Words by: Elodie Ricaud Art by: Brooke Stevens
Whether you love it or cringe at it, reality television — or what some prefer to call ‘constructed’ television — has truly taken hold of our viewing habits. From cultivating countless pop culture memes, to being deemed a major topic of discussion, reality TV is the second most-watched genre in Australia.
This might come as a surprise because many Australians are ashamed to admit this, preferring to accept that their viewing habits are nothing but a ‘guilty pleasure’. Personally, as someone who binge-watches shows like Love Island and Queer Eye, I’ve often felt reluctant to admit that I enjoy a genre that is routinely labelled as ‘trashy’. But the truth is, despite the critics, reality TV has got everyone hooked. After doing some research and consulting the people around me, I’ve compiled four of the most popular reasons as to why this genre is oh-so captivating.
- It’s all about status
Ever kept up with the Kardashians? Or binged an entire season of Love Island in one night? Well turns out these viewing habits might actually be telling us more about ourselves than we think. In a study that assessed the appeal of reality TV, it was found that our personality is linked to our viewing preferences. The more someone likes reality TV, the more status-oriented they are likely to be. Psychologically speaking, reality television gratifies this need in various ways. Firstly, it makes viewers feel that they are more important than the “ordinary people” portrayed on the show. Secondly, by allowing “ordinary viewers” to feel represented, more people relate to characters on these shows. Lastly, reality TV allows viewers to fantasise about one day achieving the kind of celebrity status being portrayed.
- A little bit of drama
Who doesn’t love a bit of drama now and again? Especially if you’re simply an observer! After a very long, dull period of lockdowns, everyone’s seeking ways to bring about a little spice into their lives — and reality shows know just how to bring the heat. From petty fights to competitive situations, research has compared the experience to the tribalism of watching your favourite sports team battle it out on the court. Like every competitive AFL supporter who isn’t afraid to make their feelings loud and clear on Facebook, reality TV shows supporters (such as those from
RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Bachelor) have also created hardcore fandoms who display their fierce competitiveness for contestants online.
The truth is, we love drama because when we watch reality TV, our brain secretes endorphins, also known as the pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing compounds that are mimicked by opioids and heroin which leave us feeling addicted. It’s no wonder we can’t stop watching!
- Feeling Empathy
When watching a reality show, it can feel like you’re socialising with a friend. For instance, on Love Island when the girls are all together in the dressing room discussing their three-day-old relationships, I feel like I’m right there with them. And no, I’m not desperate, it’s just that this genre of television has proven to evoke empathy from its viewers. Empathy allows us to feel socially connected with participants on the show and feel for them when they get humiliated on camera. In the long run, this can help us to become more empathetic people. Hence why we love to go back to reality TV time and time again… it helps us become better people.
- Being healthy voyeurs
It’s safe to say that without our curiosity, there would be no reality TV. People just love to witness and evaluate how others present themselves and interact with others, including in life’s more intimate moments. At times it can feel wrong to be a voyeur, but to be frank, reality shows are created to satisfy that very inclination.
Luckily, voyeurism on a spectrum is healthy in small doses. Researchers have found ‘trait voyeurism’, a healthy form of voyeurism, to be the most common among this audience. In this instance, gaining insight into the lives of others is seen as a special limited-edition experience that converts us into virtual anthropologists, curious about human behaviour and society. This perfectly feeds our inquisitive minds and our appetite for this content.
Reality TV certainly satisfies our desires for status, drama, empathy, and voyeuristic inclination. But it can also satisfy an endless list of other viewer preferences because there is such a diverse range of content available. Although these reasons may differ, what’s true is that people love to watch this genre because it leaves us feeling more understanding and connected to others in such an engaging way. Reality shows may not be the most dignified genre of TV, but it sure is uniquely relevant and discerning in ways no other genres are.