How reality TV has played with our reality

How reality TV has played with our reality

Ideas53:59A Reality Check on Reality TV

For a once-disdained television genre, reality TV has sustained its appeal to audiences through more than 25 years of programming.

IDEAS explored the history and meaning of some key shows for audiences, and how our own reality meets up with their constructed reality.

Here are five shows that generated popular, critical, and academic interest.

An American Family (1973) 

This experimental PBS docu-series is often seen as the precursor of reality TV. It followed the lives of an upper-class California family named the Louds. Filmed for weeks in their home, the footage was edited down to 12 one-hour episodes.

The family included an openly gay son, Lance Loud, and his parents, who were heading toward divorce. Though sedate by today’s standards, America audiences were transfixed by this troubled depiction of domestic life, caught on camera. 

“Interesting is the illusion of filming the Louds as if TV weren’t there. The producer’s triumph was to say: ‘They lived as if we were not there.’ An absurd, paradoxical formula — neither true nor false.”

– French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard

Family photo of the Louds, from left: Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Lance. Front, from left:Michele, Pat and Bill.
An American Family is an example of early reality TV. During the course of the documentary series, Lance Loud announced he was gay, making him the first person on TV to do so. The Loud parents’ relationship ended during filming, with Pat asking Bill for a divorce. Back, from left: Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Lance. Front, from left: Michele, Pat and Bill. (Wikimedia)

Teen Mom (2009-2021) and Sixteen and Pregnant (2009-2014)

MTV reality series’ that following the lives of, and challenges faced by new teenage mothers, the shows sparked a brief media panic that young female viewers could get dazzled by the glamour of reality TV, and get pregnant simply for the fame. In actual fact, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S were already in steep decline when they aired, and declined faster after their release. 

“I think audiences have always been more nuanced than that, but there’s a lot of moral panic around feminized texts as a bad influence on young women. (There is a) concern that it’s a bad influence, even as many of them are reinforcing dominant norms or stereotypes about femininity.”

– Erin Meyers, American academic and author of Extraordinarily Ordinary: Us Weekly and the Rise of Reality Television Celebrity 


The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills (2006-present)

The cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (L-R) Kathy Hilton, Annemarie Wiley, Garcelle Beauvais, Kyle Richards, Crystal Kung Minkoff and Erika Jayne arrive for the 2024 People's Choice awards at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California, February 18, 2024.
The recent cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (L-R) Kathy Hilton, Annemarie Wiley, Garcelle Beauvais, Kyle Richards, Crystal Kung Minkoff and Erika Jayne during the 2024 People’s Choice awards, Feb.18, 2024. (Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images)

 The extravagant lives and drama-filled friendships of wealthy, entitled women has meant audience gold for the Bravo network, generating endless spin-offs. These series coincided with the rise in social media discourse around reality shows, with viewers commenting not only on the drama, but on time disjunctions, manufactured controversies, and inconsistencies in the presentation of the wives’ lives: the unreal reality presented by the makers of the shows.

“We’re aware of how things are mediated in our own lives. And I think there’s been a lot of talk, in general about media construction and media framing, everything from entertainment shows to including news reporting. I wouldn’t say we’re a fully media literate society. But there is a greater awareness of the construction of media, and that becomes part of the fun. ‘If this is supposed to be real, how am I able to see the moments where the construction is happening?”

– Erin Meyers, academic and author

Vanderpump Rules (2013-present)

What began as a reality show about broke servers working at one of the Housewives’ restaurants, became a reality show about reality show stars, balancing their personal lives and the scrutiny of reality stardom. In 2023, “Scandoval,” a cheating scandal involving cast members Tom Sandoval and longtime girlfriend Arianna Madix, rocked the show and caused reality to break out in unexpected ways.

 In this image released on June 5, Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix attend the 2022 MTV Movie & TV Awards
Tom Sandoval and longtime girlfriend Ariana Madix broke up in March 2023. The couple is on Vanderpump Rules and what became known as the ‘Scandoval’ refers to Tom cheating on Arianna, with her friend Raquel. The affair was going on behind the scenes of the reality TV show. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MTV )

“It puts us in this inherently ambiguous moral situation because we are dealing with real people, or they’re at least a form of real or a form of half real, half fictional. The story’s not over until they die. And human beings are endlessly interpretable and reinterpretable. There’s always another layer to a human being, always another backstory that nobody knows about yet. Always the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.”  

– Tom Syverson, magazine writer and author of Reality Squared

Love is Blind (2020-present)

The Netflix series, in which attractive romantic hopefuls meet behind walls, encounter each other face-to-face, and then try to continue the journey from engagement to marriage, has been enormously popular with audiences and is internationally franchised.

Viewers debate as to whether contestants are ‘authentic’ in their desire to meet a mate, what they might be hiding in their pasts, and whether they have the emotional breadth to satisfy each other. But is our sense of romantic reality real?

Bartise Bowden and Love Is Blind
Bartise Bowden was one of 15 men on the Netflix reality TV series, Love Is Blind, in 2022. Fifteen women, all from the same metropolitan area, joined them. For 10 days, the men and women dated each other in what the show called ‘pods,’ talking through a speaker but never seeing each other. (Getty Images for Netflix)

“What doesn’t change is that people are attracted to each other, right? What changes, what shifts historically is the way that that attraction is coded. In other words, how it’s made meaningful. What do you do with those feelings? How do you make those feelings meaningful through various kinds of practices, various modes of speech. 

“And of course, what you do when you are in romance is one of the things that reality TV might provide a context for. So what’s interesting, I think, about romance and reality TV are the kinds of practices that are established around what it is to be in a romance.”

 – Brett Nicholls, New Zealand academic, and editor of the international academic journal, Baudrillard Now. 

Listen to Reality Check by downloading the IDEAS podcast from your favourite app.


Guests in this episode:

Dave Moses is a television writer and producer, who worked on Real Housewives of Toronto, Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH, and Tricked.

Brett Nicholls is a senior lecturer in the department of media, film and communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Erin Meyers is a professtor of communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and the author of Extraordinarily Ordinary: Us Weekly and the Rise of Reality Television Celebrity. 

Tom Syverson is a writer and the author of Reality Squared.

*This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

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