When Survivor appeared on CBS for the first time, it quickly became a topic of conversation around water coolers everywhere. Even people who didnít watch the show couldnít escape conversations about which castaway would be voted off the island next. Today, there are dozens of reality shows that offer to turn everyday people into chefs, actors, singing stars, brides or grooms, millionaires, and almost anything else you can imagine.
And while people make the obligatory negative remarks about reality TV, many harbor secret addictions to one show or another. What makes reality TV so popular? There are probably several factors.
First, reality TV participants come from all walks of life. Whether youíre gay or straight, male or female, Christian or Buddhist, Black or white, it is easy to turn on reality TV and spot someone like yourself whisked away into an adventurous or luxurious lifestyle. We experience a vicarious thrill seeing ordinary people like us compete for fabulous prizes. And, if you are being absolutely honest, you have to admit that youíve sometimes thought, ìI could do that!î
Another reason people enjoy reality TV is the suspense. On most shows, each episode finds another participant being eliminated until there is only one player left standing. We agonize with our favorite players as they endure challenges and hardships, hold our breaths when it looks like they may be on the chopping block, and breathe a sigh of relief when they squeak by for one more week.
Watching reality TV also gives us an avenue to communicate with acquaintances and co-workers. As the second season of American Idol drew to a close, for instance, you could start a conversation with a complete stranger simply by asking, So, is it going to be Clay or Ruben?î
Still another reason reality TV is popular may have to do with certain socioeconomic factors. With so many people in debt, the cost of living consistently outstripping peoples paychecks, relatively high unemployment, and wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, reality TV gives people something less threatening to focus on. It may even help people feel better about their own lives. I may have it bad,î some viewers think, but at least I’m not wearing filthy clothes and eating insects.î Or, ìI may have had a bad day of work, but at least the entire viewing public isnít watching Simon Cowell blast my singing voice.
Finally, reality TV initially had a strong viewing because it was something unique. Audiences in the United States were used to watching television actors deliver scripted lines were completely unprepared for a show without a script featuring real people engaged in real competition. The real live cat fights, backbiting, and scheming delighted wide eyed viewers.
Of course, from the beginning there were a few dissenting voices claiming that reality TV was somewhat less than real. Furthermore, familiarity has begun to breed contempt. The second installment of Survivor, for instance, was the most watched series of the 2000-2001 TV series. Survivor China, the fifteenth installment in the Survivor series, is ranked number eleven among the current fall lineup. Other reality TV shows have seen similar rating drops as their novelty faded.
But even if reality TV is no longer quite as robust as it once was, it is far from dead. New reality TV concepts are pitched every season, and millions of fans continue to tune in to watch their favorite reality programs. For all the reasons discussed above, reality TV is definitely here to stay.