Reality Television Popularity in America

Turn on the television, browse through a few channels and the majority of the programming is reality-based television. Since it exploded onto the airwaves, Reality television has grown into a staple among American TV viewers, as more shows in this category make their way onto the small screen each season. But why is the Reality TV genre so popular in America?  According to research, Reality TV satisfies three basic needs for Americans:  the insatiable appetite for fame; the urge to relate to characters on shows they watch; and the need for relatively inexpensive programming.


Hit Reality TV Show, VH1’s Love & Hiphop Atlanta
Photo Credit: Straightfromthea

 The first theory behind why the Reality TV genre is so appealing centers around the American craving for fame. Face it—many Americans have a keen desire for their 15-minutes of notoriety. Sometimes the ordinary people on Reality television shows actually end up becoming stars; and in turn, more Americans tune in to watch one of their very own try to make it to the top. Some viewers even visualize that next season they might get a lucky break and be able to step into that person’s shoes. Steven Reiss and James Wiltz at Psychology Today state, “Reality TV allows Americans to fantasize about gaining status through automatic fame. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on television” (Reiss & Wiltz, 2010).

 The second theory on why the U.S. loves Reality TV is because they feel the innate need to relate to characters that appear on these programs.  The Reality genre features programming that normally involves non-celebrity (actors) being continuously filmed throughout a certain theme, engaging in miscellaneous activities or some type of show in which the people are contestants. These types of shows became an official “genre” after the documentary-type show The American Family on PBS in 1973 (Slocum, 2013). Throughout the show, viewers watched as the family went through their hardships with one of the characters coming out as gay and the parents going through a divorce; the documentary became something in which some people viewed and were able to relate (Slocum, 2013).   Sociologist Margaret Mead notes, “… To engage the audience, the genre moves from observation to storytelling in a way traditional documentaries have not;” therefore, in a way, reality television was not only a way into lives of real people, but also a story about these people lives (qtd. in Slocum, 2013).  These are stories that regular people can relate to, and this connection is like the magnet that draws viewers back each week.

The third theory regarding why Americans embrace Reality TV is because these shows are relatively inexpensive to produce. Reality TV, when compared to other “big name star” programming, is basically cheap TV. Some networks do dish out big bucks to produce shows like the network E! which forks over $100,000 – $500,000 per episode; however, smaller networks and channels greatly benefit from producing these low-budget Reality shows (Joyner, 2010). Most Reality television shows have smaller crews, fewer sets, and will usually not need as much equipment. According to Writers Guild of America, West assistant executive director Charles B. Slocum, Reality television is cheaper to produce than an actual scripted show in every aspect, and in addition networks keep more money (Slocum, 2013). He states, “The economic role of reality-based programming is to permit a network to cost-average down the price of programming across the entire primetime schedule” (Slocum, 2013).   As a result, Reality TV not only saves the network money, but it also helps with the price of programming across the primetime schedule.

Research has discovered that Reality TV serves the American viewing audience in three significant ways:  it feeds their appetite for fame; it satisfies their urge to relate to characters on the shows they watch; and it provides a lower-cost platform for production that ensures a steady stream of new programming.   Reality TV has unwittingly found itself firmly embedded in the fabric of American Pop Culture.


Joyner, Sean. “Why Networks Love Reality TV.” Investopedia. Investopedia US, 30

         April 2010. Retrieved from /0410/why-networks-love-reality-    

         tv.aspx 22 Sept. 2013.

Slocum, Charles B. “The Real History of Reality TV Or, How Allen Funt Won the Cold

            War.” WGAW. Writers Guild of America, West. 2013. Retrieved from 23 Sept. 2013.

Reiss, Steven & Wiltz, James. “Why America Loves Reality TV.” Psychology Today.

            Sussex Publishers. 14 Dec. 2010. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.

            com/articles/200109/why-america-loves-reality-tv 22 Sept. 2013.


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