Lessons from Reality TV

I’m currently finishing up an essay on whether reality TV can teach audiences, using as my case studies The Biggest Loser (most studies were on US and Australian series) and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom (US only). I was going to include Masterchef (Aus, US and UK), but this assignment is only 2000 words and there are fewer studies on it that I could find.

I have issues with reality tv research.

While participants of surveys, viewers and non-viewers, are very clear that reality TV does not teach, or at the very most, only teaches in certain genres (e.g. home makeover shows), it seems that there is some kind of learning going on – but it does not appear that media creates the behaviour/attitude, but does contribute and reinforce it. The little that I found on Masterchef said it was a celebration of unhealthy food with no nutrition, but it did affect buying patterns and promoted home cooking (Phillipov). For The Biggest Loser, there is a lot of condemnation of the mixed messages, the promotion being “yay let’s all lose weight together” and the real message transmitted is stigmatising obesity (Thomas, Hyde and Komesaroff), humiliating the contestants, and the horror of the temptation challenges where they will tempt contestants to eat (sometimes large amounts of) takeaway or unhealthy foods for prizes such as immunity, exercise machines, or even contact with family at home (Lundy, Ruth and Park, and, Sender and Sullivan). With 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom, it was suggested that the media does inform teens on things like the reality of teen pregnancy (Lance) – not so much on the risks and responsibilities of sex and childbirth  – but each study also points out that there is a massive lack of sexual education across the US compared to other Western nations. There seems to be negatives and positives for all of them, and not just on an individual level but taken to much broader societal level.

One aspect that I could not include in my own essay, partly because of word count and partly because it was barely mentioned in the research I looked at, was the effect of the whole branding, including the show, the websites, the forums, the merchandise and advertising etc. I wonder if we are starting to use all media to our benefit. There is always a lot of talk on Twitter during shows now, some with their own Twitter tickers at the bottom. Marketers, of course, want us to go out and buy all the stuff related to the show such as replacement meal shakes from Biggest Loser, food from Coles – which sponsors Masterchef (see: The Gruen Transfer or The Checkout on ABC, Australia for more on marketing and promotion … and associated evils). All three shows have a website linked to them – I’m often found on Masterchef during the season catching up on the show or looking up recipes. 16 and Pregnant is marketed as a type of sexual health education for teens, alongside the website It’s Your Sex Life which has an ad on every episode (even on the MTV website catchup). Maybe we should be examining these shows in context with all the external stuff?

When I first decided on this topic to write about, everyone had an opinion. Reality TV is just crap and anyone who buys into anything it does is stupid. Reality TV can be good, but you need be choosey and thoughtful and actually research the things you take away from it (especially on things like how real is reality tv? I did see quite a bit of work on the scripting and editing control that changes whole stories). Images of people sitting at home with The Biggest Loser on while eating McDonald’s or other takeaway. I had my own experiences in which to build my expectations from because of my constant watching of Masterchef and my summer holidays binge on 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom. I tried watching more The Biggest Loser for this assignment, and it literally made me feel ill (despite the protestations by my brother-in-law and his girlfriend that it was essentially a good program, and that it was great there were kids on it <.< ). Overall, all these opinions were in various studies and research done on the topic! I am quite interested to see what comes in the future, but am rather mindful of the possibilities for exploitation – one scifi series I have by Ian Irvine (Human Rites) has a short description of a future reality tv show where people must call in to bid to pay for a life-saving operation for a child, complete with obnoxious host. *shudders*

References

Phillipov, Michelle. “Communicating Health Risks via the Media: What Can We Learn from MasterChef Australia?” The Australasian medical journal 5.11 (2012): 593–7.

Lundy, Lisa K, Amanda M Ruth, and Travis D Park. “Simply Irresistible: Reality TV Consumption Patterns.” Communication Quarterly 56.2 (2008): 208–225

Sender, Katherine, and Margaret Sullivan. “Epidemics of Will, Failures of Self-esteem: Responding to Fat Bodies in The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear.” Continuum 22.4 (2008): 573–584.

Lance, A. et al. “16 and Pregnant: a Content Analysis of a Reality Television Program About Unplanned Teen Pregnancy.” Contraception 86.3 (2012): 292.

Strasburger, Victor C, Amy B Jordan, and Ed Donnerstein. “Children, Adolescents, and the Media: Health Effects.” Pediatric clinics of North America 59.3 (2012): 533–587.

Thomas, Samantha, Hyde, Jim and Komesaroff, Paul. “‘Cheapening the Struggle:’ Obese People’s Attitudes Towards The Biggest Loser.” Obesity Management 3.5 (2007): 210–215.

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