Column: Reality TV represents the best and the worst of mankind

Kyle Richards of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," poses for a portrait on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, in New York to promote her show, premiering Tuesday, Dec. 1 on Bravo. (Photo by Scott Gries/Invision/AP)

It’s easy, almost too easy, to hate “The Jersey Shore” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” but even these shows, often rightfully criticized for being exploitative and dumbing down American, offer a meaningful glimpse into what our society values and what we have to offer the world.

Most people don’t realize just how many reality television shows there are, or how big reality television is in places like Los Angeles. Hundreds of different shows have premiered over the years, from well-known programs like “Survivor” to “The Real Housewives of (insert city here).” This stuff is really all scripted, or at least written in a way that encourages certain scenarios and storylines to play out.

The kind of reality television that really interests me, however, is stuff like “Trading Spouses,” a show where two families from different backgrounds exchange wives for a week. The cultural differences can be significant, such as a tidy suburban home being turned upside down by a hippie mom obsessed with preservation and conservationism. When that doesn’t occur naturally, the writers of these programs will frequently insert sound bites from interviews or scenes that didn’t make the final cut in order to create the illusion of drama.

So the popularity of all this programming, which has made people like Snookie and Kim Kardashian famous, raises two questions in my mind. One, why do we obsess over reality television? And two, why do people even volunteer for these programs, going so far as to pay to take classes which supposedly increase one’s likelihood of being selected for a show?

The answer to the first question, or why we watch reality television, is a tough one. But I think it comes down to the fact that most of us live pretty ordinary lives, at least compared to what the writers and producers of reality television shows can create. High school or office gossip is the height of drama for most of us. Just look at how popular the “Mac and Cheese” video became in the days after that event shook the UConn campus.

That incident, by the way, is the height of reality television, because it’s actually real. That’s why reality television can’t simply label itself as fiction and expect the same level of financial success. We like the idea of watching people that we can relate to in bizarre situations, and imagining how we might fare and react if we were in their shoes.

The answer to the second question, why we flock to participate in reality television shoes, is actually pretty simple. Everyone feels like they have a story to tell, and everyone wants to be famous. It’s a crazy pipe dream to think that you’ll become famous through reality television, but it’s a dream that we’ve all experienced, and plenty of people are willing to debase themselves or open up the most private moments of their lives in order to become famous.

Reality television probably isn’t going away, but one of best things we can do is to understand it, and understand why it is that we participate, not to mention why we watch. 


Edward Pankowski is the life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.