Reality-based television is an amorphous collection of syndicated thematic shows and one-time episodes that have one unifying basis: they rely, in some fashion, on real or true events. This reality can take numerous forms, and the television industry has defined the genre broadly to include tabloid news, talk shows, comedic style shows, and crime-based shows. Examples include shows such as Hard Copy, A Current Affair, The Jerry Springer Show, America's Funniest Home Videos, Cops, America's Most Wanted, and one-time episodes such as "When Good Pets Go Bad," "World's Most Shocking Medical Videos," and "Scariest Chases and Shootouts." These shows rely on film or video footage of actual events, reenactments of events, and interviews with individuals involved with a specific topic. But the importance of these shows stems from how they shape "reality," emphasizing some aspects over others and limiting some details to create a "news" story. The phenomenon of reality television first gained momentum in the mid-1980s, and due to its popularity and economical production costs, has proliferated into the late 1990s.
Tabloid news shows are a less recognized form of reality television, because shows such as A Current Affair and Hard Copy have a format that resembles mainstream broadcast news. The tabloids actively try to position themselves as closer to the mainstream news media by using such conventions such as reporters and anchors, a reliance on sources for information, and the occasional presentation of pieces that could be seen as "hard news." Despite complaints from mainstream broadcast journalists who insist that tabloid news shows are very different and very inferior to their own product, in actuality both types of broadcasts have begun to mimic even more of each others' practices. Both investigative broadcast news and tabloid news take a moralizing tone with their stories, and both present a clear villain and victim. Both also rely on real events, and both occasionally turn to re-enactments and amateur home video to tell their stories.
While tabloid news had shaped itself to look like mainstream news programs, the popularity of the tabloid news shows has prompted some mainstream news programs to adopt conventions of tabloid news programs. News magazines such as Dateline NBC and 48 Hours have begun using these techniques, as well as the intermittent use of music and emotion in telling their stories. Although the practice cannot be confirmed, some researchers believe that these more mainstream outlets are employing some form of checkbook journalism, or paying sources for their story, as well. Yet, while news professionals may object to these cross-overs and fight the blurring of these lines, these practices ultimately serve to place tabloid television news more within the broadcast news genre than within the reality television genre.
Television talk shows also have elements of "reality" within them, as they often feature individuals and families presenting their problems to a host and studio audience. Yet, the shows have more in common with radio talk and call-in shows, and tend to identify themselves more as talk shows than reality shows. It should also be pointed out that charges have been leveled against some of the more sensational talk shows, such as The Jerry Springer Show, that some of the stories are fabricated, and some of the guests are given scripts directing them how to act and when to become less talkative and more physical.
Comedic style reality includes such shows as America's Funniest Home Videos and one-shot specials that rely on audience submitted home videos of their embarrassing moments, funny pets, and precocious children. Often, these shows provide prizes for the best or funniest video clip submitted, which is voted on by a studio audience. Although many of the clips appear to be staged or planned, this does not seem to matter to the shows' producers as long as the results are humorous. Additionally, the continuous advertising for the submission of more clips, often with specific themes, seems to acknowledge and approve of this activity.
Other forms of reality television include shock shows that draw together home video and other amateur video, such as police surveil-lance footage, on a certain shocking theme. These are often one-shot shows, which occasionally have a sequel. This first one of these specials was World's Most Dangerous Animals, which appeared on the Fox network on January 25, 1996. The show collected film clips from nature documentaries, including an elephant stomping on a trainer and a bear attacking a woman. The show had a moral message—that humanity was to blame for what had happened to these animals. Due to the high ratings it received, this show spawned a series of successors, but without the pro-social message. According to George Gerbner, a communications professor and scholar who studies violence on television, these shows "exploit the worst fears and nightmares of people." NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer called Fox's video of animal attacks "one step short of a snuff film."
