If watching television has surpassed baseball in becoming America’s favorite past time, watching reality TV has our become our hot dog and peanuts. Just think about it; every time you turn the TV on you’re likely to catch a reality TV program. Dance Moms, The Voice, Dating Naked, Love and Hip Hop. Since it hit our TV screens in the early 2000’s, reality TV has changed how and what we enjoy watching on TV.
As with anything popular, this genre of TV doesn’t come without it’s fair share of criticism. Some shun reality TV for it’s glorification of ill manners, dysfunctional relationships or hyper-sexuality. Others enjoy taking a look into how people on the other side of religion, the poverty line or the world live. Like it or not reality TV is here to stay. Whether it’s watching the wives, fiances, girlfriends and er…jump-offs of NBA stars, brawl at brunch on Basketball Wives or watching women fight over one man and one rose on the Bachelor, we are tuned in to watch reality TV shows every week to catch every episode and we’ll be damned if we miss any parts of it.
Why do we love reality television so much? You know it’s just a collection of all that is wrong, wild and drunken in the world. Is it like driving past a car wreck on the street --- you just HAVE to peep it out? Whether we choose to attribute our attraction to FOMO ( fear of missing out, as the kids say) or not, I believe that our obsessions with reality TV run much deeper than a casual glance at the disaster unfolding in front of us.
At the most basic of understandings, we love reality TV because it’s an opportunity to admire the lives we don’t live. It’s a fantasy --- for 47 minutes we can be enthralled in the scandal, romance or comedy of someone else’s situation before going back to the regularly scheduled programming of our own lives. Reality TV is safe. There’s no repercussions to watching what happens to other people from afar, right? Wrong.
Going beyond the ground-level understanding of why we love reality TV is the belief that it feeds into not only our voyeuristic nature of peering into other people’s lives, but it drives our jealous nature of coveting what we don’t have. Our own insecurities about the songs we can’t sing, the recipes we can’t make, the jobs we don’t have or the cars we don’t drive are what keep us tuning in every week, wishing it was us with that talent, that car or that opportunity. However, that “keeping up with the Jones’ “ (or Kardashians) mentality is what makes reality TV unhealthy. The constant comparison between what we see on TV and our lives off screen shifts the standard of what is considered “normal.” These reality stars are not “just like us”. The typical American family does not have expendable income to blow on a month long vacation overseas nor can they afford to throw their 16 year old child a birthday party to rival their wedding, so why make it our guideline for what’s acceptable for our reality? There’s no need to base our self worth on what’s happening on TV.
And this isn’t just me talking in my “mom” voice. Research has shown that watching reality TV begins to shape one’s perceptions about the world around them. In fact a study by the American Psychological foundation found that heavy viewers were more prone to think women really do engage in arguing, gossiping, being verbally aggressive and other bad behaviors more than men. Heavy viewer also overestimated the prevalence of discord in relationships (meaning affairs and divorces) and the emphasis of sex in relationships.
But what about the reality TV shows that AREN’T all about flashing your wealth, physical challenge or serial dating? Not all reality television is condoning bad behavior or narcissism. Truth be told, some programming can actually have a positive impact. MTV’s 16 & Pregnant made us all hang our heads in disbelief when it first debuted in 2009. Season after season we’ve watched young mothers struggle with the perils of raising a baby while still being babies themselves. Although the show may appear to just be reality TV garbage that exploits teenaged girls into documenting their unplanned pregnancies, 16 & Pregnant and it’s spin offs Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2, may have actually done some good. According to a study conducted earlier this year by the CDC, statistics show that teen births (all births with females under 20) have shown a constant decline. Insight into the day-to-day struggles of these young mothers may help deter young women from wanting that same experience. MTV’s pregnant programming is a cautionary tale and a warning to young women about the consequences of their youthful actions.
Fact is, reality TV is as real as you make it. As TV lovers, we need to be able to differentiate between the fiction of reality TV and the facts of our personal lives. If we aren’t applying the principles and standards we see on TV to our principles and standards of living, reality TV has no power over our self esteem, bank account or social network. The reality TV culture of overindulgence and overachievement would have no affect on us if it stayed right where it is - on our screens.