Today we have numerous reality television shows portraying a manifold of situations from dating, marriage, and living together to home decorating and even house flipping; not forgetting to mention the various game shows, competitions, and traveling that also tend to capture our attention. Why has this form of television programming become so popular among the masses? Since most people assume that this sort of television is unscripted we can assume that people take in some sort of values from Reality TV. But what exactly are the reasons that this form of programming has become a seemingly inseparable part of our society?
It will help us to look at this phenomenon through the lens of various theoretical perspectives commonly used by sociologist. There are three main explanations that are used to describe how two or more facts are related to one another. These are symbolic interactionism, functional analysis, and conflict theory. We will first look at what these theories are and after describing each one will apply them to the reality TV community.
First, symbolic interactionism is the study of how people use things to which they attach meaning, also known as symbols, to develop their views of the world and to communicate with one another. Symbolic interactionist attempt to describe the way people evaluate their own behavior by comparing it to the behavior of others. In the case of reality TV, part of the reason it has become so popular is that people who watch reality television compare themselves and their actions with that of the reality TV stars. After viewing these programs some will be left will an enhanced feeling of self-worth from the positive attributes or even the negative characteristics of those being viewed thus justifying their own behaviors. While others, out their need to fit into society, may modify their own actions based on the perceived reality of the television show. It is easy to see that the way people interpret the various symbols in reality TV programs could effect society as a whole. This effect is perhaps best studied though functional analysis.
Functional analysis is the study of society as a whole unit, made up of individual parts that work together. One of the functions of the reality TV craze is that viewers see the various new fashions and technology, through product placement, and hear the latest slang of the participants. This allows them to be right in step with our ever changing society and puts money in the pockets of those placing their products on the program. Another function of the phenomenon is that people in society that previously had nothing in common can now seemingly carry on conversations as if longtime friends because they both view the same show. One latent dysfunction of reality TV is that some perceiving the characters to be perhaps more “real” than they actually are, attempt to emulate some of the outrageous actions of the characters on the program. Others making the same mistake develop unhealthy views of their own bodies and do things they wouldn’t normally do such as drastic dieting and cosmetic modifications because those program make those things appear to be the norm. This could be latent or manifest depending on the intentions of the producers and advertisers. The third theory that sociologist use to describe social life is somewhat the opposite of functionalism. This perspective is known as conflict theory.
Unlike functionalism that views society as a whole with each part working together, conflict theory views society as groups in competition with one another for scarce resources. This competition, that is the focus of conflict theory, provides for some of the most entertaining aspects of reality television. Some shows pit two or more teams against each other in competition with a prize for the winner. Some programs have individuals compete for power over the whole group thus giving the winner of the individual contest more say in the overall winner of the competition. Nearly all reality television shows use some sort of conflict over resources to keep their ratings going through the roof. It seem as though people easily relate to the manufactured struggles because of the struggles that exist daily in their own lives.
Even though there are a few people that are not impressed by reality TV it seems apparent that this is a fad that is not going anywhere anytime soon. As we have seen through symbolic interactionism, functional analysis, and conflict theory reality TV has become an integral part of society whether for the good or the bad.