Showcase Post 2: Reality TV

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 that: “[w]hile 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.”” (p37)

She states that while the terms appear to be interchangeable, “the subtle differentiation between them emphasizes the contrasts inform between the two genres.” In a documentary, while individual perceptions of the event are typically included, it is the “accuracy aspect of the narrative that is underscored.” Conversely, reality shows are more interested in “social actors” whereas their situation “takes a secondary role”. She states that subsequently reality TV is not as 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 situation, or rather, they fabricate the event or arena 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). 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. Neither of these examples of reality TV shows particularly explores social issues. 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) On the other hand – social issues are almost always fore-grounded by the documentary maker.)

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.)

However there are again exceptions of reality TV programs which do not simulate incidents or environments, nor do they rely on the notion of celebrity. “Docu-soaps”, for example, are reality programs which, according to TV Tropes, follow “a group of people…around, through their professional and sometimes personal lives”. In docu-soaps, people go about whatever it is they are doing, and are followed around with a camera which acts as a “fly on the wall” – showing us the private lives of these “real life” people. Some docu-soaps do however rely on the “celebrity” – such as The Real Housewives of… (O.C, Atlanta etc) series which tend to follow around the socialite wives of rich or famous members of the local city.

Many docu-soaps however present themselves far more refined or modest manner. A clear example is the British show One Born Every Minute, which is set in a labour ward and follows the mothers and their families awaiting the birth of their child. The mothers and midwives are “regular” people, and of course their childbirth and the labour ward are real and not stimulated. Though non-diagetic music is overlayed onto the footage, the naturally tense environment means that little is done in the way of the artificial creation of drama.  In this way, more reserved docudramas like One Born Every Minute have much more in common with their documentary roots than other reality shows in their rejection of celebrity interference or dramatising of non-issues.

Of course childbirth is a very nerve-racking and important time for families, and so the setting is perfect in portraying “real life” drama and emotion.  In this way, docu-soaps like One Born Every Minute still conform to the importance of the representation of “emotional realism and personal revelation” (Biressi & Nunn, p5). Moreover, they present little in the way of social commentary. Though occasionally the allusion to a social comment appears to underpin the families’ conversations, such as the ethics of having child after child after child, the show is far more focused on the emotional experience of the participators than on anything in the way of social issues.

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. While I feel that reality TV’s focus on artificial events and environments and the importance of celebrity are certainly dominant features within the genre, I feel that the genre as a whole is consistent in its presentation or impression of the “real” and through this the “authentic” human emotions and narratives that are developed.

Works cited (in the order they appear in my post):

i Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska

Frontier House : Reality Television and the Historical Experience

from Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 37.1 (2007) p37-38

ii. Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn

Reality TV: Realism and Revelation

from Wallflower Press, London (2005) p5

iii. Julie Anne Taddeo

Reality Television, Part 2

from Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 37.2 (2007) p9-10

iv. TV Tropes

Docu Soap

accessed at:


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