Reality TV: a far cry from documentary

Over the past two decades, reality TV has undeniably become one of the dominant genres in contemporary television programming. There are many conceivable explanations for this explosion of reality programming, one of the more pragmatic being simply that “from the side of production, reality programs, with the absence of highly paid actors and writers, are less expensive to produce. (Rymsza-Pawlowska, p38) However there are also cultural reasons for this emergence, as well as a growing viewer fascination with this representation of the “real.”  Here I will attempt to examine the difference in features between the “reality TV” genre and the more traditional, “documentary” genre.

While reality TV could be loosely described as the unfolding of real people’s reactions to real events – reality TV has become a far cry from its documentary origins.  Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska writes:

“While reality television certainly bears some resemblance to a documentary format, there are several very important distinctions. Foremost is the fact that while the documentary can be said to present itself as the “truth,” the reality show is more concerned with the “authentic.” These two words seem to be interchangeable, but the subtle differentiation between them emphasizes the contrasts inform between the two genres. Documentaries typically present an account of an event. While there is some reflection of individuals’ perceptions of the event, it is the accuracy aspect of the narrative that is underscored. On the other hand, the reality program is more concerned with the social actors; their situation takes a secondary role. Reality television, thus, is not so much an account of the event, but of the experience.” (p37)

She continues that as explored by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, while documentary is primarily concerned with social issues, reality television is more akin to “therapeutic television” in that “audiences often gauge the authenticity of truthfulness of reality TV on a scale of emotional realism and personal revelation.” (p38 – Biressi & Nunn, p5)

I feel that as well as this focus on the emotional experience, another inherent difference is that while the documentary maker generally presents an account of a naturally occurring or current event, reality TV often takes ordinary people and put them in an artificially created arena, or rather, they fabricate the event for the participants. This notion is especially apparent in shows like Survivor, where contestants are put on an island with limited resources with the goal being to “survive” as long as possible (against the harsh environment and the bitchy co-contestants) or Masterchef – where contestants are placed in an arena spectacular filled with any ingredient they can imagine at their disposal in order to demonstrate their skills in a particular area – in this case cooking – by completing a vast array of difficult and obscure challenges. Another obvious example is a show like Wife Swap – which simply takes women out of their “natural habitat” and places them in an unfamiliar domestic environment in order to demonstrate the difference between the two family’s divergent lifestyles.

(In fact it could also be said that a feature of reality TV (as opposed to the documentary) is its limited, almost superficial (or non-existent) treatment of social issues. None of these examples of reality TV particular contribute to discussions of social issues favoured by documentary makers. Julie Anne Taddeo writes that “[n]ot surprisingly, [Wife Swap] does not intend a serious re-evaluation of the social structures that define these contrasting households, instead viewing class more as a matter of lifestyle than economics. Families get a brief taste of life on the other side of the socio-economic divide but always come to realize that the grass is not greener there. (p10))

Of course there are many “reality TV” programs that appear to challenge this feature of the “fabricated event.” One of the more obvious examples is the standard cooking show format, in which a celebrity chef such as Nigella Lawson will simply prepare a meal while simultaneously teaching the audience her techniques. This kind of reality TV program is more akin to its documentary roots in its attempt to first inform the viewer and secondarily to entertain them. However the notion of the celebrity is still an important feature in that viewers are not concerned with the cooking alone, but more so with the cooking presented by their pre-loved Nigella Lawsons, Jamie Olivers, and previous Masterchef contestants.

Taddeo writes that while “our obsession with celebrity isn’t new, the ranks of those entitled to this label have definitely expanded, as witnessed by the media attention devoted to winners (and losers) of such programs as American Idol and Survivor.” (p9) Reality TV is inherently focused on the celebrity – from the celebrity host, celebrity judge, or by merely serving as the contraption that creates these celebrities. Indeed, reality TV could be seen as the cause (or the result) of the West’s growing fascination with celebrity culture and idolisation – and the root of the ability for nearly anyone to be labelled as such (Kim Kardashian from Keeping Up With the Kardashians being the most striking example.)

Ultimately I feel that the difference between the reality TV program and the documentary is in their agendas. The first seeks primarily to entertain (and perhaps teach or inform a little on the side) whereas the documentary serves primarily to inform or explore a social issue – often in a creative or entertaining fashion. Reality TV’s focus on artificial environments, “authentic” human emotions and narratives, and the importance of celebrity, are a few of the dominant features that I feel define the genre.

(Please see my reference page for works cited!)


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