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Reality TV

Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture

Susan Murray
Laurie Ouellette
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 358
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  • Book Info
    Reality TV
    Book Description:

    Survivor.The Bachelor.Extreme Makeover.Big Brother.Joe Millionaire.American Idol.The Osbournes. It is virtually impossible to turn on a television without coming across some sort of reality programming. Yet, while this genre has rapidly moved from the fringes of television culture to its lucrative core, critical attention has not kept pace.

    Beginning by unearthing its historical roots in early reality shows likeCandid Cameraand wending its way throughAn American Family,Cops, andThe Real Worldto the most recent crop of reality programs,Reality TVis the first book to address the economic, visual, cultural, and audience dimensions of reality television. The essays provide a complex and comprehensive picture of how and why this genre emerged, what it means, how it differs from earlier television programming, and how it engages societies, industries, and individuals. Topics range from the construction of televisual "reality" to the changing face of criminal violence on TV, to issues of surveillance, taste, and social control.

    By spanning reality television's origins in the late 1940s to its current overwhelming popularity,Reality TVdemonstrates both the tenacity of the format and its enduring ability to speak to our changing political and social desires and anxieties.

    Contributors include: Nick Couldry, Mary Beth Haralovich, John Hartley, Chuck Kleinhans, Derek Kompare, Jon Kraszewski, Kathleen LeBesco, Justin Lewis, Ted Magder, Jennifer Maher, Anna McCarthy, Rick Morris, Chad Raphael, Elayne Rapping, Jeffrey Sconce, Michael W. Trosset, Pamela Wilson.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-3087-9
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)
    Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray

    In May 2007, the Dutch public television network BNN announced that it would soon airThe Big Donor Show,a reality program in which a 37-year-old woman who is dying from a brain tumor agrees to donate her kidney to one of three contestants. She will choose the recipient by watching interviews with the contestants’ families and by considering the opinions of the audience, which votes on its choice bySMS(short message service) text message. The declaration triggered a contentious debate about the current state of TV, in which critics across the globe pondered the (to some) outrageous premise...


    • 1 “Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt, and Me”: Postwar Social Science and the “First Wave” of Reality TV
      (pp. 23-43)
      Anna McCarthy

      Charles Siepmann, a professor of television studies at New York University, wrote the above note in response to a telecast of the Ford Foundation’s prestigious arts and culture variety programOmnibusin 1954.¹ One of several in-house critics hired byOmnibus ’sproducer, Robert Saudek, Siepmann wrote weekly reviews of the 90-minute program for the entire 1954–55 season. The representation of “life” that drew his praise was a short, humorous hidden camera film calledChildren of the U.N.The film was shot at an international school in New York and featured interviews with and observational footage of children from...

    • 2 Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions (with Afterword)
      (pp. 44-64)
      John Corner

      Where do we locateBig Brother,and the shift in the relationship between television and everyday life that it signals, within the generic system of the medium? This generic system is not, as we know, a neat and stable set of discrete categories of work. It is a changing and increasingly hybridized set of practices, forms, and functions, one in which both cultural and commodity values lie most often in the right blend of the familiar and the new, of fulfilled expectation and shock.

      We might placeBig Brotherwithin the history of the game show—this would certainly be...

    • 3 “I Think We Need a New Name for It”: The Meeting of Documentary and Reality TV
      (pp. 65-81)
      Susan Murray

      Shooting with handheld cameras, a film crew follows the everyday happenings and interpersonal relationships of an upper-middle-class California family for seven months. Television viewers have a “fly-on-the wall” perspective as they engage in heated political debates at the dinner table, frequent neighborhood dinner parties, struggle with internal and external conflicts, take vacations, work, and attend high school. Viewers are also privy to the breakdown of the parent’s marriage and the details of one son’s openly gay lifestyle in New York City. All of this is tied together through interweaving multiple plot lines, presented without voice-over narration or interviews, and edited...

    • 4 Teaching Us to Fake It: The Ritualized Norms of Television’s “Reality” Games
      (pp. 82-99)
      Nick Couldry

      Whatever its contribution to the overblown claims of semiotics as a general “science” of language, Roland Barthes’s analysis of “myth”¹ and its connection to ideology remains useful as a specific tool to understand particular types of media language such as advertising and also, I suggest, that most striking recent phenomenon, “reality television.” Myth itself, Ernesto Laclau has argued, is increasingly a requirement of contemporary societies whose divisions and dislocations multiply.² If this is correct, reality TV’s mythical claim to represent an increasingly complex social space, for example in the largely entertainment mode of the gamedoc or reality game show, may...

