Trashy and Glossy Reality TV – What’s the Appeal?


The rise and long-time success phenomenon of reality television shows has probably not gone unmissed by anyone. Think: Big Brother, Idol, Love Island, The Bachelor, Survivor, Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Either a social simulation comprised of competitions and a grand cash prize, accompanied with an outstanding social media presence and possibly an immaculate possibility of creating an individual brand with the attached social media personality. Or the follow-around of a famous and rich family’s life, as they board private jets to places you’ve never heard of and engage in curse-filled dramatic fights, which conveniently makes for the perfect television.


Even if you aren’t an avid fan of reality shows, surely you are still familiar with several of these concepts and have heard about these television shows, whether this is from overhearing a heated discussion between your peers, or scrolling through somebody mentioning the events of last night’s episode on your feed. The raging success and obsession cannot be denied.


Studies show that 70% of Americans watch reality television on a regular basis, and that is just in the United States alone. But with that one may ask themselves the question: what is it actually that makes these shows so addictive? They don’t really comprise carefully structured and planned plot points and twists, consisting of meaningful scenes and hidden messages, performed by award winning actors. So why do we love them so much?


One of the most obvious conventions of reality TV is the scandalous drama and salacious excitement. This typically includes a fight between the cast members, and is packed with curse words, confrontations, accusations, and of course, tears. Almost every episode ends with the line “In the next episode…”, which plays on the infamous enthrallment of cliffhangers, typically hinting the drama which will continue to prevail in next week’s show.


It’s this nail-biting and buzzing excitement and pleasure we acquire from watching verbal and physical fighting; picking and choosing sides, rooting for the potential winner or the underdog. Humans are naturally competitive people. The attractive appeal with reality shows is that they allow us to gain an insight and follow a competition, both within sports and love, without having to leave the comfort of our couches. When the people we root for in the show win, we get the same enthusiastic perception that we are winning as well. It is this specific combination of watching drama-filled catfights and following pulse-raising competitions which creates a rewarding and addictive sensation.


Dr Jonathan Cohen is a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel who actually studies the psychology behind our enjoyment of television. In a study conducted together with his student Michael Shitrit, 163 participants were asked to watch 12 different reality shows. Cohen and Shitrit discovered that viewers actually don’t have as much of a desire to watch contestants embarrass themselves, but rather to watch them succeed. Basically, we form “parasocial relationships” with the people we watch, and actually feel like we know them well. “What we’re suggesting is that people want to watch these shows because they like these contestants, not because we want to see them fail,” he explained. “We like to see them overcome adversity.”


Other psychologists have been amazed by the trend of reality television show. A research team led by research psychologist Zhanna Bagdasarov investigated the significance of the role of voyeurism in a person’s TV watching preferences. Voyeurism is defined broadly as “a disorder that causes a person to gain pleasure from watching unsuspecting individuals.” The researcher found that people who score higher on the voyeurism scale are more likely to prefer to watch reality TV. This wide-spreading phenomenon offers a peek into the lives of people who share similar fears and problems to us. Additionally, it includes the unusual luxury of all-access into their daily activities. The fact that the people presented on the television are often people that aren’t too different from us, is what makes them so intriguing to watch. We may feel like watching the shows gives us some sort of assurance that we are doing something right, or that there truly are people just like us out there. Perhaps they react similarly to us when faced with a certain kind of situation, or perhaps, a different response is stimulated which prompts us to reflect on ourselves. This gives us the ability to compare ourselves with the people that we watch on the TV, just because they feel so “realistic,” hence why it’s called “reality” TV show to begin with. It doesn’t contain complicated and sophisticated storylines, it’s just real life, something that is all too familiar to us.


What continues to work excellent in reality television’s favor is social media, something which the producers of reality shows have skilfully incorporated into the voting procedures as well as competitions which are included. Many reality shows seamlessly interact with its audience by giving them the chance to vote for their favorite competitor. This allows the viewer to feel a sense of involvement and inclusion. It also provides them with a chance to discuss the events of the show with other viewers over social medias such as Twitter and Instagram, granting agreements and disagreements over favorite competitor or predictions of who will win.


Reality TV may also come as an excellent distraction for many people in their regular dull lives, which may not contain as much excitement and drama as portrayed on their screens. Some may say that watching their favorite reality show at night after a long day at school or work is something which they look greatly forward to, as it provides them with at least an hour where they don’t have to think about their obligations and duties. It gives them something to be excited about all day, as they can’t wait to find out what will happen after that dramatic cliffhanger in the next episode. Because it doesn’t take much critical analysis or deep understanding to watch the shows and understand what is happening, it’s an efficient way to wind down after a long day.


Others have put forward that their obsession with reality TV is rooted in their fantasies about easily acquiring fame – maybe especially in the days where a rising Instagram follower count and sponsored posts seem extremely appealing as a boost to one’s confidence, and even as the basis of one’s living. On competitions such as Big Brother, The Bachelor and Love Island, it’s not uncommon for participants who have once lived a normal and undisturbed life, to gain an extreme spike in followers and likes, and receiving opportunities such as having their own reality shows or designing clothing collections. Therefore, the desire of the appealing desire for the fame and fortune quickly and efficiently acquired by reality TV stars is what gravitates many in its audience to continue loving and watching.


However, not everybody loves reality TV. Some people claim that reality shows are for “unintellectual” people, as it doesn’t explore very groundbreaking concepts, and the people that we watch aren’t even actors playing an interesting role, they’re just people, being themselves. Don’t we see things like that everyday? And how can watching someone shopping at the grocery store be that fascinating, after all? There are also some that point out the irony in the “reality” of “reality show,” as most of the shows are completely scripted and for that reason not very “realistic” at all. Scripting reality shows ensures constant drama, and therefore may entice its audience with the right amount of thrill to keep them watching. Whether this strategy is true or not, it can still safely be said that the endless salacious drama and inclusion of social media elements which it contains allows for reality television to remain as relevant and popular as it is today.