The Reality of Reality TV

From “An American Family” to “The Bachelor”: Why do we get so invested in reality TV?

Since the airing of “An American Family,” the first-ever reality TV show, different shows have garnered headlines in tabloid papers and magazines nearly year-round in what many describe as a cultural phenomenon.

Lately, it’s been hard to avoid the influx of tweets from season 15 of “The Bachelorette,” which inundate the Twitter timeline come “Bachelor Mondays.” 

“I think that the idea of people competing for love—it’s incredibly universal,” said Jose Soto, an assistant professor in DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts. “The struggle is people trying to or kidding themselves into love. I mean, it’s enjoyable to watch.”

With shows like “The Bachelor,” it may seem challenging to keep crowds engaged, given the similar content every season. But the repetitiveness may be what makes the show appealing. 

Annalisa Baranowski and Marlee Chlystek / The DePaulia
In the UK, 70 percent of the population admit to watching reality TV on a regular basis, according to a survey by

“I don’t think enjoyment or pleasure necessarily requires novelty,” said Alexander Thimons, an adjunct media and cinema studies professor at DePaul. “One reason why people seek out repetitive TV shows may be because the repetition is itself relaxing or comforting, especially if viewers’ own lives are hectic or tumultuous.”

For television viewers between the ages of 18 to 24, 28 percent said that the primary reason they watch reality TV is because of the drama, according to a 2017 survey by Statista. 

“On the one hand, people may watch shows from a position of ironic superiority, laughing at the ridiculous actions of the characters/participants and feeling better about themselves as a result,” Thimons said. “On the other hand, reality shows may allow viewers to take pleasure in the characters who act in ‘bad’ or socially unacceptable ways—because these characters are doing things that the viewers themselves cannot. There also may be sincere emotional investment in the characters’ lives and journeys. I think it’s possible to view reality shows for all three of these reasons at once.”

Creating these environments is one of the key components in putting together a reality TV show. Soto, who worked on the hit reality TV show ‘Big Brother,’ said that the most time is spent on casting when it comes to the genre. 

“It’s really important that producers and the people who run the shows have the perfect people that the audience can vote for or hate on any kind of competition show,” he said. “If you don’t have that, then nobody is gonna watch it.”

Though the worlds created by reality TV producers bring in viewers, some say their involvement hinders the realness of the reality show.  

“Maybe the only redeeming quality [of reality TV] is that it’s entertaining and based on the lives of other people and perspectives,” said Jess Schmidt, an undergraduate student at UIC. “But it’s hard to determine what actually is reality and what’s staged.”

Despite the fact that reality TV show phenomenons like “Survivor” and “The Bachelor” are accompanied each season by fandoms and months-long build-ups, it’s unlikely the viewership is as high as it may seem in the social media echo chamber. 

“There are shows that have nearly as many viewers as ‘cultural phenomenon’ shows, but that aren’t discussed as phenomenons because the audience may be mostly a demographic that is undesirable to advertisers and whose cultural tastes are not discussed in the press, such as the elderly,” Thimons said.

Annalisa Baranowski and Marlee Chlystek / The DePaulia
In a survey, it was found that for U.S. girls between the ages of 12 and 17, three of their four favorite shows were reality TV.

He added that even the most popular shows on television today don’t come close to matching the viewership of popular shows during the network era, like “M*A*S*H” or “All in the Family,” largely due to the introduction of cable and streaming. 

Though the way people watch television is changing, it’s unlikely these shows will ever disappear. 

“Probably the one thing that draws people out the most to this thing is the illusion that these people might be just like you,” Soto said. “It’s just not actors pretending to be like you. This is really people like you trying to achieve something. They can pick anybody on the street and then that person becomes a superstar. That is the ultimate dream that a lot of people have.”