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Media Literacy Final Paper

An Analysis of Reality TV

Maricel L. Perez

December 2006

In this paper I attempt to addresses the nature of today’s Reality TV and how it presents itself as a force in modern American television. I briefly review the history and development of this television phenomenon. I present an analysis of this media by utilizing the eight key concepts of media literacy. Also, I present reasons why there are obvious weaknesses in the pre-show production and the limitations of “Reality” in Reality TV. My conclusions address the reasons why in my opinion do not represent “Reality” in the true sense of the word.

The eight Key Concepts for Media Literacy utilized are:

1. All media are construction
2. The media construct reality
3. Audiences negotiate meaning in the media
4. Media have commercial implications
5. Media contain ideological and value messages
6. Media have social and political implications
7. Form and content are closely related in the media
8. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form

1. Media Construction
2. Reality Construct
3. Audiences Media Negotiation
4. Commercial Implications
5. Ideological and Value Messages
6. Social and Political Implications
7. Form and content
8. Unique Aesthetic Form

9. Conclusions
1. Media Construction

The historical perspective of the formation of reality TV modern viewing was one that found it origins in American TV networks. The PBS (Public Broadcast System) was at the inception of the first programs in the early seventies. In those days very few people thought much about a camera seeing how people lived behind the scenes.

These initial programs were the ones that gave birth to more modern versions such as Survivor, which became a more complex real life drama and became a huge success as it gained a massive amount of viewers.

On of the first shows was by Beth Rowen who was one of the first to use a camera as a “hidden eye”, and gave this comment:
“But a closer look reveals that reality television is not a new phenomenon. PBS debuted a show called An American Family, an unsettling, yet fascinating documentary series in 1973. The members of the Loud family opened up their home and lives for seven months to producer Craig Gilbert, who shot 300 hours of footage. Only 12 of those hours made it to television.” (Rowen Article)
The real life scenes presented in this filming footage, offered some interesting insights into the private lives of people, and how they function as an unfolding drama, without a formal pre-rehearsed session. By simply using a camera to document the lives of the Loud family, we can see how PBS pioneered this genre through the incredible amount of film that helped to show a sample of the way people lived. AT first, the people in the show were aware of the cameras, but they soon learned to forget about them and behaved in dramatic ways as sometimes painful events took place within the house.

Furthermore, Rowen commented on the incredible response to this form of filming, and why it has influenced the modern reality TV shows of our times. She said:

“An astonishing 10 million viewers watched the marital breakup of Bill and Pat Loud and the coming-out of their son Lance. The family complained that the hours chosen for broadcast misrepresented their lives. Ten years later, Gilbert's two assistants produced a sequel for HBO.” Rowen Article)
The enormous amount of viewers watching this family feud was unprecedented. This was followed by new shows of the same type utilizing more modern filming techniques. In brief, one can certainly see how shows like the American Family are predecessors to the most recent shows that surfaced in the eighties (MYV’s Real World), and more recently with shows like Survivor.
Other shows surfaced like: “Candid Camera (1970’s) and “Cops (1989) which helped build the pathway for MTV’s incredible success, and provided a clear format for Reality TV.

2. Reality Construct

The Show “Real World” began its first excursion into the TV market in 1992. This gave footing for the use of the so-called “hidden camera” dramas that would help viewers to see ‘real life’ issues arise between a group of young people. By living in a house for a certain period of months, they would learn to forge relationships with each other that would sometimes cause bitter rivalries, or even close bonds. In this manner, the viewer can imagine himself/herself in situations that could be quite possible in real life (although unlikely).

IDM (International Design Magazine) writes on the nature of the program, and what it offers within the “Reality” that is represents:

“For those who do not fall within the "MTV generation" (anyone outside the aforementioned age bracket or without cable), Real World is a "reality-based" docu-drama wherein seven "real people" (i.e., not actors), who are strangers to one another, are placed in a shared living space to have their ensuing trials and tribulations videotaped for five months--and then broadcast to millions of cult-like viewers across the country. Through the years, casts have cohabited in a diverse range of environments--from a Manhattan loft to a plantation house in Honolulu--each location and set providing a memorable and distinct backdrop for that season's particular melodramas.” (International Design Magazine Article)
This information clearly relates how An American family was the basis for picking a certain house, and filling it with strangers instead of an actual family. This form of reality TV was to be the mainstay for future shows that collected certain young people together, and to see how they would behave. This transitional form of programming took precedence as the success, through the massive audience that MTV held, “made this show a sought after commodity in network television in America.” (Rosenthal 156) By understanding how these people learned to live with each other, under the camera eye, they found bonds of friendship, which would be revealed to the American public in the ways they revealed their personalities with each other. This show would ultimately set the stage for Survivor, which would take the lead in reality TV shows because of its competitive nature, a much harsher look at how people get along without any predetermined settings.

