Reality TV : our obsession with the fast track to fame

(Written by Alexandre Lacas)

These days, it’s simply impossible to watch television without being exposed to, in some form or another, reality TV shows.  Whether you like fashion, hopeless people fighting over love, teen drama, food, music, dancing or you name it; the big networks have found a way to target us directly through our likes and dislikes.  We need to question ourselves for a second and think about how and why the reality TV phenomenon has managed to take over our screens while building a solid and extremely lucrative empire.  And why, sweet heavens, are we so taken up with it?

Before we answer this question directly, it’s important to understand the beginning.  Modern day reality TV was introduced by two important networks; CBS (through  shows Big Brother and Survivor) and more significantly, MTV in the early 1990’s.  MTV had a wildly popular show called The Real World staged as a docuseries that followed strangers living together in an overpriced house in a metropolitan city.  Their every move was filmed.  Little did MTV know, unpredictably, the ratings went through the roof, opening the door for what was to come.   By the end of the 90’s and into the 00’s, four important and major reality shows were shaping the TV scene; The Simple Life, Laguna Beach, The Real Orange County and Newlyweds.  All shows had something in common; lifestyles we desired, money we wanted, fame and pure and innocent drama that made us forget about our own daily problems for half an hour while we watched theirs.  This became so lucrative that soon nearly everyone in Hollywood was filming a show about their lives and their «daily problems».  All of this made us feel as though we were getting even closer to our favorite celebrities.  Another important form of reality TV is  competition shows.  These were introduced through the Survivor franchise which was followed by ithers like  America’s Next Top Model, So You Think You Can Dance and, of course, The Bachelor.  There are too many to list and who’s counting anymore?  All of these shows have the same type of storyline. Even the faces end up looking alike as we watch them compete and ingratiate themselves in the vain hope of becoming famous.  It all really just serves to feed our voyeuristic hunger.

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Now that we understand where this phenomenon comes from, let’s get something straight: ALL REALITY TV SHOWS ARE SCRIPTED.  If not the actual spoken dialogues, then at least each episode is meticulously crafted and organized to make it possible for you the audience to believe that you are watching authentic, real life, unscripted dramas.  If you didn’t know this already, I’m sorry to burst your bubble.  Many reality stars such as the cast from the MTV series The Hills staring Lauren Conrad, Audrina Patridge Kristin Cavallari and Heidi Montag all admitted to this once the series was over.  They revealed that the show was entirely fake and scripted in order to create enough drama so that the producers and the networks could maintain high ratings over the 6 seasons.  Why do networks spend so much time and energy promoting and creating these shows?  Well, the answer is simple.  Reality-style television is probably the cheapest form of television to produce with the fastest growing market.  The budget per episode varies between 100 000$ to 500 000$ so it’s an easy investment since they don’t have to spend much and the profits just roll in with the viewers.  Obviously, product endorsements and placement are another important source of revenue.  In marketing, product placement is when a company will pay money to have their products seen and used by the stars in the TV show in order to boost their sales and revenues.

Speaking of stars, reality TV created the fast track to instant fame. The «Snookis» and «Kardashians» of this world rapidly understood this.  Cultivating an image of being hot, party wild and having no private life or shame is the recipe for getting on the train to wealth, fame and stardom.  Per episode, these starlets can score paychecks between 45 000$ to 1.8 million$ depending on how famous they are.  Add to that product endorsements and various appearances at clubs and events (because yes, they get paid to simply show up) and we can understand why reality TV is so appealing to our generation.  But maybe Dire Straits put it best with their line «money for nothing and chicks for free».  It was true then and even more so now.  Money is made easily and virtue has no value.  Since they don’t really cultivate a specific talent, it is simple for them to invent and brand themselves.  With an established fan base, they can sell pretty much anything.  We’ve all seen the variety of merchandise that they throw at us.
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So, it’s a pretty easy guess to say that reality TV will be with us for a while. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a bad thing but we have to make sure that we as viewers realize that reality TV does not have an ounce of reality in it.  The concept is far too lucrative to simply abandon.  Besides, as a culture, we have adopted this form of entertainment and the audience simply keeps asking for more.  But where will it go?  What are the limits?  Let me know what you think about reality TV.

Follow me on twitter: @alexandre_lacas

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