Really Reality?

For those of you who know me well it is a fact that my favourite TV show of all time is Survivor. The combination of watching real people interact in an unlikely social experiment, people from a variety walks of life and add money into the mix then you have yourself a primetime addictive show (now in its 28th season I might add). So what is it about reality television that makes watching everyday people much more interesting than leading our own everyday lives? Is it all real? What makes a reality show worth watching? And is there is an additional classification we can give shows in the genre of ‘reality television’ that distinguishes a programs style or is it all the same?

To explore reality TV I want to compare two different program styles so I’ve chosen Survivor (any excuse will do!) and One Born Every Minute. Survivor started in 2000 and has been running 2 seasons every year with varied success (mostly successful) as a game show format. 18 strangers are placed on a deserted island with minimal supplies and over 39 days compete in challenges for rewards and immunity. Contestants are voted off at tribal councils and at the end of the season the sole survivor wins $1 million. The prize at the end of an episode of One Born Every Minute is a lot less, however it’s far more precious.

One Born Every Minute is a UK observational/fly-on-the-wall/docusoap/documentary/reality series which follows patients giving birth in a maternity ward. Generally each episode follows about 2-3 women through their birthing journey from when they arrive to when they leave. The show is intercut with interviews from the staff, patients and their family, additionally with the use of music and voiceover the show has quite a dramatic and emotional impact giving it a “soap opera-like” edge. This is a great example on how reality TV can sometimes border on documentary and drama.

These reality shows are stark contrasts to one another, yet they are still in the same category of television, they’re alongside Dating Naked, Big Brother, Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, Next Top Model, Australian Idol, MasterChef, The Block, Find My Family and the list goes on and on. So what do they have in common? On a philosophical  level you could say that Survivor and One Born Every Minute is about individuals embarking on a journey with challenges and rewards along the way and at the end they win the ultimate prize…except you have to pay tax on one! The biggest similarity holding all these shows together are the “real people” who the audience can relate with. This is why there is so much reality TV on primetime television as its cheap (no actors or set required for most) and audiences are keen to ask the ultimate reality TV question – what would I do in that situation? A. Hill from Reality TV defines the genre in its location between the borders of information and entertainment, documentary & drama. The observation on human behaviour through the looking-glass of its sub-genre.

Sub-genre’s for reality TV include surveillance (What Would You Do?), fly-on-the-wall, docusoap, reality game, reality talent (Big Brother) and celebrity reality (Celebrity Apprentice) just to name a few.  These sub-genre’s differentiate in terms of show format and these are the real classifications for reality television. There are always people who argue that some sub-genre’s are fake but I believe in that in all reality television there is some level of dramatic engineering. As a massive Survivor fan I have attend conventions and spoken to the contestants (who are very real everyday people) and they admit that it’s not all what it looks like, you can’t talk while the camera is off, you sometimes have to reshoot shots if it’s is vital to the shows story and competing in challenges, giving birth, starting a fire takes a lot longer than what you watch in an hour episode. Reality TV genre is defined by what it permits, and that is usually everything real – it’s the levels of dramatic engineering that affect it’s sub-genre and believability.


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