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June 4, 2003
Reality TV and the Changing Face of American Culture
 

It's impossible to understand fully the popularity of reality TV without considering the profound ways American culture has changed in recent years. Thanks to the Information Revolution, we have grown accustomed to regarding ourselves as de facto experts in everything from medicine to world affairs. We feel entitled to act as publishers, producers, and authors of entertainment (i.e. weblogs); as aristocratic connoisseurs of the good life (i.e. consumer product reviews on sites like Amazon.com); and as titans of business and investing (i.e. online equities trading). We have also become obsessed with thinking about ourselves, our histories, our personalities. Reality programming is ultimately successful because it affirms our identities as "empowered" consumers in ways traditional sit-coms and dramas cannot.

It's common knowledge that we don't wish to be coddled, led by the hand, told what to believe. Skeptical of media and marketing, we seek ready affirmation of our own, personal authority. Enter reality TV. Although specific reality shows may appear more or less scripted, the viewing experience they provide remains unencumbered by condescending laugh tracks, cookie-cutter characters, or predictable plot-lines. The reality genre thus asks viewers to watch actively to scrutinize scenes in uncut form, judge their content, and arrive at their own conclusions about their meaning. This absence of pre-packaged meaning is an important reason why programs such as ABC's The Bachelorette routinely inspire such extensive post-show gossip. With the responsibility cast squarely on them, viewers assess for themselves the exploits of Trista, Ryan, and the others, then clarify and confirm this meaning by powwowing with their peers.

Reality TV is "do it yourself" TV. Some shows permit viewers to craft the plot directly by voting certain characters off the show. The genre as a whole features low-budget production values recalling the masterpieces consumers produce at home using digital cameras and editing software. A do-it-yourself ethic also dominates the content of many current reality programs. Think of the numerous unscripted shows that help viewers learn to cook-it-yourself, design-it-yourself, build-it-yourself, remodel-it-yourself. And then there are programs that depict everyday people engaged in all sorts of intriguing activities, surviving on an obscure tropical island (CBS's Survivor), pledging a fraternity (MTV's Fraternity Life), traveling the world (CBS's Amazing Race), dating a celebrity (E!'s Stardates).

Of course, reality TV doesn't merely allow consumers to date celebrities, but also to become celebrities themselves. It is worth noting that thousands of young, wanna-be pop-stars auditioned this past season to appear on Fox's American Idol, a talent competition whose winner receives a major-label recording contract. Dazzled by our own powers, we seem to feel we can do anything, have anything, become anything. And why shouldn't we? As children, we experience an encouraging, affirmative style of parenting as well as the "empowering" experience of grade inflation in the schools. As adults, we are entranced by our own greatness, and think it quite obvious that the general public should wish to experience our god-given gifts first-hand.

Reality TV works by indulging these pretentions. It is striking how many reality shows entice viewers by promising to bestow the blessings of fame on talented unknowns. On MTV's Who's Got Game, for instance, twelve street basketball players selected by producer Magic Johnson compete for recognition as the best in America. Star Search (CBS), America's Most Talented Kids (NBC), Nashville Star (USA), America's Next Top Model (UPN), Last Comic Standing (NBC), Are You Hot? (ABC), Meet the Marks (FOX), all testify to Hollywood's understanding of the narcissistic fantasies that go hand in hand with consumer empowerment.

If we increasingly have the power to custom-tailor goods and services to our tastes, we are also overwhelmed by the thousands of cable channels, radio stations, and web-sites, not to mention the seemingly endless varieties of products like tooth-paste and cola. Reality TV powerfully evokes this dilemma of choice. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that reality TV is fundamentally about choice. Beyond talent competitions that pick a winner from amidst a crowd of losers, dating programs such as ABC's The Bachelor, Fox's Joe Millionnaire, NBC's Meet My Folks, Fox's Married by America, Fox's Mr. Personality, and NBC's Love Shack take viewers through a simulated process of mate-selection, portraying the joys and challenges of choice, as well as the fallout from a choice gone wrong. Since picking a romantic partner is the most difficult choice any of us make in our daily lives, such programming represents reality TV at its freshest, most relevant, most fascinating, and most challenging for the empowered consumer.

While many observers have decried the shock value and voyeurism of particular reality TV shows, the true basis for the genre's popularity may lie elsewhere. With each passing season, we learn to see ourselves even more convincingly as the entitled, talented stargazers we believe ourselves to be. Now that advertisers such as AT&T and Coke are sponsoring high-profile shows, we also learn to see particular products as enablers of this thriving individuality. What we lose sight of are the hidden ways that "empowerment" also burdens us. We eagerly take on the "empowered" roles of director, of judge, and of celebrity, but are rarely reminded, in the timeless words of Peter Parker in the movie Spiderman, that "with great power comes great responsibility." With all the focus on us, we paradoxically lose a sense of our own place in the larger world. We lose, in short, a sense of our own reality.


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As Hill Holliday's first ever cultural interpreter, Seth Schulman studies people, their mindsets, and their habits. Then Seth presents those insights to marketers. Sounds like a cool gig, but Seth says the job is science-packed. Before joining Hill Holliday, Seth earned a Ph.D. in Cultural History from Brown University and was a research associate at Harvard Business School. Brand success may soon come as a prescription, from Dr. Schulman.

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