Reality TV: What’s The Appeal?

I have previously admitted to being a devoted Project Runway fan and,

Mood, NYC

Mood, NYC

when they did Super Fan makeovers last week, I admit that I shared some of the enthusiasm.  This, of course, made me wonder about the appeal of reality TV.

In an older article in Psychology Today, Steven Reiss and James Wiltz write,

 “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. It does not matter as much that the contestants often are shown in an unfavorable light; the fact that millions of Americans are paying attention means that the contestants are important.”
This may be true of viewers of Survivor, Big Brother, America’s Next Top Model, etc., but I don’t think that is my motivation; if I liked a lot of attention, I wouldn’t be a clinical psychologist whose profession depends on privacy. So, I continued to wonder…
In a more scholarly article in Media Psychology, the same authors found that viewers had above-average motivation to feel self-important and, to a lesser extent, vindicated, friendly, free of morality, secure, and romantic, as compared with large normative samples. Hmmmm, still seems very Big Brother, Bachelorish, Apprentice-like.


I know that Reality TV has helped to break down the division between the show and the audience in significant ways or the zillion viewers would be doing something else – they are engaging.  So maybe, the shows we chose say something about us, for example, American Ninja Warrior is probably watched by people who appreciate that form of competition’. Are these the same folks watching Project Runway?

What do all these shows have in common: They are all competitions; people win or lose; All have people with some skill or talent (very loosely defined); The participants ‘talk’ to the camera or interviewer so there is the illusion of a truthful disclosure; We can imagine ourselves the situations created by our favorite shows.

Yes, the photo to the right is of Mood. I took it on a trip to NYC this summer. It was fabulous.


Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, Why America Loves Reality TV. Psychology Today  2001.

Minna Aslama and Mervi Pantti. Talking alone: reality TV, emotions and authenticity in European J. of cultural studies



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One Response to “Reality TV: What’s The Appeal?”

  1. September 26th, 2013 7:04 pm

    I think we try to watch what we can relate to or are curious about? Like I tend to watch reality shows like Little Couple and Sister Wives. I have kids so I can relate to th parenting aspect as well as marriage. But their families are different then my own and I’m genuinely curious how they operate. Same with the Duggars reality show.

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