Reality Television - entertainment that goes where research cannot

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Is reality TV junk viewing?

In a web article entitled Reality Check - harmless fun or dumbing down Ticky Fullerton said: "The world is now divided into two sorts of people - those who watch reality TV and those who don't and have no idea what it is..." (quoted from abc.net.au/4corners/stories).

Even worse than not knowing what Reality TV is, there are those who despise the genre, considering it mindless and inane, if not immoral.

If you have read any of my other hub pages you will know that I am an artist and an academic. The very last person to appreiciate reality television you might say.

True!


What made me change my mind?

When Big Brother first launched, I was amongst its critics. I found my children watching it late behind my back and there were a row of people asleep! To me that appealed to the human sense of voyeurism, which I suspect is hidden deep inside the psyche. So I censored the first couple of seasons of Big Brother.

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Experimentation by psychologists forbidden

As the variety of reality shows expanded I began to realise one very significant thing - these shows were a good source for scientific observation of human nature!

I studied psychology in the 1980s and one thing that we were taught slowed down the progress of research was the ethics of experimenting on people. People may be asked to fill out surveys giving their opinion, but only in limited circumstances can they be asked to participate in experimental scenarios.

The researcher must have each participant's permission and then must still limit the experiment because it just isn't right to put people into discomforting situations for psychological research. And even if a project was approved, the researcher had to bear in mind that knowing they were participating in an experiment could influence people's behaviour.


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Experimentation on people by media permitted!

Reality television programs work upon a different premise. People apply to be on the show and are keen to participate in a variety of experiences.

No scientist would get permission to lock twenty people up in a house to see how long it would take them to go crazy, but the entertainment industry somehow has society's full permission!

People do it for fame, prizes, a daily stipend for being on the show and a possible kickstart to a media career.

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The Big Brother Laboratory

Once I realised that these shows were basically experimenting upon people, I became a huge fan.

The show Big Brother (for example) appears to take it's name from the entity in George Orwell's book 1984 who monitors and polices all of the repressive society represented in the book. As in 1984 the contestants on the show are monitored by cameras 24 hours a day and their lives are strictly controlled.

I watched the most obvious examples of experimentation, chuckling to myself when genuine scientific experiments were repeated on television (for example "master and servant" style exercises reflect the Blue eyes vs Brown eyes classic racial prejudice experiment), and chuckling when the television stations ventured further than researchers usually dare (for example, reward and punishment rooms, isolation exercises, trouble makers and moles).


Floor Plan of Big Brother house 06

Map of the Big Brother house 6. Note that there ought to be a fence marked all around the outside because contestants could not enter and exit the house at will.
Map of the Big Brother house 6. Note that there ought to be a fence marked all around the outside because contestants could not enter and exit the house at will. | Source

Screened by Channel Ten (Australia) Big Brother 2006 posted by bbo786

One Of Big Brother's social experiemnts

Michael was an "insider" or mole in the house. He completed special tasks for Big Brother, sabotaging some tasks and creating dissent between house mates. The house mates mostly trusted him until his role was revealed, but then they were very angry with him.

It could be argued that Michael did not have a lot of choice having been assigned the role by Big Brother, but many people held him personally culpable. He was evicted shortly after his role was revealed.

The following clip was posted on Youtube by bb0786 on April 3, 2007. It was originally screened by Channel 10 Australia. Note that Big Brother goes out of his way to create inequality between Michael and the housemates, setting the scene for future grievance. 

Unacceptable extremes

I must add that despite my scientific interest, I was outraged at some of the deprivation exercises I saw on Australian Big Brother.

It was a transgression of basic health principles to remove toilet paper, toothpaste and soap from the house. I am not concerned about hair dye, straighteners and wax, those are not hygiene necessities even if some young participants felt they were!

How to record observations:

This is a method of observation used in educational research. It could be applied to reality television for practice, or if you had another use for the data - say you were writing an article.

Make sure you record the name of the show, episode details (if available), date of screening and television chanel.

