Through the years, television has been a tool for information as well as entertainment. Nearly every household has a television set, or at least, access to television programming through Internet broadcasts. We are never further than a stone’s throw away from a multitude of programs ranging from DIY to documentaries to hospital dramas. Nevertheless, perhaps the most engaging of television to come about over the past decade, is documentary in style but brings us closer to the world around us. It is reality television and over the past ten years is one of the most popular, if not controversial television formats to grace the airwaves. So why do we watch reality television, and why are we so drawn to programs like The Amazing Race, Cops and Survivor? What is it that has viewers returning to these programs, and arguably making them top of the Nielsen ratings?
Newsmagazine programs and on-the-job series have always been popular viewing, as well as insightful. Their documentary approaches narrowed the boundaries between subject and audiences where people were not only entertained by in some cases informed of a person’s plight, personal story, or just the type of people someone interacts with on the job. “Researchers frequently refer to at least six gratifications of media use: information (also known as surveillance or “knowledge), escape, passing time, entertainment, social viewing/status enhancement, and relaxation” (Frisby, 2004).
The series Survivor arguably covers a number of these gratifications by fulfilling different criteria for different people. The concept of surviving somewhere with a group of people often conjures up images of being on a deserted island, or lost in a jungle. For the show, it is more about surviving the dynamics of people in a harsh setting – one that is well controlled and modified for the safety of ‘cast’ and crew. The goal is to be the single person who “Outwits, outlasts and outplays” all the others to win a million dollars.
Over a span of 5 weeks, people compete and interact with each other, with their antics often becoming the topic of conversation the following day. Many different personalities are drawn to watching reality television, in particular, Survivor because it not only entertains but it amplifies many different areas of human nature as well as many types of personalities. “Reality television also can tap into what motivates and drives us. According to Pamela Brill, Ed.D., author of The Winner’s Way: A Proven Method for Achieving Your Personal Best in Any Situation (McGraw-Hill, 2004), certain programs might be useful to you because they help you identify what needs, goals and issues you’re working on” (Hynes 2004).
There is a great deal of manipulation behind the scenes, as well as in front of the cameras, and arguably reality television is just as tailored and edited for viewing as any scripted television program. Editors for reality television often have strict schedules to adhere to and a great deal of daily footage to review. Despite a lack of script, reality television has to engage audiences and individuals have to be portrayed as ‘characters’ despite the realism. “Editing reality TV is a great challenge because each show has to be compelling to new viewers and stand on its own.” (Kienzle 2005). There is also a great deal of physical risk in Survivor, even just from such a drastic change of diet, so it is reasonable to consider the off-camera medics and insurers involved for the participants. “To limit risk, producers make sure the non-professionals in every episode sign waivers and releases. Professional stunt coordinators direct the dangerous action” (Russell 2007).
Regardless of all these protective measures, and editing, it is undeniable the draw Survivor has on an audience. It is a show that appeals to a broad audience, and research has indicated it is largely due to the emphasis on certain human characteristics, that the show has continued to entertain for so long. Studies and surveys undertaken by Reiss and Wiltz suggest that viewers of the show watch predominantly to be social, or because it appeals to the natural instinct of competition. “The Survivor formula of challenges and voting would seem to embody both of these desired qualities: the spirit of competition paired with the opportunity for payback” (2006). Their research highlighted the scenario of results and events being a topic of conversation at a workplace the following day, and how the show garnished a social context for some viewers.
Surveys also highlighted how the manipulative nature of contestants had people interested in watching and people who were naturally manipulative or aggressive dominated the people surveyed. “The finding that viewing reality TV shows is negatively associated with the extent to which a person embraces morality (honor) is not surprising because many reality television shows champion expedience over ethics” (2004). Many tribal council meetings have featured manipulation as well as shrewd behavior by some of the contestants. The hours spent prior to a tribal council also demonstrate how conniving or the lengths some people will go to in order to survive and win.
Above all these instinctively human traits, however, “Reality TV allows Americans to fantasize about gaining status through automatic fame. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on television” (Reiss & Wiltz, 2006). It isn’t difficult to be able to appreciate the affect reality television has on a viewing audience, nor is it hard to imagine the broad spectrum of demographics it covers. We are always interested in how others do things, as well as what motivates another’s actions. Arguably, the show reveals the true nature of its contestants, and viewers are, in a way, learning from watching them.
Not to mention, there is also the desire to be better than someone else. When watching these shows, and seeing someone do something we believe we wouldn’t do or dream of doing in the same situation, we are given a sense of superiority – despite that the situation may have been edited to portray more drama or manipulated for time constraints. “The idea that these are “real” people gives psychological significance to the viewers’ perceptions of superiority—it may not matter much if the storyline is realistic, so long as the characters are ordinary people” (Reiss & Wiltz, 2004).
Survivor has been pitting people against each other for fifteen seasons now, with the current show held in China, and a sixteenth season already aimed for next year in Palau. How much longer the show will last, remains to be seen, but with such a rich tapestry of people to pull contestants from, it can be argued that it could go on indefinitely. As long as there are good editors and producers willing to highlight the true nature of people as they compete, there will always be an audience interested in watching. People enjoy discussing and ‘analyzing’ others, and Survivor caters to these desires. It also gives viewers what they want from social desires and needs to an air of aggressive and competitive behavior. People like to pick sides and see that side win.
Sociable people spend time discussing the outcome and predictions of the show, whilst those who are not as sociable are given the chance to be a part of a social group by watching the show and participating in these ‘workplace talks’. It is a show where we are inspired by some of the contestants’ stories, as well as motivated to change our lives in some fashion. We get to see how someone of a similar personality reacts, and we may or may not always like what we see.
Regardless of what draws people to watch reality television, it is safe to say that they are here to stay. “”These shows are not going to go gently into the night,” says Syracuse University media professor Robert Thompson.”America’s appetite for entertainment has returned, and reality TV can help satisfy it.” (Harper, 2002).