It may be hard for a young person today to imagine, but there was a time when reality television didn’t comprise the majority of television’s viewing offering.
Then, in 1992 came Sylvania Waters, the Aussie show that’s widely recognised as one of the first reality television programs, and within a decade we were being inundated with more information, and visuals, of the ‘private’ lives of the famous and non-famous alike.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In 1999, the most popular shows on television were E.R., Friends and Frasier, according to Nielsen rating numbers. This was a time when our viewing week was filled with sitcoms, which ran alongside re-runs of older shows such as Are You Being Served and Keeping up Appearances, and some newer comedies such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Sabrina The Teenage Witch and The Nanny.
Now, though, our screens are filled with any number of DIY shows, cooking shows, talent shows, singing shows, dating shows, auctioning shows and even shows following people doing their day-to-day jobs. That’s on top of the shows that follow the lives of celebrities, so we can be treated to footage of them eating, bathing and more, seven days a week.
With the rise of such programmes, and the celebrity status they’ve brought to many of their participants, some people are concerned that reality television might be setting up an unrealistic expectation of life as an adult for today’s young people.
Sitcoms had an influence over us culturally by creating catchphrases and exposing us to different fashions and concepts but few people expected to replicate the lives of the characters in a sitcom. Not so with reality TV, where the difference between fiction and reality is much more blurred. It’s still scripted—but in a way that’s designed to convince viewers it’s not.
Many of the stars of these reality TV shows appear to look perfect at all times, with an endless supply of cash and no employment to take up their time. Some argue the influence of reality shows may contribute to a sense of ‘entitlement’ from younger generations and a want for ‘instant gratification’.
Many studies have been conducted into the persuasiveness of reality TV on younger generations and have proven that many of today’s youth are influenced by what they see.
A prime example of reality TV influence occurred when Kylie Jenner, the youngest star on reality programme Keeping Up With The Kardashians, suddenly appeared with larger lips thanks a swift trip to the cosmetic surgeon’s office. Hordes of young teens who coveted the look began sucking their lips in shot glasses to make their lips larger; most ended up with bruises—some even ending up in hospital.
Debates about reality TV often hinge on whether this sort of influence is harmful or good for us.
Many who support the viewing of reality television believe it can provide inspiration to viewers by showcasing ‘normal’ people and their ‘talents’. Living up to the talents of famous actors and actresses can seem unattainable, while comparing yourself with an average joe who can bake a cracking lemon cheesecake can be refreshing.
Another argument is that reality television also provides viewers with a sense of community, with many joining social media groups to talk with like-minded people about the show. Some feel a deeper connection with participants on shows knowing they are expressing their own thoughts and unique personality.
As for its effect on the younger generation, those who support reality programs believe they have little effect on young people’s expectations when it comes to working life.
Those who believe watching reality television sets unrealistic expectations for young people, often list the depictions of materialism and excessive partying in such shows as reasons for its bad influence.
In real life, you can’t party all night, every night and look fantastic the next day. Unless you also happen to be a millionaire, you also need to hold down a job, cook, clean and pay your bills.
Elements of bullying, drama and aggression and the lack of focus for the future that’s prevalent in more ‘trashy’ reality programmes are also reasons many adults dislike their children and grandchildren watching the shows.
It could be argued that these shows install a need to ‘have it all’ in many young people, who don’t yet realise the years of work that go into making a comfortable living. This pressure can lead to excessive spending in order to fit the mould of fake realism created by so-called ‘reality’ shows.
A number of studies, observations and views from researchers have noted the correlation between reality television and societal behaviours is vague. In this case, only time will tell.
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