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The Addictiveness of Reality Television

Meredith Hedrick
Glen Allen High School

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America was first introduced to a modern reality TV show in the 1970s with the premier
of An American Family This 12 hour documentary-series followed an ordinary American
family for seven months. During these seven months the family encountered dramatic events
such as a divorce and tensions between parents and children. This show was widely popular
because of the national appeal it had, a typical American family trying to live the American
dream. The show was produced during a, time of national turmoil regarding cultural, political,
and economical issues, making the show direct commentary of issues that faced all Americans
at the time. What is believed to have been discovered from this show is a common characteristic
that keeps the viewers watchingdrama (Glouner, Flores, & Tomback, .n.d.). However, with all
of the current reality show topics, is drama the only reason people tune in? Since the first concept
of reality shows appeared, many different theories about why viewers watch these shows have
appeared. These theories include appealing to basic desires, the concept of voyeurism and what it
means in the context of the present, the novelty of the reality-based television genre, and the
gratification theory that viewers gain skills by tuning in.

Basic Desires:
A current theory of why people feel addicted to reality TV is that these shows appeals to
one of our sixteen basic human desires. These desires include: curiosity, power, independence,
status, social contact, vengeance, honor, idealism, physical exercise, romance, family order,
eating, acceptance, tranquility, and saving. The need to achieve these desires results in motives to
encourage achievement. Most motives are combinations of two or more basic desires. For
example a motive of wealth could be a combination of desires such as status and power. Of

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course the importance placed on meeting specific desires is different for different people. The
different desires a person holds to be important makes them more likely to do specific things. For
instance, the more status orientated you are, the more likely to watch reality TV. The most likely
explanation for this is that people who watch reality shows feel that they have higher status than
the people on the shows (Reiss, Wiltz, 2004).
Almost all of the sixteen desires may be relatable to why people watch reality shows.
People may watch because they feel curious about someone elses house, job, or family. They
may watch because they want to hold the power to send someone home from a competition with
their vote. Watching may fill their desire for social contact, by watching others interact. Shows
such as The Bachelor fulfill the romance desire by giving viewers a fairy-tale. However,
what keeps the viewer coming back is the intrinsic feeling of joy they get by fulfilling their
desires. People act, as if they are trying to maximize the experience of the 16 joys. In the
context of reality TV, people keep watching if they find joy from one of the desires they hold as
important while watching.

Voyeurism is defined as receiving sexual gratification from viewing objects or acts.
However, when the term voyeurism is used in the context of reality TV it has more of a meaning
of living vicariously through surveillance, not specifically sexual. Reality TV, in general, is
characterized as voyeur TV. However, today it is considered harmless and is seen more as a
guilty pleasure. Vicarious experiences reportedly produce a, cathartic purging of ones soul,
and reduces anxious behavior, which could be motivation for why people continue to watch
reality TV (Biely, Nabi, Morgan, Stitt, 2003).

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However, recent research has indicated that voyeurism is not as strong as an argument for
continued viewership of reality TV that it appears to be. Results do not support voyeurism as a
strong motivation for watching reality TV shows. Results from several surveys concluded that
only 9% of regular viewers and 2% of casual viewers indicated they watch for reasons that may
be associated with voyeurism (Blazer, 2006). Of course, there is the chance that a social
desirability bias was present and results may not be exactly accurate.
The enjoyment of watching reality TV is wider than the appeal of seeing unethical
behavior. While many reality shows do focus around unethical behavior, a large portion do not.
Many current reality shows focus around ordinary activities such as buying a house or running a
business. The potential of fulfilling the voyeuristic sense of pressure is further diminished
because of the, constraints put on network television content preclude the broadcast of explicit
sexual material (Biely et al., 2003).

