Why We are Consumed by Reality TV

At the start of quarantine, a friend of mine recommended I watch The Circle; a Netflix competition reality television series. I was never one to be obsessed with reality TV To me, they seemed to be unwitty and glamorized materialism and ordinary people. Nonetheless, I was deep in cabin fever and desperately looking for something to do, so I took my friend’s suggestion and offered to give it a try, thinking a few episodes couldn't hurt. But then I became hooked. Next thing you know, I ended up binge-watching the entire series. As a psychology major, it got me thinking why exactly do we gravitate towards reality TV?

Reality TV sky-rocketed in the late 1990s and early 2000s with shows such as Survivor and Big Brother; competition reality shows just like The Circle

I can understand why these are appealing. It’s like watching sports. You want to cheer on your favorite team and who doesn’t enjoy some healthy competition? 

But then you have shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives, which I presume have some competition going on, but document the lives of everyday people doing everyday things.

In fact, that is one of the reasons we are so hooked to reality TV. Since reality TV portrays scenes with mostly unscripted dialogue and minimal editing, the people and events are more real than a fictional film. The idea that these are real people playing themselves and are just like you and me, gives us the illusion we are closer to them than we actually are.

Another reason why we are obsessed with reality TV is that they appeal to our voyeuristic tendencies, not to be confused with the sexual kind. According to psychologist Lemi Baruh, we get a thrill of seeing things that we aren’t really supposed to be seeing. It’s like having a front-row seat with VIP access into their private world. We get to witness brawls, breakdowns, embarrassing moments-everything is in the public eye. Of course, we don’t get to see every moment, but the glimpses of what we do get to see sparks our curiosity.

ABC/Craig Sjodin

Ultimately, reality TV appeals to our emotions. While some are more awakened by the drama, some viewers empathize with reality stars. Since many famous reality stars start out as ordinary people, they are much more relatable to the viewers as we have been along their journey to stardom since day 1. When we find ourselves emotionally attached to a certain person, we really do want to see them strive and not be humiliated. We want to defend them any way we can, hence why many of us are quick to take to Twitter and show our support.

Speaking of social media, some reality TV series give the viewers at home the power to change the outcome of their lives, making us even more connected to the shows. Once again, when we resonate with a particular person’s character and talent, we want to help in any way we can. Shows like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars allow us to engage with the show by casting our votes right at our fingertips. We’re able to keep up with polls on the go and even view “hints” in Instagram stories about what the next episode would hold, making us even eager to tune in so we’re not faced with the fear of missing out.

woman on phone in a coffee shop Photo by Averyanovphoto from Pixabay

Finally, the social comparison theory developed by psychologist Leon Festinger could have a lot to say about our relationship with reality TV. Humans have the natural tendency to evaluate themselves in comparison to others. We use reality TV as a marker to indicate where we stand in society. For example, we might see some events play out on Keeping Up with the Kardashians that are similar to our own lives, giving us the validation these experiences are normal. However, when we see a reality star that contrasts our own values, we are usually quick to judge. Even witnessing other's misfortunes and thinking “at least I don’t have it that bad” is a social comparison to make us feel better about ourselves. 

WOC watching TV Photo by Tolu Bamwo from Nappy

Reality TV is really just an escapism from our everyday lives. It’s safe to say you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV no matter how realistic it may appear to be. It’s a form of entertainment, but it should not be consuming your life.