3. Audience Media Negotiation

Survivor has been touted as one of the most successful shows, as it reached a far broader market than MTV offered. The viewers could range from children, to teens and young adults, and even to most adults in the network markets. The fact that the first Survivor show, made in 1999, made network viewing reach an all time high, we can learn why this show presents a wider appeal to the American public.
The aspects of the show tells us about a group of 16 people, mostly adults, who must learn to survive with each other in some tropical and difficult place to adapt to. In this manner, each episode of the show has the members of this large clan vote each other off, according to the rules of the show. The competition to outsmart and deceive one another portrays a competition much different from the Real World or An American Family, as this is far more ruthless set of rules. In the case of Richard Hatch, the first winner of Survivor, we can see how was not voted of, and won the incredible million dollar check at the end. writes:
“Richard Hatch. After 39 days of hard island living, the 39-year old corporate trainer from Newport, Rhode Island, won Survivor. For his troubles and toils, he takes home a million dollars, not to mention a Pontiac Aztek. Viewers may recall Rich's prediction on Day 1 on the island: "I've got the million-dollar check written in my name.” (
The victory that Hatch had gained intrigued Americans enough to eventually fund many more shows, but in different locations. The success of watching this sometimes-cruel competition brought Survivor to the apex of reality TV, as the earlier shows mentioned could not reveal such unseen matters of ‘kill or be killed’ nature in its participants. By understanding this next level, we can see how more TV reality shows have arisen, such as Temptation Island, but none can equal the fame of the success that this show offers.

4. Commercial Implications

Reality TV video has strong influence in audiences as they are drawn to this new type of programming. The commercial (for profit) transactions occur as a result of the advertisements surrounding the program. However, another phenomenon is at work here, in Reality TV shows like “American Idol” and others, where the audience gets to vote in their preferred or favorite performer, introduces an interactive way in which the participation of the viewer becomes an integral part of the program.

Statistics show that as viewers or commercial advertising we rarely are able to control what we watch, then it follows that the media controls us by implication of the involvement of our bias behavior towards consuming what is presented. But now, this interactivity between program and viewer is being considered as a new powerful method to advertise products in the future with great commercial potential.

Reality TV seems to be more amenable to interactivity than other types of programming simply because the viewer can call in and vote. This is part of the appeal of reality TV and its great success attracting large audiences.

Another breakthrough is in the showing of these programs over the Internet. For example on very good real model of a workable interactive TV show was Big Brother, which was on 24 hours a day on the internet. When watching a episode of the show Homicide, one can go to the website to get another clue, or when watching the Super Bowl, one can go on-line to get more information and statistics, but being able to watch the cast of a television show Big Brother 24 hours a day, is an industry revolution.
Reality television seems to offer the perfect venue for product placement.

5. Ideological and Value Messages

Reality TV is programming on what we believe to be “Reality” which proclaims our values and way of life. Explicitly or implicitly, it conveys ideological messages about the issues of our society and about our own issues and behavior.

By examining the history of reality TV, we can surely see how during the past thirty years has spawned a secret view into the lives of normal people, and how they relate to each other.
The curiosity of American viewers to what life would be like if they were constantly filmed seems to validate the success these shows have had in TV programming. By the works of the Loud family in An American Family, to the quarrels and bonds of teenagers in the Real World, and finally to the present success of Survivor, we can see why these shows offer a new perspective into the private lives of ordinary people.
These are the trends that have forged reality TV, and their outstanding success of the programs have attracted many to take a closer examination for historical analysis. And all this facts seem to be in line with the trend in our society to place cameras (some of them hidden) in streets, public places, buildings, hotels, etc., which have alarmed many sociologists and people from all walks of life as to the impact into our freedoms. If big brother is always watching everything we do, how will we react? Would our behavior be impacted? Are we ourselves or are we part of a large Reality TV show?
6. Social and Political Implications

Reality TV is in a way one example of the great influence on consumers whether for profit, politics, religion, and/or forming social change. Images communicate powerful messages that transcend simple behavior and become culture.

