Reality Television

Laurie Ouellette

in Communication

ISBN: 9780199756841
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:
Reality Television

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Reality television, which can be broadly defined as unscripted entertainment programming, has existed since the emergence of television in the late 1940s. Hidden-camera programs, daytime talk shows featuring ordinary people as guests, and cop shows involving real police officers are some early strands of reality television in the United States and Europe. The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a surge of prime-time reality formats that combined the conventions of dramatic entertainment and documentary, including “docu-soaps,” reality sitcoms, adventure games, and makeover programs. Because of their cost efficiency and adaptability, these formats and their cultural offspring have become a staple of television production across the globe. On broadcast and specialized cable channels, ordinary people provide the raw material for a seemingly unstoppable wave of unscripted entertainment that trades on a combination of authenticity and spectacle. Television’s investment in the “real” has also triggered a wave of scholarship concerned with the ethical, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of entertainment built around nonactors and real-life situations with unpredictable outcomes. Debates about reality television’s commercialism, voyeurism, and cost-cutting techniques soon emerged, as have questions about reality television’s contrived settings and staged conventions. Because reality entertainment has overtaken less profitable forms of news and information on television, scholars have pondered its relationship to a “post-documentary” culture and an increasingly privatized civic landscape. Because reality television has concurrently served as a testing ground for integrated marketing, branding, and audience participation across new media platforms, including cell phones and computers, other scholars have focused on its place in a rapidly changing media environment. Debates over whether viewer interactivity is democratic or exploitative cut across the literature, as do questions about the new forms of ordinary celebrity and “fifteen minutes of fame” encouraged—and commodified—by reality television. What unites the relatively new discussion is an attempt to situate the forms, meanings, and stakes of unscripted television entertainment within the intersecting institutional, cultural, and social contexts in which it has taken hold.

Article.  7618 words. 

Subjects: Communication Studies

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