    • 5 Extraordinarily Ordinary: The Osbournes as “An American Family”
      (pp. 100-120)
      Derek Kompare

      On March 5, 2002, onMTV,a voice-over invited us to “meet the perfect American family.” A teenage girl is seen throwing a ball at her brother’s crotch; their mother tells the camera she’s not Mother Theresa, and then tells her children to “shut the fuck up and go to bed.” We see the son making annoying noises and the daughter dismissing other people’s opinions about her hair. Finally, we’re introduced to the dad, who screams “rock and roll!” at the camera and is shown in a quick montage of behavior: gyrating onstage, getting out of airplanes, watching TV, walking...


    • 6 The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV
      (pp. 123-140)
      Chad Raphael

      From the sea change in American television in the 1980s emerged a programming trend variously described as “infotainment,” “reality-based television,” “tabloid TV,” “crime-time television,” “trash TV,” and “on-scene shows.” The welter of terms created by television critics to describe these new programs masked their underlying connection as a response to economic restructuring within the industry. In this essay I offer a rough categorization of these programs, sketch the industrial context from which they emerged, and point to the economic problems they were meant to solve. I focus mostly on the distinctive conditions of prime-time series, putting aside made-for-TV docudramas and...

    • 7 Television 2.0: The Business of American Television in Transition
      (pp. 141-164)
      Ted Magder

      Not so long ago, the prime-time television universe in America had a fixed point of reference. It was Thursday night, the night coveted by advertisers trying to reach audiences before the weekend, a night dominated throughout the 1990s by NBC’s formidable lineup of programming, self-lovingly dubbed “Must See TV.” In its final iteration, which began withFriendsat 8:00 PM and ended at 11:00 PM whenERwas over,NBC’sMust See TV embodied the classic elements of American network television: to capture and hold a large audience over the course of an entire evening with a mix of situation...

    • 8 Hoaxing the “Real”: On the Metanarrative of Reality Television
      (pp. 165-178)
      Alison Hearn

      Schoolteacher Randi Coy deliberately deceives her family, convincing them that she is engaged to marry a stranger that she has met on a “reality show”; she doesn’t know that her big, fat, obnoxious fiance, Steve, is an actor, hired to make her the butt of the joke. Ana, a 20-something woman from Georgia, weeps in front of the camera as she expresses how much she wants to win a job as Andy Dick’s personal assistant; she is oblivious to the fact that she is an unpaid participant in Andy Dick’s elaborate parody of all reality shows. Exhausted and emotional after...

    • 9 Global TV Realities: International Markets, Geopolitics, and the Transcultural Contexts of Reality TV
      (pp. 179-202)
      John McMurria

      In January 2007, U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 and global TV format producer Endemol placed 10 international celebrities in a confined space equipped with 37 cameras for the most recent installment ofCelebrity Big Brotherincluding Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, Jackson Five member Jermaine Jackson, Hollywood actor Dirk Benedict ofA-Teamfame, former Miss Great Britain Danielle Lloyd, former S Club 7 band member Jo O’Meara, and Big Brother veteran turned celebrity Jade Goody. A series of racially charged events ensued. Goody’s mother asked Shetty if she lived in a “house or shack” and referred to her as “the Indian.” Goody’s...


    • 10 Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World
      (pp. 205-222)
      Jon Kraszewski

      Within the very first minutes of its series premiere,MTV’s The Real Worldannounced that race would be one of the show’s most prominent cultural concerns. As its premise, the first season brought together seven strangers between the ages of 19 and 26 in a luxurious New York City loft for 13 weeks.¹ The show seemed to capture a real life portrayal of young adults living in the wake of the Rodney King trial and the riots in Los Angeles, both of which occurred just a few months beforeThe Real World’sMay 1992 debut. As the roommates sat down...

