Why do we find reality television so irresistible?
They say curiosity killed the cat. There is, perhaps, a lesson in this adage for modern audiences — what with millions fine-tuning their voyeuristic side by watching people’s intimate moments on TV. But reality TV, as we know it, is not true voyeurism, because the terms of the content have been agreed upon. The contestants in the Celebrity Big Brother house know they are being watched, in fact they are there to be watched.
Reality TV, in case you’ve forgotten, is for the media savvy. Every couple that signs up for Temptation Island, every contestant who is vying for a job on The Apprentice, for every Shilpa Shetty wanting to revive her sagging career, or a Rakhi Sawant, who just likes being on TV — manipulating the audience is the key to success.
But why do we like reality TV? Is it the social experiment that appeals to us, its odd reflection of real life? Granted, we don’t normally experience stylised situations and we certainly are not stuck in a house with strangers for two months at a time, but the characters are people we can relate to: the bully, the beauty, the attention-grabber, and the quiet one in the corner. We love to love them and love to hate them.
Is it ethical to watch such fare? Does it even matter? The Bachelor, apparently looking for love by making a collection of pretty girls fight over him, is a sham. So what’s the catch? It seems we like to build up celebrities, and then we like to watch them. British psychologist, Geoffrey Beattie, has proposed many theories as to why people like watching TV. There is the ‘fairytale factor’, where people get interested in the lives of celebrities in the hope that, perhaps, they too can go from rags to riches; and then there is the ‘Schadenfreude Effect’, where people like watching the suffering of celebrities. That’s the catch. Going on a reality show doesn’t guarantee you become a media darling. Ask Jade Goody. The tricky part is that when you jump into the ring, it could go either way. Goody could have been the outspoken and brash one, but she became the bully. Shetty could have been the boring one, but she emerged the finest example of poise under stress.
Steven Reiss’s study on why people like to watch reality TV suggested that those indulging in this guilty pleasure have a trait of feeling self-important and, to a lesser extent, feel vindicated, free of morality and romantic. What he found was that people watched television to stimulate the intrinsic feelings they value the most. But, at the same time, life presented as a narrative is appealing — just see America’s Next Top Model. This is life in a microcosm — you face challenges, you cry, you learn and, at the end of it all, there is a big group hug. The highs and lows all rolled into one fluffy ball, with some fine editing to keep you on the edge of your seat.
If curiosity killed the cat, remember satisfaction brought it back.