The BBC report on an Argentina TV channel program in 2003 that:

Argentina, a country in despair at the state of its own politicians, is turning to reality TV to choose a candidate to put up for the next election. A Buenos Aires television channel is launching a show called The People's Candidate in which the winner will be nominated as a candidate for the 2003 congressional elections, representing a new party. About 800 people have already auditioned for the show, including pensioners, transvestites and the unemployed. The search is already underway as judges whittle the hopefuls down to 16 who will appear on the show. "Political disenchantment is the common denominator of all those who have come forward," said Sebastian Melendez, the show's producer and creator.

It is evident that Reality TV can potentially become a good channel for political mass communication, which in some formats can allow feedback responses from the viewer. In this way, campaign experts can obtain critical information of potential voting trends.

What in my view is more troubling is the impact of some of these programs in our attitudes, way of thinking, and behavior. The great acceptance of programs like ‘Survivor’ makes us reflect into the kind of society that we are becoming, where being competitive overrides the sense of survival and of helping the less fortunate.

7. Form and Content

Reality TV has its own language and uses a code of reality in its own particular way. Due to the media (TV) the messages communicated are vivid and transmit strong emotional content.

Reality TV is able to incite strong emotions from the viewer. The fact that the viewer has the power to interact in some of this programming reinforces these strong feelings.

The most controversial aspect of much reality TV shows bring us to the question: How real is Reality TV? The answer must lie in some ambiguous place, which only producers of TV programs have knowledge of, as well as those whom had actually participated in the shows mentioned in this paper. One subject that arises is what is rehearsed and what the aim of the TV program is to illuminate the participants involved in being filmed. In the earliest show An American Family, we can se some of the problems with editing by the producers, which made the participants, the Loud family, extremely angry. When asked about a reunion show, which would help remind the modern public of the1973 travails of this family, the original members did not feel in the best of spirits to have the original movie shown again:

“The members of the Loud Family reacted differently to the pending re-broadcast, Raymond said. Pat and younger sons Grant and Kevin are “very distraught,’’ he said. Lance is pleased, while Bill and daughters Michelle and Delilah “don’t care one way or another,’’ he added. The series “seems to have had a traumatic effect’’ on Pat Loud, Raymond said.”If she had the chance to do it again, she would not do it,’’ he said.” (Singer Article)

This reaction was from reasons of editing, which the family found offensive by the producers. Much of the scenes that unfolded the homosexual traits of one of the family members were made to sensationalize the downfall of this family. Most of the family felt used after much of the most controversial footage was edited into the film and without any sense of prudence as to the other, more positive members of the family. In this way, we can understand how this portrays one side of the loud family, but does little to actually reflect “Reality”, in the sense that these people had “over 300 hours of filming and not one single positive trait to speak from in the editing room.” (Brenton p.145)

Clearly, we can see that “Reality” shows do not represent a real sense of “Reality”.

8. Unique Aesthetic Form

Reality TV has its own form just as a poem has its own way to present an idea or a feeling, however, can we assert that it is ‘real’ in the true sense of the word ?

We can see a sensationalist approach by the editors at PBS, which sought to shock the viewer, rather than to present a reality of people and their living conditions. In other words, this represents a possible ‘real’ scenario but an unlikely ‘real’ event.
An example of how editing and “pre show preparation” is used in reality TV shows only makes us wonder as to why they placed in this programming genre in the first place. In the case of the Real World, we can see a firsthand view of how limited “Reality” is when producing a show in this format. Art Director Monroe Kelly and designer Lee Ledbetter agree on the superficiality of this reality TV program, as they explain with a sense of detail how they will structure the environment for the New Orleans version of the Real world:
“Combining New Orleans's antique shops, art galleries, and thrift stores, in addition to surfing, the designers assembled an eclectic mix of furniture, art, and accessories that creates an evocative background for the show. ”The house has to hold the viewers' interest for the duration of the show," explain the designers. "It is not just a backdrop--it has a distinct personality--much like a member of the cast.” (Interior Design magazine)
The details presented here sounds a lot like catering for a party or better yet, for a show that has little room for truly depicting the life of a group of individuals being prepared for “reality”. Of course, since the advent of An American Family, who had little idea of what they were really getting into when filming, this group of young people will be completely prepared to expect their roles on film and within a controlled environment.