    • 11 “Take Responsibility for Yourself ”: Judge Judy and the Neoliberal Citizen
      (pp. 223-242)
      Laurie Ouellette

      A woman drags her ex-boyfriend to court over an overdue adult movie rental and an unpaid loan. A woman is heartbroken when her best friend betrays her and ruins her credit. A smooth-talking ex-boyfriend claims money from his ex was a gift.Welcome toJudge Judy,queen of the courtroom program, where judges resolve “real-life” disputes between friends, family members, neighbors, and former lovers on national television.

      For critics who equate television’s role in democracy with serious news and public affairs, altercations over broken engagements, minor fender benders, carpet stains, unpaid personal loans, and the fate of jointly purchased household...

    • 12 Belabored Reality: Making It Work on The Simple Life and Project Runway
      (pp. 243-259)
      Heather Hendershot

      In season 1of The Simple Life,the apparently soulless Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, French kiss the local boys, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ol’ grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to.The Simple Life...

    • 13 Cinderella Burps: Gender, Performativity, and the Dating Show
      (pp. 260-277)
      Jonathan Gray

      From rodent-eating contests onFear Factor to Copschasing naked old men, reality television offers no shortage of excess. One of its most gloriously excessive, camp, and carnivalesque beauties is that of the dating show. Take, for instance, FOX’sTemptation Island(2001), which took four established couples to a remote island, separated them, and brought in 40 skimpy bathing suit–wearing singles to test the couples’ faithfulness. Or turn to ABC’sThe Bachelor(2002– ), where 25 women compete for one man. The women agree beforehand to claim him, sight unseen, as their ideal spouse, and though the game involves...

    • 14 The Comedic Treatment of Reality: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, Fat Actress, and The Comeback
      (pp. 278-298)
      Heather Osborne-Thompson

      In 2005, three reality-inflected series featuring female comedians appeared on American cable networks: Bravo’sKathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,a six-part “special” based on the life of stand-up comedian Kathy Griffin, and Showtime’sFat Actressand HBO’sThe Comeback—two half-hour comedies about fictional former sitcom stars featuring actual former sitcom stars Kirstie Alley and Lisa Kudrow.¹

      Their appearances came in the wake of two closely related trends in post–network television comedy: a renewed interest on the part of the traditional networks in inexpensive and unscripted reality television formats that began with the introduction of such popular...


    • 15 Melancholy, Merit, and Merchandise: The Postwar Audience Participation Show
      (pp. 301-320)
      Amber Watts

      Between 2003 and 2005, American reality television experienced a significant shift in tone. While castaways continued to backstab one another on Survivor, neighbors glued hay onto one another’s living room walls whileTrading Spaces,and Simon Cowell lambasted untalentedAmerican Idolauditioners, a slew of other shows premiered with the ostensible goal of helping people in need. Writing about the premiere ofWife Swapin 2004,New York Timestelevision critic Alessandra Stanley declared, “The revolution known as reality television has reached its Thermidor: pathos, verging on bathos, is the ruling fashion.”¹

      Indeed, this period saw the debut of many...

    • 16 Visceral Literacy: Reality TV, Savvy Viewers, and Auto-Spies
      (pp. 321-342)
      Mark Andrejevic

      Reality TV, we are told insistently by pundits, critics, and assorted pop culture gurus, caters to the viewer as voyeur. The popular genre is, as media historian Neal Gabler put it, “above all . . . about old-fashioned voyeurism—providing us the entertainment of seeing something and imagining something that television had never allowed us to see or imagine.”¹ In one sense, such observations are hard to dispute; clearly there is an element of voyeurism in the appeal of shows that allow us to observe first-hand the personal lives of others—their loves and losses, their fights, their grief, rage,...

    • 17 Buying into American Idol: How We Are Being Sold on Reality Television
      (pp. 343-362)
      Henry Jenkins

      Who would have predicated that reality television series, such asSurvivor(2000) andAmerican Idol(2002), would turn out to be the first killer applications of media convergence—the big new thing that demonstrated the power that lurks at the intersection between old and new media? Initial experiments with interactive television in the mid-1990s were largely written off as failures. Most people didn’t want to stop watching television just to buy the clothes one of theFriends(1994) was wearing. Few were interested in trivia quizzes flashing up at the bottom of the screen during sportscasts or James Bond movies....

  9. About the Contributors
    (pp. 363-366)
  10. Index
    (pp. 367-377)