Reality TV’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Posted: March 10, 2008 in Media Psychology
Tags: , ,

I had a discussion with a reporter from a German newspaper last week. She was interested in the American take on Reality TV—specifically about humiliation and debasement as a form of entertainment. She asked, should there be similar legislation against public humiliation as there is against profanity, sexual and violent content?

I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought, frankly, and this was a good excuse to do so.

It is important to point out that “reality TV” isn’t really “reality.” Reality TV is contrived and controlled through editing, scripting, stunts to elevate the conflict and emotion by producers, film editors, writers, sets, and the participants themselves. Everyone who goes on the Jerry Springer Show, the Dr. Phil show, Big Brother or Celebrity Detox has seen the shows. They know what the shows are like and they know what to expect. I don’t think this is a big secret. Like Wrestlemania, it is contrived reality to function as entertainment.

Participants show up for these shows, willing to subject themselves eating worms, divulging secrets, withstanding personal attacks, or laundering their psychological baggage and bad behavior in public. The process can’t surprise them. On shows like Survivor, the titles are fairly self-explanatory. Why would someone be willing to be filmed through detox, or by having their bad behavior publicly displayed, by saying demeaning things about other contestants or demonstrate their ability to belch on demand? Because something in the experience is more appealing and compelling than the personal debasement is repellant.

Understanding why is the only solution. Rapid technological advancement has created a huge amount of new places and avenues for distributing information in a very short amount of time. This has had two effects: 1) an information vacuum to fill up all this new “space,” and 2) increased attention on celebrity in its own right rather than as a by-product of a skill or profession. The reasons that celebrity “pays” is because there is a place to show it.

The attraction of reality shows is often written off as a manifestation of Andy Warhol’s “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” That fifteen minutes of fame, however is serving a purpose. There are many people that feel powerless and unvalued in their lives, in their jobs and in their relationships. The attention—good or bad—provides validation; all those people are willing to watch so what you have to say must be important. Sitting next to a cultural-icon like Oprah outweighs the costs because it changes that person’s self-definition. But this isn’t new. My grandmother, who once danced with the Prince of Wales, told and retold this cherished story. It made her feel valued and important.

If you can get past the content, I think these shows are also about hope in an odd kind of way; regular people can become important, famous and ‘successful’ as defined by a media-saturated environment. It is like the ‘Lana Turner discovered at Scwab’s soda fountain’ myth. It is about how regular people can beat the odds.

Why do people watch? Shared experiences enhance tribal bonding—discussion of American Idol gives you something to talk about to co-workers around the water-cooler.

People evaluate and define themselves in comparison to others. Watching Reality TV provides a context to evaluate our own lives in a positive way. “I am like this, but I am not like that. I’m better than that. Boy and I thought my life was bad.”

People have strong attachments with the personalities in the media—especially people who appear on a regular basis. The immediacy of media—big faces in your face, showing up in your living room frequently, some of them every day. This one-sided connection gives more potency to both the participant and the viewer.

There is also a redemptive quality to a lot of the reality shows. The conversion format is seen in shows like Dr. Phil (the good father) or Oprah (the loving mother) where an errant person comes forth, confesses, does penance, and is forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. Prodigal son stuff.

There is a commonality to all the Reality Shows – they are the “Grimm’s fairy tales” of a media-saturated culture with all the basic plot lines: jealousy, family conflict, deceit, resolution, villains and heroes. Bruno Bettelheim saw fairy tales as existential dramas in which children confront their own problems and desire on the path to adulthood. In some way, Reality TV is a narrative that forces people to address their own conflicts and moral understanding. When someone behaves badly, the audience boos, confirming the social inappropriateness of the behavior and restoring a sense of order.

And then there is the current zeitgeist, a climate of fear. People feel afraid and it’s hard to escape it with Homeland Security x-raying our shoes and examining our shampoo bottles and news headlines warning us of a threat at every turn. There is comfort in watching others with less control to make us feel more powerful. In the depression era, instead of ‘Survivor,’ there were Dance Marathons, endurance contests that lasted weeks. For 25 cents, people could come in and watch for as long as they wanted as couples struggled to stay on their feet. At that time, the marathons were disrespectable, repugnant, and one of the most popular forms of entertainment. They were held in every major city in the U.S. and citizens were up in arms about using humiliation and degradation as entertainment. Sound familiar?

As psychologists, we want to understand why people appear on these shows and why they watch them. Not make moral pronouncements. We need to understand how participants and viewers actually experience their shows. We need to understand why people find watching the discomfort of other’s appealing—do they even perceive it as real discomfort or artificial? Trying to regulate “humiliation” on TV would be like holding a balloon under water. It will pop up somewhere else. But more importantly, we don’t want to hide the manifestations of our public psychology. We need to understand the phenomenon to make changes. As long as there is an audience, there will be content delivered.

What can we do? As psychologists we can identify the social problems mirrored in popular culture. We can create media literacy programs that teach active and critical media use; we can develop curriculum and programs that address some of the needs that are being filled by Reality TV. Do people feel helpless, powerless, and unvalued? We can teach resiliency and provide opportunities to develop competence.

We also can recognize that the rapid changes in technology mean rapid changes in content. What is popular today won’t be tomorrow.

  1. […] Media Psychology Blog placed an interesting blog post on Reality TVHere’s a brief overviewWatching Reality TV provides a context to evaluate our own lives in a positive way. … Bruno Bettelheim saw fairy tales as existential dramas in which children confront their own problems and desire on the path to adulthood…. […]

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