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The Reality Addiction

May 3, 2012

One afternoon while watching episode after episode of recommended shows on Hulu, I came across a new show. In hopes of adding it to my growing collection of guilty pleasure favorites I clicked on the first episode that wasn’t already on Hulu Plus. Not minding that I started in the middle of a season, I was almost immediately aware that it wasn’t going to be a problem. The start of the episode explained and set itself up pretty easily. Then it went on to show a panicked mother pacing back and forth seeming like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she was sweating and it looked like her eyes were about to pop out, knowing the look I prepared myself for what was coming up next. The mother started to make a scene; people were yelling and cursing as well as dramatic walk-outs and of course crying.  The behavior displayed was terrible, and I was hooked. Shows like Dance Moms and other reality television are growingly addictive and have stolen prime TV spots on many major networks. It isn’t surprising that these shows have become the norm of television, but many people solely look at this as just normal. This isn’t a bad thing, but then again why is it considered normal to be so entertained by people, who you don’t know, throwing things at each other and fighting?

            The effect that the media has on the public is an obvious influence; however I can’t help but think are we being led to a false conclusion? It doesn’t surprise me that the media twists and exaggerates to make for a more interesting plot line, or else reality television would be dull and ordinary. Many people have concluded to simple ideas when it comes to reality TV. Many assume that the people on the shows are larger than life and out of control or they see that the shows are actually fake. This is a problem because the media industry is much larger than what most people assume it to be. Although these conclusions are not necessarily wrong, they need to be further examined. What most people assume the television industry to be like is only the beginning of something very interesting. As reality TV is becoming more common we need to think what its effects are on the public. Although people can watch TV absent-mindedly, many of the show’s contents are stored into the back of the viewer’s mind. Research has shown that these shows are more than just scripted entertainment, reality TV is much more, and throughout this paper I’ll look closely at the effects of reality TV.

            The main importance to start out is the reasoning of reality television’s addicting and popular qualities. Many people get sucked into watching episode after episode of reality TV shows like Jersey Shore, or Toddlers and Tiaras but why? These personalities on TV that fight, sleep, flip tables and scheme their ways to the top are embedded into our heads and we constantly think about these things. What everyone needs to remember is that media affects us, greatly, everything we hear, watch or read is constantly influencing our behavior more than we realize and it actually has a name it’s called media priming (Schexnayder). Which kind of sounds like something from Big Brother where the public’s thoughts are always being controlled, but aren’t they? We are surrounded by media and are constantly being influenced by television. When we realize how much we’re being influenced, it’s then that we need to see how we’re being influenced. In a study hundreds of girls from 11-17 years old were surveyed. They were asked about the effects of reality TV and how they can influence others (Melnick). The majority said that they knew reality TV was a bad influence and had negative effects. However, when the girls were presented with statements like, “You have to be mean to others to get what you want” 28% of them agreed while only 18% disagreed (Melnick). This survey continued with similar questions having the same result of the majority of the girls agreeing with the negative statements. When these young girls see “Sammi Sweetheart” flip tables and pull girl’s hair, they think that this action is appropriate and a normal way of handling a situation. However if survey continues to prove that more and more kids are acting the way in which reality TV portrays different personalities the situation could get out of hand.

The younger generation is constantly watching people fight each other who and are not afraid of any repercussions (Melnick). This doesn’t exactly set up the ideal situation of a middle school filled with teenagers who could care less about getting detention or expelled for fighting, because that’s what they saw their favorite reality star do.  Reality TV alters people’s perspectives of what is right and what is wrong. Along with this people, mainly girls, are being taught to fight and have competition with each other rather than supporting each other (Melnick). This could lead to hostile environments where the younger generation has a notion of always competing, arguing and fighting everyday with their parents, peers and friends.

            What we have so far is that reality TV influence the viewers who watch the shows, they can alter people’s thoughts of right and wrong as well as subject people to body issues and bullying. But, how are these messages getting across, and why are people insisting on more shows exactly like the ones we have out now? The other day I was watching an episode of 16 & Pregnant and as I watched one of the girls who was pregnant get dumped by her baby’s daddy, I caught myself saying “I’m glad I’m not that stupid” and then I realized that the only reason why I liked watching this show is because I get mild enjoyment out of the fact that even though I may be stressed out in my life, it isn’t as bad as what I was watching on TV. I recognize that this is a sick feeling to have, but after researching I became aware that I wasn’t the only who felt like that, there’s actually a name for it and it’s called Shadenfreude. Shadenfreude means, positive feelings some people get when they see others’ misfortunes (Schexnayder). Psychologists have said that it is actually just an extension of social comparison (Schexnayder). It is known that many people see watching TV as a form of relaxation, and from this relaxation people get self-satisfaction and comfort with their own selves, and this all happens without getting up off the couch.

