their own fate.

Some Shows Rejected as 'Too Real'

Gina, another participant, said that although she enjoyed most reality shows, she found Big Brother "too real." "It was just too 'oh, we're sitting around on the couch,' and that was too real ... There's a line between, you know, true reality and reality that's entertaining." To Gina, entertainment value resided in the program's provision of a situation that was beyond the viewer's daily "real" life.