It is actually the drama in the limited camera shots, as well as the editing of the most dramatic material, which forms how modern TV networks get the public to believe these shows are “real”. Basically, we can see in the shows pre-production that much of what these teenage youth will be facing is already developed before they arrive. Also, they will not be truly susceptible to “Reality”, as they are only pitted against each other by their differences, not necessarily how they react to real life events. This gives a lead-on to how Survivor uses this technique, and only reveals only the most interesting or dramatic shots, to actually warp reality, rather than give a realistic portrayal of life of normal people.

The basis of Survivor takes the means of presenting a realistic image of survival techniques, much like the public may view the life of a Navy Seal or Special Forces operator might have to learn to survive in the wilderness. The major mistake that this presents is that the participants in the show do not go through any thing of this kind of training, which even well trained military personnel would have difficulty avoiding the suffering. The illusion about the wildness of the terrain while filming the show, and the distorted and fatigued faces of normal people undergoing extraordinary circumstances, could be compared to that of “Navy Seals” training to ‘survive’ in a deadly environment. However, the myth of the Special Forces operative and this adventurous lifestyle is appealing to the American public, and we can see they find great viewer stimulation in this version of reality TV.

The way that reality TV is brought forth in this ultra-modern format uses the camera in much the same way as with earlier programs. By creating scenes, which the camera can follow in a careful precision, we get a bird’s eye view of what the groups are doing, and how they interact with each other. Of course, as with An American Family, the editing process surely uses only the most intriguing footage, which will cause some sort of conflict between the tribes, and their behaviors. One of the first Survivors had his face covered in sand, and he certainly looked like a man that had survived much, but the fact is that this show is in a controlled environment. What we mean by a controlled environment is that none of the participants are placed in a situation that would ultimately present them to ‘real’ danger. The network makes sure that the “members of Survivor are monitored, and can be retrieved if any threat to their lives occurs.” (Cummings 203) This gives us yet another aspect on the show, and why they only present, through editing and camera positioning, the most trivialized shots to make the participants appear fatigued, but not truly prone to any real sense danger or threat to their lives.

Also, Andrejevic 188, points out that:

the events of the participants are carefully staged and organized for the viewer to follow the events that transpire between the “tribes” or clans who vote each other out in a competitive struggle of will. This presents more of a staged competition, rather than a group of people that must learn to survive together to survive. This presents a negative view of how a group should approach “survival”, and would “not be realistic if people were indeed stranded on an island, with no hope of being found.” (Andrejevic 188)

Indeed, they would most likely band together, rather than ‘vote’ each other into oblivion. This does not truly represent reality, but we can see how the producers manufacture a sense of drama, which makes this pre-determined sense survival provocative for the American masses.

9. Conclusion

In conclusion, we can see why Reality TV shows introduce a look into how reality is presented, but that truly does not replicate life in its most ‘real’ sense of the word. The filming is manipulated, the cast is manipulated, and finally, their roles on the show are manipulated in order to generate a sense of “Drama”, and not “Reality”.
By examining, analyzing, and understanding these aspects of reality in this generation, it is revealed why these shows cause such sensations, and perhaps a look into how Americans perceive their lives in the programs they view and the world that surround us.
It is in a way, troubling to think that this is how we as citizens would react in similar circumstances. Being competitive instead of being compassionate with others should not be the message of media. After all, media producers should act responsibly as they have great influence in shaping our thinking and our way of life.


Andrejevic, Mark, (2003) Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Brenton, Sam, (2003) Shooting People: Adventures in Reality TV, Verso., (2001). Article: And Then There was One.

Website for Article:

Cummings, Dolan, (2003) Reality TV: How Real is Real, Hodder Headline Group.
Ghosemajumber, Shuman, (May, 13 2003) Reality is the Best Business Model for TV, Shuman’

Website for Article:

Interior Design Magazine, (June, 2000). Real Work.

Website for Article:

Rosenthal, Alan, (1994) Writing Docudrama: Dramatizing Reality for Film and TV, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Rowen, Beth, (July 21, 2000). History of Reality TV, July 21, 2000.

Website for Article:

Singer, Stephen, (November 5th, 1990). The Return of the Louds: WNET to Air 1973 Film, Current, November 5th, 1990.