Event Sampler Method:

Time 
Anecdotal event 
Notable behaviour  
Consequent event
7:30:00 pm 
The show commences. Sarah and Marie are in the kitchen cooking. 
Sarah is chopping vegetables and measuring ingredients. 
Sarah observes out loud to Marie that they are getting low on cheese. 
7:30:30
John enters the kitchen and raids a packet of chips from the cupboard. 
John is muttering that he is hungry and it will be ages before tea is ready. 
The girls look annoyed.
7:31:00
Sarah asks John whether he has already had his share of chips for the week.
Sarah's voice is sharp.
John appears defensive.
7:31:30
John tells Sarah to mind her own business. 
John accuses Sarah of being like a mother. 
Sarah looks stressed. 
7:32:00
Sarah reminds John that they only have a few treats available.
Sarah mentions that they have been asked to and are survive on staples.
John looks scornful.
7:32:30
John says he has the right to food and Sarah should not worry so much. They will be able to "shop" again on Monday.
He uses a swear word which is beeped out.
Sarah gets upset.
7:33:00
Sarah starts to cry and complain.
Sarah says she has been trying be careful with the supplies for cooking all week
John gets angry.
7:33:30
John says he doesn't care Sarah has been cooking and that she took it all upon herslef.
John complains that Sarah won't make any of his faviourite meals.
Sarah puts down the knife.
7:34:00
Sarah says that she will not cook anymore.
Sarah storms out of the kitchen.
Marie and John are alone in kitchen.
7:34:30
Marie says, "look what you have done!"
Marie is stirring a pot on the stove, puts vegetables into pot.
John shrugs and looks obstinate.
7:35:00
John says, "It's not my fault".
John adds that Georgie and Tina have been hiding sweets in their lockers.
Marie looks surprised.
7:35:30
Marie says, "There is no proof the girls have been hiding sweets, and anyway its the main food she is concerned about so that no one goes hungry".
Marie's tone sounds firm but reasonable.
John calms down.
7:40:00
John says, "The chips shouldn't be such a big deal then."
John adds that he never takes the cheese.
Marie appears satisfied.
7:40:30
Marie asks John to apologise to Sarah.
Marie explains that Sarah really has been working hard.
John looks defensive.
7:41:00
John says he won't apologise until he feeels like it.
John calls Sarah a derogatory name.
Marie refuses to get involved in an argument.
7:41:30
John leaves the kitchen.
John finishes the chip packet on the way out and drops it into the bin.
Marie is left cooking alone.
Picture courtesy Photos8.com
Picture courtesy Photos8.com

What is the point?

You may be saying to yourself: "Its only a TV show - why spend all that effort on observations?"

The observations can be useful however, if you ask yourself some questions. For example the following questions could be asked regarding the above event sampler (which was generalised and not based on a particular episode).

1) What are Sarah's values?

2) What are John's values?

3) Does John have the right to food when he wants it?

4) Do the others have the right to food when they want it?

5) What communication strategies are being used?

6) Why isn't Marie as upset as the other two?

7) What might be Marie's values?

8) Is anyone really right or wrong?

9) What are your values and who do they match?

Value of other reality shows...

Other reality shows captialise on peoples hopes and dreams. For example, to be attractive according to societies' standards, to find love, to get rich, to achieve stardom.... and sometimes to do all these things at one time!

Photo courtesy Photos8.com
Photo courtesy Photos8.com

A variety

I watched the most obvious examples of experimental shows and as they went off season, I began to watch other shows which placed real people in decision making positions. These shows included:

  • The Bachelor/Bachelorette,
  • Game shows such as Deal or No Deal,
  • The Resort
  • Master Chef
  • The Biggest Loser,
  • and The Block

Shows I tried watching but did not find useful for psychological observations included Wife Swap and Super Nanny. These shows may be entertaining, but they deliberately choose extreme cases and this creates artificial outcomes.


The early episodes of So You Think You Can Dance and Australian/American Idol are interesting because of the different types of people who audition.

However, these shows lose their value as they progress as the conservative Idustry judges appear to weed out the genuinely creative contestants.

Some people say that reality television is not truly real because it is scripted to a certain extent. I think you can tell when it is and when it isn't. And what I am looking for in my observations are the small things that people say not major scenes and challenges which may have been scripted.

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Comments 1 comment

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Very interesting hub, thank you!

The psychological aspect is the only thing that appealed to me about reality shows (apart from competitions where people are actually taught an element of performing), but I never really went indepth with that as you have done.

I still didn't find anything interesting enough for me to follow (especially considering the role editing, etc. plays in what is actually viewed - you are so right to look for the small, real behaviour), but this article is a timely reminder not to be 'elitist'/'snobby' about reality tv. ;)

Thanks again!

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