Part of the appeal of reality TV is an element of surprise and accessibility to real people.
Viewers watch and enjoy reality shows because of its unique qualities. It is unscripted (or so it
claims to be) and allows viewers to be nosy and explore other peoples lives. Regular reality
show viewers watch to be entertained, casual viewers watch to solve boredom. In a study done
by the University of Arizona, 9% of regular viewers and 5% of casual viewers only watch
reality-based TV because it is different. Reality TV is different from many types of other popular
TV shows. It is not necessarily scripted, it often casts unknown people as main roles. However,
reality TV is also a combination of several types of TV. In a single episode of The Bachelor
viewers may experience comedy, romance, and drama; all in an hour or less. Even though reality

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shows tend to focus on generally unknown faces for their main roles, these people must appeal to
a wide audience. Reality shows focus on people who are different and whose story will be
interesting to the masses, focusing on everyone from seemingly ordinary people like Alana
Thompson in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to celebrities like the British band The Wanted and
their show The Wanted Life. In the same survey conducted by the University of Arizona, 12% of
viewers indicated that they specifically watch because they think the people on the programs are
unique (Biely et al., 2003).

Rewards System/Gratification Theory:

The rewards system and gratification theory suggest that people watch reality shows
because they think the information they may gain from watching can possibly help them in their
everyday life. It is the, underlying assumption of which is that a media channel cannot
influence an individual unless that person has some use for the medium or its particular
message (Biely et al., 2003). In order for this theory to be valid as a motivation, five
assumptions must be true. First, an individuals behavior is purposive, goal directed, and
motivated, and thus influences their communication behavior. Second, it must be true that
individuals select and use media in order to satisfy a biological, psychological, or social need.
Third, individuals are influenced by many different social and psychological factors when
selecting method of communication. Fourth, different forms of media compete with each other
for attention, affecting their selection and overall use. Fifth, media consumers must be aware of
their needs and whether or not these needs are being satisfied by a certain media medium
(Mendelson, Papacharissi, 2007). In the context of reality show viewers, tune in because they
think they will benefit from viewing. Examples of this include viewers gaining examples of

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unacceptable behavior from Jersey Shore, viewers learning skills about buying houses from
House Hunters, and viewers learning trivia from competitive game shows. This theory
emphasizes a natural self-centeredness that people are born with. This self-centeredness is why
individuals are motivated to do things, because it will make something better or easier for them
to do.

In general, studies focusing on the appeal of reality television are a fairly new concept.
On top of this lack of scientific research also lies the incongruity of the genre. There is no clear
cohesion within the reality-based TV genre. The genre ranges from everything from following
celebrities during their everyday life to redecorating a bathroom. There are so many different
shows with so many different audiences that some conclusions made may not apply to all reality
shows. Along with different audiences comes different motivations to watch certain shows. With
all of the differences between shows there is a high possibility of overgeneralization of statistics
produced. In order for more conclusive results to be found, studies need to move away from
focusing on the genre as a whole and begin to focus on the different subgenres.

Andrejevic, M. (2004). Reality TV: The work of being watched. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &

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Biely, E., Nabi, R. Morgan, S., Stitt, C. (2003). Reality-based television programming and the
psychology of its appeal. Media Psychology, 5, 4. Retrieved from
Blazer, S. (Summer 2006). Rear window ethics: Domestic privacy versus public responsibility in
the evolution of voyeurism. Midwestern Quarterly, 4, 24. Retrieved from
Glouner, M., Flores, C., & Tomback, A. (n.d.). The history of reality television. Retrieved from
Hamilton, J. (2013). Reality TV as therapy. Therapy Today, 24(5), 14.
Mendelson, A., Papacharissi, Z. (June 2007). An exploratory study of reality appeal: Uses and
gratification of reality TV shows. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.
Retrieved from http://tigger.uic.edu/~zizi/Site/Research_files/JobemRealityTV.pdf
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Wong, J. (2001). Heres looking at you: Reality TV, Big Brother, and Foucault. Communications
Studies Faculty Publications, 2. Retrieved from http://scholars.wlu.ca/coms_faculty/2