Reality television is a genre of television programming that features seemingly unscripted real-life situations. Although reality television didn’t experience wide spread popularity until the 1990s, the concept of documenting ordinary people in unscripted scenarios dates back to the 1948 show Candid Camera, which is considered an early example of reality television.
Since then reality television has changed significantly. The relationship between documentary and reality television is the strongest when considering observational documentary, which emerged from ‘direct cinema’ in 1960s America, cinema verite in 1960s France and ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary television in 1970s Britain. (Hill, 2004). The introduction of lightweight camera equipment allowed such media to become more prevalent, with the docusoap subgenre of reality television directly influenced by observational documentary. The docusoap is a series that follows people around during their day to day life, without the filming affecting their routine.
I am definitely the type of person who complains about how bad reality television is only to later sit in my room watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians alone. Like the many other people who are guilty of doing the same thing, I just can’t seem to resist the impression of authenticity, sense of spontaneity and hint of voyeurism involved in most reality television. I know that there are better ways to waste my time, but something about reality television just seems to shut my mind completely off.
A recent study found that ‘evidence supporting reality TV’s appeal has been documented as a function of motives for self importance, mechanisms for escape, perceived realism, surveillance, curiosity about the lives of others, audience interactivity, romance and competition and habitual entertainment’. (Tsay-Vogel & Krakowiak, 2015).
Keeping Up With the Kardashians has been running since October 2007, with 10 seasons and numerous spin-offs. It is a docusoap, with the series following premise of representing the Kardashian family during their day-to-day life. The series has received its fair share of criticism, mainly for emphasising the ‘famous for being famous’ concept and appearing to make up story lines purely for the benefit of the series, which removes from the entire reality premise. Ginia Bellafonte from the New York Times claimed that ‘the Kardashian show is not about an eccentric family living conventionally; it is purely about some desperate women climbing the margins of fame, and that feels a lot creepier.’ (2007). However, regardless of the criticism received it continues to bring in huge ratings for the network.
So if the audience is aware of the fabrication of certain plot lines, is Keeping up With the Kardashians really a true reality show, or should it be categorised as something more structured than that?
When discussing any documentary or reality series, I think its important to consider the power held by the network in what is and isn’t included in the final product. Sure, a film crew might follow the Kardashians around for a couple of days a month, but that is only a small chunk of their time. Furthermore, they know when filming is scheduled and can plan their life around what they do or don’t want to be filmed. The film crew don’t simply show up unannounced to shoot. There is also a huge power in the editing process. Imagine how much footage is obtained during filming, only to be cut into a 45 minute long representation of an entire week.
There is also the idea that the camera itself can affect peoples behaviour, wether the change is made consciously or subconsciously. By being aware of the cameras presence (no matter how observational and unobtrusive it is) there is a constant filter on what is being said and done.
Reality television isn’t really reality, and most viewers are aware of that. However constructed the television shows are, they can still represent a little bit of real life more than what completely scripted series can, which is what keeps viewers coming back for more.
Hill, A 2005, Reality TV: Audiences and popular factual television, Routledge, London and New York
Bellafonte, G 2007, ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians The All-Too-Easy Route to Stardom’ The New York Times, 13 October
Tsay-Vogel, M & Krakowiak, K.M 2015, ‘Exploring Viewers responses to Nine Reality TV Subgenres’, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, viewed 28 October 2015, ProQuest