The most established reality shows are the crime-oriented shows. Programs such as Cops, America's Most Wanted, and Unsolved Mysteries appear on a weekly basis and devote themselves to exploring the world of crime and criminals. Because of their established position, they are the form of reality television that has received the most attention from other media and media critics, as well as the television audience. These shows define reality television and provide the best clue as to what reality television reveals about "reality," especially America's beliefs about crime and law and order in the late twentieth century.
The proliferation of reality crime shows can be explained in part, but only in part, by the ratings that they receive. It is true that America's commercial broadcast system relies on profits to continue operating, and that profit comes from advertisers willing to pay money to reach certain audiences or segments of audiences. If reality crime shows did not draw viewers, they would not remain on the air. Yet, this is not the only factor in their continued appearance. According to Mark Fishman, reality crime shows receive below average ratings in the total number of households that watch television. Additionally, they have a mediocre share of the audience that does tune in to television during the time slots that they appear. What high ratings they do get are the result of one or two of these shows—usually Unsolved Mysteries and Cops. Yet, if these shows do not draw crowds of viewers, how can they stay on the air?
One reason for the continued appearance of reality crime shows, as well as the comedic and shock reality shows, are the low production costs involved in making them. Broadcast television has been in a long-term decline, steadily losing viewers to cable television and other sources of entertainment such as home computers and the Internet. This has led the networks to focus on smaller, more specific audience segments to appeal to advertisers (such as men aged 18-49), and has also led them to invest in low-cost programs. Typically, drama and comedy series are quite expensive. The science-fiction program Star Trek: Voyager cost approximately $1.5 million an episode, and the hospital drama ER cost NBC $13 million per episode in 1998. In contrast, reality crime shows such as America's Most Wanted cost—in its early days—$140,000 to $170,000 to produce one weekly half-hour episode. Thus, although they may not draw the same size audience, these shows are cheaper to produce and so can afford to generate smaller audiences and less advertising revenue.
In addition to their low cost, reality crime shows are valuable to broadcasters for other reasons. For example, many of these shows do not have temporal references in them, and so can be shown again and again in syndication. Once a show has survived at least two seasons, there are enough episodes to sell the show into syndication, where the most profits can be made. Crime reality shows can also fill broadcast station owners' need to provide their viewing audience with "public-service" programming—a requirement for maintaining their FCC license. Because these shows are a somewhat ambiguous mix of news and documentary, station owners can claim that by showing these programs, they are fulfilling their obligation to air public service shows. So, for a host of reasons beyond simply high ratings, these shows remain on the air, and increasing in frequency.
As mentioned above, reality crime shows have likely been watched by the greatest number of viewers, due to their long-running nature and series status. These are also the shows that make the greatest attempt to convey a message to their viewers. Their repetitive messages center on crime and law and order; and through a careful construction of reality, they make their point quite effectively. These shows present crime as rampant, violent, and obvious to spot, criminals as villains, and the police and jails as America's best line of defense against these challenges to decent society. These shows also capture minorities committing a greater percentage of crimes, feature crimes that are readily and easily solved, and are filmed more in less affluent urban areas.
For example, Cops features "the men and women of law enforcement" and nightly rides along with police from different parts of the country. Cops would appear on the surface to be the most realistic of these shows, as it does not have a narrator or host beyond the police who offer background or context for the situations they encounter. The cameraperson for the show rides along in the squad car, taping hours of footage for what will ultimately become a half-hour show. Although the show is carefully edited to appear "uncut," Debra Seagal reports that shows such as these often rely on stock footage and spend a great deal of time constructing the "stories" that appear on the show. Large portions of tape containing no real action must be edited out, and only the most exciting crimes will be included in the final show. Thus, footage of the police riding around for hours on end or the issuance of a speeding ticket would never appear on Cops, unless the receiver of the ticket suddenly engaged the police in a high-speed car chase.
