Reality Check: Why We Can’t Get Enough Reality TV

The other day, while working at my internship at an entertainment-focused publication, my supervisor asked me a riveting and culturally significant question: “What is Duck Dynasty, and why do we care about them?”

Part of my job at this particular internship is to keep up with the trends and developments of the entertainment world, but this question took me by surprise not because of its content, but because I immediately knew the answer without having done an ounce of actual research on the subject. “The show is about a family in Louisiana who became rich through their business selling products for duck hunters. It’s pretty funny,” I responded, eager to prove myself.

The look on her face indicated to me that my knowledge of the Robertson family duck hunters, the fact I watched a reality show on the relatively underappreciated channel A & E, and the idea that I found it funny was a little unusual. The reason the question was brought up, however, was because of the recent reference to the show at the Emmy’s by host Neil Patrick Harris. The comment about hoping to take a “selfie” with the cast of Duck Dynasty coaxed a giggle out of the star-studded audience, but made me wonder, what does the increasing popularity of these shows say about our society?

The cast of Duck Dynasty, in all their camouflage glory.

The cast of Duck Dynasty, in all their camouflage glory.

Duck Dynasty and other shows like it have garnered a significant amount of viewers in recent years. According to Deadline.com, the TLC reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a series following a Georgia family, recently broke a network ratings record when Mama June and Sugar Bear, the mother and father of the brood, wed in a ceremony complete with camouflage wedding dress, snagging the No. 2 spot for all TV programs in the 9 p.m. time slot. How did a show about a family that literally needs subtitles to be understood (they speak English, by the way) beat out the hyped up powerhouse dramas of more well known networks?

Could it be that society only like these shows ironically?

For some, the answer is surely yes. Admittedly, it can be rather entertaining to poke fun at some of the more quirky characters, but a desire to laugh at these shows can only take ratings so far. Some of these reality shows have become more than a national joke, evolving into some sort of cultural phenomenon. Though they might start out as something to watch because nothing else was on TV, a legitimate following has developed for many of these programs.

My affinity for these shows, however, is usually genuine for two reasons. First, television has provided a form of escapism for viewers since it’s invention. Though I do enjoy watching television shows that are interesting on deeper level – as in, they have a plotline that serves to communicate certain themes to the audience via well thought-out conflicts throughout a series of episodes – there is something to be said for plopping down on the couch and watching something completely mindless for 30 minutes. After a long day at work, sometimes the last think you would want to do is pick apart a symbol-riddled episode of Breaking Bad.

Second, the subjects of these reality TV shows are real. They really exist in the world, and yet it is almost unbelievable that this could be the case. It’s oddly intriguing to see the actual lives of people so different from myself play out before my eyes. And watching the lives of these off-the-wall individuals is completely fascinating, at least in my opinion. I could watch the Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo channel the dead grandmother of the women next to her in the grocery store check out line, see a random person try to sell fossil he found in his backyard to the History channel’s Pawn Stars, and witness the daily struggles of a polygamist family on Sister Wives all in the span of two hours. They certainly don’t represent the norm, but they do exemplify the diversity of our culture.

Aside from the innumerable ways one could point out that these stars are the outliers of our society, the main thing that keeps viewers coming back is the way that they are like us. On Cake Boss, the audience sees bakery owner Buddy Valastro and his large Italian family stick together through the trials and tribulations of owning a business together. Viewers can experience the struggle of little people Bill and Jennifer as they try to adopt a child on The Little Couple. The Millionaire Matchmaker Patty Stanger is simply helping people in their quest to find true love. For the junk-filled storage unit auctions of Storage Wars, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times probably said it best: “[Storage Wars is] a strangely uplifting show — hope being one of the many things one can apparently find in an abandoned storage unit.”

Unlike the traditional dramas and comedies that are recognized by critics and at award shows, reality television has a way of connecting with an audience on a more tangible level. No bells and whistles – well, maybe a few – just people dealing with the same problems we all are. The stars of these shows may be characters, but the ability to see the humanity in these characters is what makes them so appealing.

Or maybe duck hunting is coming back in style.

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5 thoughts on “Reality Check: Why We Can’t Get Enough Reality TV

  1. A huge draw for me when it comes to these reality shows (especially Cake Boss) is that the cameras seem to be semi-invisible flies on the wall, recording the lives of these characters in their natural element. If I wanted to wanted to go antique picking, I can flip to American Pickers and watch Mike Wolf profile a great find. That’s the distinction between the type of reality TV that I enjoy and the type I don’t. Shows like American Idol and SYTYCD are definitely reality but it’s gamified and seems to scoop characters out of their natural element. It’s far more interesting to watch a tiger roam free in its habitat than to watch a tiger in a cage.

    • Jessie, I agree the “fly on the wall” perspective is what draws a lot of us in – something about witnessing personal moments of day to day lives connects audiences to reality tv (the escapism for viewers Chelsea references). However, we must also be critical of the reality that these shows present. When we see multiple camera angles on a “reality” tv show it often means that the scene was shot with multiple takes to build a loosely scripted plot. So this tiger we are watching isn’t exactly roaming free or in a cage, rather it is traversing a man-made habitat.

  2. I agree with you that reality TV has become such a staple of American life because it’s true that Americans love mindless television. On the other hand, I can’t help but question if it also has to do with the fact that so many Americans are undereducated.. but I guess that’s a discussion for another time. Interestingly, one time my dad’s company worked on the production of a couple reality TV shows. I’ll leave names out to prevent anyone from getting into trouble, but he said they would script a grand majority of it and would even re-do takes if the scene didn’t come out the way the producers wanted it to. I think reality TV is just a more mindless and stupid counterpart to regular scripted shows, since let’s get real here it’s all scripted and all fake. I also think sometimes people watch reality TV shows such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” because the characters are so ridiculous that it makes people feel better about their own lives because they can at least speak English without subtitles. I’m sure there’s many factors, but it’s important to keep in mind that reality TV is far from reality.

  3. Escapism is definitely one of the reasons why reality television is popular in America. At the end of the day, how real “reality” television is doesn’t really matter. Some are popular because viewers can relate to the characters, but others (The Real Housewives, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, etc.) are popular because they have the lives viewers want. Leaving their mundane lives and entering into the world of those who are rich is usually the draw for Americans. In some ways, reality television is a celebrity magazine coming to life.

  4. I believe that the ability of reality television shows to connect diverse groups of people is why they have become so popular. Reality television does this by depicting commonalities they share amongst one another. The struggles and triumphs of humanity are experiences relatable to everyone. Another reason why I think reality television has acquired such a large demographic is because these experiences are largely animated by the directors, producers, and even the people starring in the shows. Sometimes these reality television stars are told what to talk about, how to react to a certain situation, and in some cases, are told even what to say. This is to dramatize the reality of the situation; experiences are much more exciting when you add a soundtrack, add cuts to remove the less aesthetic or less appealing portions of a captured moment, or when certain comments or actions are added to a situation. I am not sure how raw these shows truly are, but that fact seems not to matter much to the public, as their fame keeps growing and growing.

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