Reality TV: So Sick, or Sickening?

by Jeff


Over the past decade, reality television programs have become more and more popular in the United States and all over the world. TV shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol have become the kings of prime-time television. Reality TV is, by definition, unscripted, melodramatic television programming, usually featuring ordinary people as opposed to regular actors. Shows can range from many ideas, such as talent competitions, like NBC’s The Voice , to shows that follow the lives of interesting personalities, such as MTV’s Jersey Shore.

The wildfire-like growth of reality TV has received a great deal of criticism over the past few years. Pundits have called it “cheap entertainment” and claim that it ruins television. These critics, however, are failing to realize the bigger picture. Reality television is an economic dream for all parties involved, including the television executives and producers, as well as the stars of the shows. Reality TV has cemented itself as a staple of American culture. Criticizing it shows a lack of perspective regarding its financial benefits, as well as an inability to adapt to a constantly evolving culture.

TV executives struck gold when they began airing reality TV programs. They discovered a product that would require very little in terms of production costs, while yielding equal if not greater than ratings. An average primetime, scripted television program, such as ABC’s hit comedy Modern Family has a budget of about $3 million per episode. A reality TV show in the same time slot, such as NBC’s weight loss competition, The Biggest Loser,  can be produced for about $500,000. This is because networks are responsible for paying the salaries of writers and directors. Additionally, the more popular a show becomes, the more money its on-screen talent demands. In the case of reality TV shows, the majority of on-screen personalities are seasonal, and do not have to be paid yearly salaries. In the case of a show like Modern Family, on the other hand, the network is faced with a different situation when the stars demand more money per episode. In spite of this budget disparity, the ratings and advertisement revenue would be equal.

It is no surprise that essentially every major network has filled up its prime-time slots with as many reality TV programs as possible. It would be irresponsible to shareholders and employees for executives not to put these reality TV programs on air. However, these execs still receive criticism for airing these programs. Why? It is unfair for people to criticize executives for discovering a successful product and capitalizing on it. Innovation like this is what has made so many Americans successful, and reality TV is no exception.

On top of being beneficial to television executives, reality TV helps almost all individuals involved. Many shows are talent competitions, and contestants can build careers off of them. An example of this is the success of many American Idol contestants in the music industry. Ten years removed from her season 1 victory, Kelly Clarkson still managed to release a number one single with her hit song “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Despite falling short of the Idol crown, Christ Daughtry has released several successful albums to due to the increased exposure from the show.

Even reality stars that have gained a great deal of public notoriety, such as the cast of Jersey Shore, have been able to profit off the success of reality TV. One of the biggest personalities of the show, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, has used her fame from the show to build a brand for herself. She has been able to profit from her merchandise such as sunglasses and flip-flops, as well as releasing several books. In addition, the state of New Jersey has benefited from the show’s success. Many towns along the Jersey shore have seen record tourism numbers over the past couple years. They credit the popularity of the show the reason for this. Small businesses on the shore have seen their business nearly double.

Reality TV programs do more than just economic good for those involved. Shows like Intervention help people quit their drug addictions and unify broken families.  Why do so many people hate success stories? Reality TV has changed the lives of many for good.

Many people claim that there should be no reality TV because it diminishes the quality of television. However, this simply is not true. There are still many quality scripted programs that are able to achieve success. These programs are not totally eclipsed by reality shows. Scripted programs still gain stellar ratings, and  they receive praise from both critics and award shows, like the Emmys and Golden Globes. The mindset that reality TV is “bad for America” shows an inability to adapt to change.

American culture has always been open to metamorphosis and innovation. Our nation has benefited from the bright ideas of innovators for centuries, why stop now? Our culture is constantly changing, and it will continue to do so. Additionally, calling reality TV “bad television” is purely subjective and opinionated. While it may lack some creativity and a layer of production, it has unlimited potential. It showcases unique talents and an interactive element that scripted TV cannot provide. Reality TV provides the original purpose of television: to entertain.


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