Likewise, shows such as America's Most Wanted often use reenactments to explain past criminal activity. The show centers on criminals that are still at large, and urges the audience to become part of the solution, and call the show or police if they see any of these wanted criminals. The show regularly runs updates on wanted criminals that are either still at large or have been captured, thanking viewers if they have called in to provide tips or information. The reenactments, which attempt to graphically demonstrate the criminal's original lawbreaking, however, often rely on circumstantial evidence or statements, especially if the primary victim does not remember the events or is not around to convey the details. Thus, the show is forced to take some artistic license in creating a reasonable version of events, which viewers are likely to see as the truth of the matter.
Another way these shows construct a version of reality is through the narrative closure they attempt to provide. Resolution of events is preferred over unsolved crimes or escaped or unknown criminals, and these shows attempt to provide viewing audiences with this closure. This leads to a view of law enforcement that is at odds with federal statistics on suspects apprehended and cases closed. For example, Mary Beth Oliver and G. Blake Armstrong report that in a sample of reality-based programs, 61.5 percent of all crimes portrayed were depicted as solved, "as compared to FBI reports of an 18.0 percent arrest rate." Thus, reality shows are far more likely to create the impression that more criminals are being apprehended than is actually the case. Furthermore, the shows perpetuate the idea that minorities are more likely to engage in criminal activities. Oliver and Armstrong also report that "the vast majority of African-American characters are cast in roles of criminal suspects where they are also shown as recipients of police aggression." And while shows such as Cops state that "all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law," researchers have found that most viewers believe the suspects apprehended are indeed guilty, otherwise the police would not have arrested them in the first place.
Shows such as Cops provide a version of society where most criminals are caught and are automatically guilty. These criminals are also more likely to be minorities, and to have come from poorer, more crime-infested areas of cities. In addition to the prevalence of criminal activity, however, reality shows perpetuate the idea that criminals are one-dimensional villains, beyond redemption or reason, and therefore deserving of maximum sentences and harsh justice. Gray Cavender reports that on shows such as America's Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries, "the night teems with drug dealers and satanists, and crazy, cold-blooded killers prowl the mean streets of cities and small towns.… Criminals are described in terms that connote physicalugliness. They are depicted as dangerous, depraved, unremorseful people." Because of this portrayal, criminals are caricatures, and are depicted as fundamentally different from the audience and are beyond redemption. This view of criminals as beyond reason, as "rotten to the core," then legitimates strict crime control measures and idealizes justice as something wielded by a community to punish the bad apples that threaten the stability and life of the group.
The view of reality depicted by these crime shows is distorted in many respects. Yet, it provides many people with an interpretation of their society and how crime fits into it. In actuality, during the period in which these shows have become more popular, crime in the United States has decreased and non-violent crimes are now more prevalent than violent crimes. Yet, these are not the sorts of facts presented in reality television. Television has always been criticized for its portrayal of crime and violence. Critics maintain that television presents a world that is more violent, where criminals are one-dimensional and are generally caught. Yet, until reality shows appeared, most of these depictions were either found in fictional series such as crime dramas or in the news. The addition of reality crime shows adds a new dimension to the picture. Although the shows claim to portray reality and therefore real crime, the conventions they rely on and their close association with the police often preclude the possibility that they will accurately portray crime in America.
Reality programs are not strictly an American phenomenon, however. Tabloid television news began in Great Britain, and was brought to America by media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Likewise, according to Justine Boissard, reality programming appears in France and Italy as well, where local versions of crime reality shows are very popular. Thus, viewing reality, or what is attempting to pass for reality on television, appears to be a global pastime. How close television reality comes to actual reality and how distorted views of crime effects people's perceptions of their own surroundings remains a central concern.
Bauder, David. "90s Turbo-Charged 'Snuff Shows' All the Rage." Daily Iowan. February 9, 1999, 5A.
Boissard, Justine. "This Is Their Life." UNESCO Courier. October 1992, 14-16.
Cavender, Gray, and Mark Fishman, editors. Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs. New York, Aldine de Gruyter, 1998.
Seagal, Debra. "Tales from the Cutting-Room Floor." Harper's Magazine. November 1993, 50-57.