            Another important factor when discussing reality TV is the so called “real” factor of reality shows. Most of the shows on TV have stock characters; you have the usual party boy/girl who is always ready for a good time, the innocent small town character and the feisty black woman with an attitude. Reality TV has encouraged these stereotypes for the sole purpose to have viewers relate with the characters and have them be familiar with them. MSNBC quotes Todd Boyd, critical-studies professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television who talks about such stock characters,

“We know all these shows are edited and manipulated to create images that look real and sort of exist in real time. But really what we have is a construction. … The whole enterprise of reality television relies on stereotypes. It relies on common stock, easily identifiable images.”


 These shows are edited in way to make people seem different than they actually are, many participants on reality TV have remarked on the fact that the editors have created their personality. A good example of this is the show The Apprentice on the show Manigault-Stallworth, who was said to be “the most hated person on TV”, wrote an e-mail to MSNBC about her persona on the show,

“What you see on the show is a gross misrepresentation of who I am. For instance they never show me smiling, it’s just not consistent with the negative portrayal of me that they want to present. Last week they portrayed me as lazy and pretending to be hurt to get out of working, when in fact I had a concussion due to my serious injury on the set and spent nearly … 10 hours in the emergency room. It’s all in the editing!” (Cline).


 I believe that the purpose that these shows cast such stereotypical characters is because the producers don’t have to spend much time building character and instead they can jump into the plot which makes the show entertaining and hold viewer’s attention, which then leads to more money.

These fixed characters also lead to the well-known fact that most reality TV is scripted. Just like Boyd mentioned earlier, its “constructed” but it still makes the viewer feels as though they’re watching a person’s real life. This is an interesting factor to me, why do we still feel like a reality TV show, even though we know is scripted, is real? This coincides with the fact that no reality TV show acknowledges the fact that they’re on TV. On an episode of Dance Moms people were waiting outside of the studio to get one of the girl’s autographs. Later, Abby, the dance teacher, tells the girls that this happened because they had just won an award for a dance. Which doesn’t exactly seem right, most likely the people waiting outside had seen the show and wanted an autograph but Abby didn’t acknowledge the fact that they were becoming reality TV stars. Ignoring the fact that a show is a reality TV show while on air is most likely due to the fact that they don’t want the viewers to break from their perception of watching what they consider to be real life. This is similar to what certain plays like The Glass Menagerie does, a character can step out of this box of illusion to comment on the play or give a monologue but from the point behind them is still considered this illusion to the audience. The characters can comment on the show but everyone else behind him who are in this box must not acknowledge that they are in a play. Like the characters of a play, the people of reality TV shows can’t break character or the realness of reality TV show will no longer exist.

Even if the show appears real is it morally ethical to watch? Some of the situations where the participants either embarrass themselves or hurt themselves the reaction of the audience are laughter and enjoyment. Is it wrong to get entertainment out of someone fighting someone else or is it perfectly acceptable? I’ve thought about this for a while and there are three situations to question the ethics. The first would be the producers and creators of the show. They know what they want the show to become and realize that people will become humiliated but that is what is leading to the most money. The production company needs what will make the best money, and they wouldn’t be doing their job correctly if they weren’t looking for the thing that sells. However, sometimes I question how responsible they’re being. On the one hand you have the reason of money, but on the other that can’t be the driving reason. It seems unethical to create a show to humiliate others in order to make money. I feel that this constitutes as unethical and going forward with creating a show that you know will humiliate others is much worst.  

The second part of the ethical question deals with the participants. Many of the participants or contestants know what they’re getting into, many of these reality shows have numerous seasons, and chances are the participants understand what the show is about and can expect what is to come. This will be important to keep in mind when I talk later about the viewer’s part in reality TV. There are two ways to look at the participant’s side, while there are shows where the participants know what they’re getting into like The Real World, some other shows may not necessarily draw the line clear enough to show what they’re about to experience. Dealing with the shows like The Real World, I think that if they’re old enough to sign up for something like this they can also take responsibility for what occurs during the show. Not to mention the money aspect related to shows like Teen Mom who frankly need the money and are willing to open up their lives to the public. However, in instances where producers humiliate contestants and they’re edited to appear differently I don’t think that the participants are really to blame. I feel like there is a thin line between what is ethical and what is not when it comes to the subject of the contestants more so than when discussing the creators or viewers.

