Why do people watch Reality TV?

For some of us who do not watch reality shows, the first thing that comes to mind, when we take the names of some reality shows like Big Boss or Splitsvilla will be the incessant shouting, crying and participants having a go at each other. Even people who do not watch Roadies are familiar with celebrities like Rannvijay and Raghu Ram and their infamous swearing abilities. Many like to trash these shows and also the people who watch these shows. Then how is it that, in the face of so much opposition and widespread derision, these shows continue to be made season after season and enjoy relatively good TRP ratings? Is the reason our inquisitive nature to know about others’ lives – our intrusive nature that gives the fodder for celebrity journalism? What does watching a reality show reveal about a person and why do people watch them? But there is no straight answer to such questions. Social psychology research is increasingly divided on this issue with some painting the viewers as people with narcissistic, highly competitive and aggressive tendencies who crave drama while some say that watching such shows can actually make you a nicer and a compassionate individual.

 A reality show is an adaptation of documentary filmmaking, which records people and situations that are unscripted. These shows do not need writers but just skilled editors who give heavily edited ‘raw footage’ of what actually happened and are therefore easier and cheaper to produce, than other types of shows. Many of these shows have a prototype of a mean girl and an arrogant man-child who gives the show the much needed drama, doesn’t seem to get voted off; and, sometimes even goes on to win the show (Gautam Gulati anyone?). They openly endorse aggression, public humiliation, vengeance and competition to get ahead. Most of the communication and team building happens through gossip. Contestants perform outrageous acts which are enthusiastically lapped up by news channels and websites because we love to gossip.

A study suggests that we watch these shows, not much because of our love for drama or need to know what’s happening in other people’s lives, but due to the need to feel self important and to fulfil our desire of getting attention. It suggests that people who watch these shows are not less likely to spend time in intellectual activities than others but the difference lies in the attitude. They value prestige and place self worth as synonymous with getting attention from others. As they watch ordinary people like themselves and relatively less known celebrities go on doing ordinary daily stuffs we all go through, and get attention in prime time hours, they think even they can become a celebrity. Their self worth and importance increases by virtue of being an ordinary person, as they put themselves on their shoes. People with higher narcissistic tendencies seek out these shows or come to develop them as they watch these shows.

But reality shows aren’t all that bad. Another study conducted in Germany says that as people watch others get humiliated and go through difficult situations, their sense of empathy increases. They found higher levels of activity in areas of the brain connected to empathy, compassion, suppression of ego and social norms. Maybe people are drawn to reality TV because they push our empathy levels.

Indeed, reality shows can be very interesting for people wanting to know more about human behaviour, psychology, and sociology as participants battle and try to win challenges which test their physical, emotional and intellectual prowess, memory and communication skills. Thus, reality TV can be seen as a social experiment (some are even packaged as such). It can be interesting to watch group dynamics in such shows; in fact teaming up with a partner to win a challenge and at the same time trying to keep yourself at the top can be seen through game theory . People can get new insights into bonding, communication, and even tackling stress.

Applying approaches of different schools of thought of sociology to the phenomenon that is reality TV, can give you different perspectives regarding reality shows. While functionalism, the school of thought that focuses on the functional aspect, sees reality TV through rose tinted glasses as informing about informal social control and consequences of breaking them (boundaries of gossip). Conflict school of thought can see them as a manifestation of social inequality and the conflict that arises in the society as contestants battle it out to get a scarce resource (it may be Rakhi Sawant in ‘Rakhi Sawant ka Swayamvar’ or a bike in Roadies). We see the manifestation of unequal power and bias in vote outs and ‘immunity’ given to participants.

Symbolic interactionism has a micro perspective, and sees motivation for social action as based on meaning that those actions have, which is shared through social interaction(eg., we stand up after watching a nice performance to show that we greatly enjoyed the show). We can analyze reality shows by asking how the individual interprets the behaviour of participants and various other symbols are interpreted by the individual and affects their own behaviour. Whether people experience an increased sense of self-worth after watching the behaviour exhibited by these participants, both positive and negative, because they justify their own behaviour after watching such shows is an interesting question.

Here we need to recognize an individual’s ability to think by themselves; each viewer is not the same and it is equally possible for a narcissistic person with a need for drama to watch such a show as a person who is interested in human behaviour who watches to find out how it pans out for the contestants. Maybe both are the same person.   

Indumathi S