Musings and Musters: Reality TV

Today’s observation is brought to you by the makers and watchers of Reality Television.

Remember this iconic scene from the movie, Dirty Harry?


Now what if instead of gun he was holding this:

If anyone pointed a cupcake in my direction I would gladly eat it, especially if it was covered with vanilla frosting. Free cupcakes always make my day. The point of this delicious example is to illustrate an observation I recently made: everything seems to invoke war and violence when it comes to reality television. Maybe it’s because I don’t have cable and am out of the loop. I’m sure many of you have noticed the same thing. I like to fancy myself as a popcorn physiologist – if everything is so competitive inside the box (or flat screen) it must be a mirror of what’s happening outside the box. That’s a bit obvious and part of the popcorn – but my true question is what is this doing to all of us as a society? Is reality TV making us more entitled, happy, divided or whole? That’s when I began to take a peep around.


The roots of reality television appear in the 1950s show “Queen for a Day,” in which women in less-than-stellar circumstances competed for studio audience’s sympathy and a chance to win fur coats and appliances. In 1973, PBS debuted An American Family; this show chronicled the life of the Louds family and all their ups and downs. Cops entered the arena around the same MTV’s The Real World did. The Real World which previewed in 1992 cast the mold that reality TV has been poured into every since. It cost producers an average of $400,000 to make these shows – compared to the millions of profits they make from these shows. 

Research regarding reality TV and its influence on the human psyche has only begun to emerge. In 2004 a report called “Why People Watch Reality TV” was published in Media Psychology.  The authors of the article, Steven Reiss and James Wiltz used the Reiss Profile to explain why certain people watch reality television. The Reiss Profile measures how basic motives result in a particular joy. It was concluded, based on the findings from 10,000 people that viewers have higher motives when it comes to vengeance and status. The following is from The Association of Psychological Science:

Reiss’s data showed that the largest significant motive for watching reality television was social status, which leads to the joy of self-importance. Only slightly less strong was the need for vengeance, which leads to vindication. ‘Some people may watch reality TV partially because they enjoy feeling superior to the people being portrayed,’ Reiss said. ‘People with a strong need for vengeance have the potential to enjoy watching people being humiliated.’

Schadenfreude, a German word used to describes people’s delight and entertainment at the failings and problems of others, has often been used to describe the allure of reality TV: laughing at Snooki being drunkenly carried off to jail is a Schadenfreude. Cheering at someone being torn apart by a lion is another. It’s seems that human delight and human suffering are as old and entertaining as our existence on this planet – making me wonder if war and competition are just part of our genetic code.

I do believe that cake batter is better than blood splatter; and bridal gowns more sophisticated than gladiator uniforms. If competition influences everything from dancing to the last cake standing, I’d rather have a piece of that petty and frivolous pie than to taste the true horrors of war. Maybe that’s another reason why we invent them. 

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