Website for Article:


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Reality TV search for Argentine politician

Reality is the best business model for TV

By Shuman Ghosemajumder
Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2003

In the beginning, Reality TV shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Survivor, and Big Brother came across as a new type of game show. They offered only a little more drama, as viewers were able to observe the personalities of contestants more than on shows like Jeopardy or The Price is Right, but they were still ultimately about groups of ordinary people competing for money and prizes. With the advent of The Bachelor and its progeny, viewers ceased sharing an interest in the prize and became principally involved in the plotlines, if they can be called that. But regardless of whether Reality TV is good TV or not, it is definitely good business. People simply enjoy watching other people's lives, and people also enjoy being on television enough to go on for free. Cutting both writers and actors out of the costs of a show has a remarkable bottom-line effect; ironically, viewers don't seem to miss the money spent on most sitcom and drama scripts. In any case, the latter works are better expressed in the form of motion pictures, which are still popular when aired on network television.

As a result, it appears that television is primarily going to be a reality-driven medium. The only question is whether the majority of viewers will continue to enjoy watching the kinds of people that enjoy being on television for free. Certainly some concepts work and some do not - Law and Order is always more entertaining than The People's Court. But for the next generation, currently growing up with Reality TV as a part of their lives, their taste is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Truman Show, when it came out in 1998, seem like a gross exaggeration of anything that could be permitted in a civilized society. Now, it sounds like a plausible idea for next fall's lineup.

Catch up with every Reality show in the universe at Reality Blurred.

Real Work

Interior Design Magazine - June 2000

Art director Monroe Kelly and architect Lee Ledbetter transform a New Orleans landmark into a dramatic backdrop for MTV's Real World.

NOW IN ITS NINTH SEASON, Music Television's Real World has been rated the number one-ranked cable television program among 18-to 34-year-old viewers. For those who do not fall within the "MTV generation" (anyone outside the aforementioned age bracket or without cable), Real World is a "reality-based" docu-drama wherein seven "real people" (i.e., not actors), who are strangers to one another, are placed in a shared living space to have their ensuing trials and tribulations videotaped for five months--and then broadcast to millions of cult-like viewers across the country. Through the years, casts have cohabited in a diverse range of environments--from a Manhattan loft to a plantation house in Honolulu--each location and set providing a memorable and distinct backdrop for that season's particular melodramas.

This season's dramatis personae can be seen ensconced in the Belfort mansion, a landmarked Greek revival home built some time in the 19th century on New Orleans's historic St. Charles Avenue. Co-designed by art director Monroe Kelly and architect Lee Ledbetter, the house is a colorful and richly textured tribute to the vibrant and diverse culture of the Louisiana port city. Although the mansion's history remains somewhat vague, it is known that the building was divided into apartments during the 1930s. When the New Orleans-based co-designers first arrived on the scene, the house had been gutted down to the studs. Kelly and Ledbetter's job was to restore the original plan, and in doing so, convert the Belfort property (inside and out) into a comfortable living environment and a functional production set within a ten-week time frame.

As New Orleans natives and trained architects, the collaborators had little trouble approximating the original plan of the two-story structure. "Wide, central halls with parlors to each side serve as organizing devices on both levels," explains Ledbetter, who started his practice in 1995. With 4,000 sq. ft. designated for living space and 3,000 sq. ft. given to production offices, the house, as it is seen on television, harks back to the city's grand, old homes. On the first floor, a center hall gives way to an assemblage of common rooms including a library, billiard room, living room, and kitchen. Bedrooms are upstairs along with a large, communal bathroom. The central hall on this level is furnished with a collection of mismatched armoires for the cast.

Combining New Orleans's antique shops, art galleries, and thrift stores, in addition to surfing, the designers assembled an eclectic mix of furniture, art, and accessories that creates an evocative background for the show. "The house has to hold the viewers' interest for the duration of the show," explain the designers. "It is not just a backdrop--it has a distinct personality--much like a member of the cast." Furnishing the house posed a unique set of challenges. "A set is a set and a residence is a residence. It's not often that a project must function as both," says Kelly, who designed sets for Interview with the Vampire and The Pelican.

The profusion of color that gives the house an exuberant, offhand look was carefully orchestrated by the designers to be photogenic and flattering to the cast members. "A jewel tone palette was established early on," say the designers. "Stand-ins for each of the cast members were filmed against the walls and bedspreads, so that we could see how any given character would look in all of the rooms." Colors were then "massaged and enhanced" to create the textures and richness that is seen throughout the house. Bright, tropical hues lend the downstairs rooms a crisp, finished feeling, whereas the upstairs features layered wallpapers and other surface treatments that convey a "found quality and a decayed elegance." It is yet to be determined how the Real World cast members feel about their New Orleans home. But, says Ledbetter, "the house looks great from the camera's view."
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