The main thing to discuss is the ethics of the viewers of reality TV shows. I think that it is important to mention the different factors that have gone into reality TV. I mentioned earlier about Shadenfreude and this is a main component when discussing watching reality TV. Something else to consider, MTV underwent a switch in the content they showed; previously some of the programs they showed were My Sweet Sixteen and MTV Cribs where the shows featured many privileged people. The shows that we see now are Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant where they show “ordinary” people most likely hoping to have the viewer’s relate with the people on screen. Also, with the editing involved the viewers are lead to a false conclusion of “reality”. An example of this is when someone watches a scene from a college party, it is depicted as out of control, unlimited alcohol, and everyone seems to be extremely good looking when they’re trashed. Someone watching this depiction could actually think that this is what a real college party is like, when in reality it is really nothing like the glamorized portrayal that television and movies put forth. Another example of this false reality given is the book 1984. The point where people begin to believe everything depicted on the large tele-screens. Humans have this natural tendency to believe what they see. Some people consider that we enjoy watching these shows because there is a separation between ourselves and the people around us. When we’re not around others, it is only easier to not experience sympathy when others suffer (Cline).

Take a show like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, not much different from its other versions located in different cities across America, but one season of this show took a turn for the worst. A husband to one of the housewives, Russell Armstrong committed suicide, and along with this death came the media. Bravo announced that the season would still air, but they would re-edit and air a special, just so everyone would be able to share their emotions and feelings on the subject, all in attendance, except the estranged wife (Holmes). There are people who have realized the problem in this and have talked about the hazards that accompany the so called benefits of watching reality TV, Matt Paxton of Hoarders says, “combine mental illness with entertainment” (Holmes). There are consequences for watching these shows, and what more people should feel is guilt it may not always be the case. It is possible to go as far to say that watching these shows that “exploits emotionally charged situations and could easily cause psychological harm to people” may have been a cause in the death of Armstrong. The ethics that go along with watching these shows is something to question, although many don’t. People continuously turn on the television and watch whatever horrifying situation is on, but even when the types of situations of television go too far, the public seems to just be more entertained. This is shown by the popularity of these shows. 16 & Pregnant created a coinciding show Teen Mom and has had multiple seasons; The Real Housewives have aired with multiple seasons in each city. These shows sell, and they sell because people like to watch drama and others’ misfortunes. The ethics of this is more complex. I feel as though it is different with each show.

Some feel that the show business would work out better if there were some sort of ethical code that producers could adopt. Linda Holmes has spoken out about this ethics code that would not eliminate, but reduce the harm related with these shows. From the start she mentions that this isn’t going to end all unethical shows, using the example of Jersey Shore to say that producers of this show will most likely not care about this code, as well as the viewers. However, she does mention shows like Top Chef that seem safer. Although, previously mentioned in the example of The Apprentice, editors and creators are able to bend and twist situations in order to create for a more interesting story. What this code promotes is basically an ethical way of shopping for viewers to show a producer that they’re interested in that show. Then this ethically made show would be made, the code highlights the decrease in cost because only the shows that people are interested in would be made (Holmes). One problem that I run into is her remark on shows like Project Runway,

“But there are people who are not stupid, who don’t love seeing people get hurt, who don’t relish the idea of injury or emotional damage, who enjoy Survivor and Project Runway and would like to think basic protections are in place to protect people’s well-being to the degree they can be” (Holmes).

While she has a point to say that some shows are not ethical to watch, I find it surprising that she believes that the shows mentioned don’t show emotional damage. These shows are like any others on air, they show competition and along with this come drama and backstabbing, and then we come back to the “characters” created for these shows, which all of them do possess. This ultimately comes back to the ethical component of the show.

 Although it would be nice if there was some type of magical ethical code, I find it hard to believe that it would be successful. I think that when determining the ethics of a show, you not only have to look at the show itself but also the viewer. When does something cross the line for a certain viewer to decide to not watch it anymore? It is going to be different for every show and for every viewer. The producers aren’t going to limit what is shown in order to please the person who finds fighting and drama disgusting, they’ll cater to the people who find it addicting because the majority of people watching reality TV are watching it for a reason. They’re addicted and are not affected by the show in such a way to find it unethical. The question still stands as to what is ethical to watch, but the programs won’t change until the public, or media, finds something else to fixate on.




            Cline, Austin. “Ethics & Reality TV”


                    Holmes, Linda. “Ethical ‘Reality’: A Proposed Code For Producers To Live By : NPR.”, n.d.



Melnick, Meredith. “What Reality TV Teaches Teen Girls | Healthland |” Time, n.d.



            Schexnayder, Contessa. “The Reality of Reality TV: Can Viewing Bad Behavior on the Small Screen Affect the Way We Treat Each Other?” Brain World. December 13, 2011

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