The rise of reality TV has been a major boost to the entertainment industry. It's inexpensive to produce but ropes in hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of rands and dollars per season.
We watch them endlessly, sometimes binge-watching several seasons. Given the genre's enormous success, it's no surprise that spin-offs and new shows are being introduced every few months. One of my current favourites that makes me forget all of life's problems is Mzansi Magic's Date My Family. I mean, how can this not relieve your stress, even if just for a couple of seconds?
Dubbed "America's First Family", most of us are all too familiar with Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK), but what's the obsession in recent years with reality TV? Better yet, what makes us so interested in seeing what goes on in other people's lives that we'd dedicate a huge chunk of our time to it?
Reality TV: The beginning
It's only in the last decade – think Big Brother SA, Masterchef SA, etc. – that reality TV has emerged as a popular genre in South Africa, but it's been around in the U.S. since the 1920s. Think talent shows, talk shows, game shows, makeover and lifestyle shows, court television shows like Judge Judy, etc. In fact, the phenomenon of the genre has its roots in news and documentary programmes.
Candid Camera made its debut in the 1940s and became an instantaneous hit, while MTV's The Real World made its mark in the 90s. And then came shows like Survivor, the Amazing Race, and the explosion of reality TV in the 2000's, thanks to the Kardashian clan, sparked a booming interest in the genre and dominated the cultural conversation.
Big Brother SA first aired in 2001 and has nine seasons to date. This surely means that people find it fascinating to watch 12 housemates living in one house and witness their interaction with one another. The same goes for Survivor – people enjoy seeing how the "villains" use their backstabbing strategies to advance in the game.
But what is it that reality shows offer that other television programmes don't? While critics may consider the television genre as one that lacks substance and doesn't have any contribution to the cultural landscape of society, according to a survey conducted for her research paper, Nwabisa Zantsi discovered that there are in fact multi-faceted reasons for this.
In her study, Zantsi reveals that reality shows like Big Brother are watched for pure entertainment while other shows like KUWTK are on deck and watched to unwind from a stressful day, so it's purely for the purpose of relaxation. And let's not forget the comedy aspect of it.
Other times reality TV stars and their families become an empire because, well, pretty privilege.
Zanti's survey findings also indicates that many shows are watched because they make people forget about their own problems, and that the unscripted and unpredictability nature of the shows is what attracts their attention.
Another recent study by licensed clinical psychologist, Dr Wendy L. Patrick in Psychology Today found a direct link between watching reality TV and voyeurism.
In her study, she explains that due to our hectic schedules, we feel less connected with the people around us so we turn to these shows to find that connection in characters or contestants. The less connected you feel to the people around you, the more you'll seek the drama in reality TV shows.
Some people also said they enjoy the trivial dialogue of certain programmes.
Or feeling better about themselves when watching scenes like this.
Others prefer shows like The Bachelor because they have the chance to see people fall in love via a social experiment, and because the notion of attraction and repulsion has universal appeal, says U.S. talk show and radio host, Andrew Cohen.
When it comes to series like How To Get Away with Murder and CSI, people find it too exhausting to watch when all they desire is a bit of escape from reality. The irony. Series like the above require thought and engagement from viewers which, after a long day at work, no one has the energy for.
Of course, certain shows attract particular kinds of personalities. Bored? You're likely to settle for something like the Amazing Race. Stressed? It's Impractical Jokers you're looking for.
We also asked a few readers why they do or don't watch reality TV, and here's what they had to say:
Some programmes aren't about seeking entertainment, though. In the same study, the motivation for consuming shows like Khumbul’ekhaya – a show that reconnects loved ones – is that it allows for an emotional release of feelings.
Interestingly, for viewers, competitive programmess like Master Chef and America's Next Top Model were relatable since they highlight the ups and downs and overcoming trials throughout the season to eventually reach success. Many saw it as a metaphor for life. Now that's deep.
"It illustrates how hard it is for people to achieve their dreams and that it takes a lot of determination and hard work to obtain success,” said one participant in the study.After all, reality TV is a microcosm of society and simply reflects society as it is, right? Hm, it depends.
Sitcom or reality TV?
Ah, the endless debate. Is the drama fake? Are the shows fully-scripted and staged? Have the Kardashian-Jenner's built an entire empire around a fake-"reality"?
Truth is, no show gets produced without a script. This article by HuffPost South Africa explains that while there are no laws barring producers from scripting reality TV shows, viewers have an expectation of authenticity when it comes to the genre. Fair enough.
However, ratings need to remain high, so ultimately, each episode will have a synopsis and a minimal script in a non-traditional sense. This means that instead of writers spending time on creating set lines for the stars, situations are created that would otherwise not have happened.
If unscripted, producers may face the risk of reality stars saying things that could end up in lawsuits, which would also require hours of unnecessary editing. That, and the fact that even these stars lead pretty regular and mundane lives, but when scripted, outfalls, comedy and suspense become a big part of the shows.
A hilarious (scripted) series, UnREAL breaks it down for us.
So where is reality TV headed?
If you think reality TV is just a phase in thousands of family homes and that the audience will soon outgrow it, think again. The genre has definitely changed the face of television programming as being the audience’s preferred choice of programme.
The Hollywood Reporter notes that the most promising reality trend in the past year has been a continued dominance of aspirational shows, so we might be seeing a boost in the near future.
And the expectation really isn't high – reality TV is so popular because people want to see something real even if it is contrived and artificial. Despite being TV's most underestimated genre, it will continue to spawn plenty more seasons.
Simply put, the category is becoming so huge that there is something for everyone, so it is here to stay.
Sign up to W24’s newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our hot stories and giveaways.