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A Critical Review of Annette Hill’s Reality TV

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A Critical Review of Annette Hill’s

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Reality TV:  Audiences and Popular Factual Television

I.         Introduction

            The popularity of reality TV is evident in the sheer number of programmes abound worldwide, from model searches to singing contests, home makeovers to personality improvement, celebrity and animal lives to crime cases, and many more.  Many factors seem to be behind this phenomenon, but the most significant is the kind of audience response to reality programming that is primarily based on personal interests and preferences.

  With reality TV’s goals ranging from entertainment to information, it is clear how much of its relevance is based on human connection.

            This claim, while general, may be proven sound and noteworthy, due to the nature of reality TV being a format to show the real vs. the created.  This brings to mind the appropriation of emotions as a selling point; showing unscripted exchanges and reactions to various events is a highlight of the genre, and the inherent interest of people in the emotions of others is an acknowledged part of contemporary culture (Aslama and Pantti, 2006).

  Perhaps the source of entertainment is not the emotions per se, but the idea of them being real and not produced by a writer’s imagination makes for the appeal.  The same is true for audiences of hard news, who often admit to having a morbid fascination when viewing actual disasters, accidents, and other horrific images; the license to create is no longer part of the presentation, thus revealing aspects of human life that either validate their own or provide new insight.  Concepts such as class and race are no longer as lengthily addressed in most reality TV programming compared to ethics, which may be best termed as “spectacular subjectivity”—a communicative style that has modified the definitions of equality and accessibility (Skeggs et al, 2008).

II.        Annette Hill’s Reality TV

            Reality TV’s quintessential representative in the show Big Brother is perhaps the catalyst that has officially formed scholarly interest and the subsequent research on the genre, mainly because of its wide popularity and global fan base.  The idea of bringing together individuals of different persuasions to live under one roof is already rich in potential for many appropriations of traditional entertainment—humour, drama, voyeurism, and the like.  Annette Hill’s landmark text on theorising about the phenomenon brought her back to the evidences offered by the forerunners of reality TV, to the newer incarnations that centre on specialised topics of human interest.

            There is much to be gleaned from the programming strategies and viewing habits that have resulted from the advent of reality TV, and Hill is correct in giving this genre a new label—popular factual television (Hill, 2005).  It is factual because it presents the raw and the real, yet is popular because it is somehow modified into a structure that lends well to the entertainment criteria of the viewing public.  Aside from being cost-effective, this type of programming is easy to create, adapt, globalise, and even reinvent, which is why reality TV is already touted to be a marked departure or singular innovation in television programming history (Piper, 2006)—an idea met with ample reaction and controversy.  But whether the proponents of traditional programming agree or not, reality TV has indeed unlocked a new ideology of viewership as Hill is inclined to study.  Her book showcases the literature of apropos, and may definitely be considered for its credibility and empirical evidence.  Hill makes use of historical research, as well as in-depth analyses of the beginnings and current trends in reality TV.  On top of this ideological inquiry, Hill also incorporates a substantial presentation on the economics behind the genre, including audience percentage and ratings, that may prove useful in justifying its enduring existence in the global entertainment schedule.

III.      Theoretical Aims

            In Reality TV, Annette Hill outlines her objectives in explaining the phenomenon and rise of the genre she defines as popular factual television, which may be stated in two possible causal relationships:

1.         To inquire into and engage in an exhaustive exploration of the factual television genre, in order to comprehend the path of transition of reality TV; and

2.         To study and learn audience responses to reality TV programming, in order to

understand contemporary TV audiences. (Hill, 2005)

            Hill gives her initial researched facts to begin her discussion, which includes an articulation of UK audiences vs. the kinds of programmes the watch:  as a collective audience, 70 percent watched reality TV programmes, and showed preference for the categories of police or crime, shows that feature specific places, home and garden shows, and pet programmes.  The apparent reason behind this is the strong presence of public service broadcasting in UK television history, which has seamlessly integrated reality (Hill, 2005).

            Different theories may be apt for application in Hill’s objectives, which are simply informed by the development of the genre and audience response.  Dilf Zillmann’s excitation transfer theory “recognizes that TV has the power to stir up strong feelings” (Griffin, 2003, p. 378), which may be categorised into humour, anger, love, and such, but actually evoke uniform effects on the viewer.  Case in point:  an episode of Survivor, which typically reveals the castaways in moments of triumph, failure, and homesickness, affects the audience in a singular manner.  These strong feelings come together to maintain their effects on the viewer even after viewing the programme, and this may probably explain the audience clamour for even more reality TV shows.  The ultimate effect, however, is in the influence of these feelings on the viewer’s actions, which may range from excessive affection to violence.

            The media equation theory as posited by Reeves and Nash (Griffin, 2003) highlights the connection of media to several topics in the study of interpersonal communication, namely similarity and attraction, and source credibility.  The goal is to substitute media, TV in this case, for one of the human participants in the abovementioned communication, and such an analysis completely applies to the relationship between reality TV and its audience.  Similarity and attraction is clearly evident, since the perceived ‘realness’ of the reality TV cast puts them on a level more personal than that of TV actors.  This creates a feeling of attraction on the part of the audience, as they see people of a more human quality, who are not cut out to be actors, expressing emotions and opinions that are not scripted.

IV.      Methodology

            Annette Hill’s two-pronged research made use of historical methods for the first part, which necessitated identifying and reviewing all possible programmes that subscribe to the parameters of reality TV.  Tracing the origins of factual television—including news and documentary shows, and the like—to the more contained versions of programmes such as competitions and pseudo-documentaries and basing their functions and effects on a set criteria of values make up Hill’s foundation research.  She looked into the following as the bases for the effectiveness and appeal of reality TV:

            1.         Performance and authenticity.  Reality TV programming presents the unique marriage of fact and theatre; the emotions that provide the entertainment combined with the factual nature of such differentiate this type of show from others that impart just one of the two values.

            2.         The idea of learning.  The categories of informal and formal learning in the context of news and documentaries push the format that espouses informal and practical methods into the more specialised goal of reality TV.  Examples of this are DIY and animal programmes, which are done with a less formal approach than the regular newscast.

            3.         Ethics of care.  The assessment of a reality TV programme is also based on its responsibility toward moral values; since the goal is to present things as they are, questions regarding good and bad values are always present.

            These points regarding audience response are integral in evaluating the state of reality TV programming and its transition into the more substantial genre of popular factual television.

            Hill applied her historical research to the specific reality TV subject of pet deaths.  This particular subject concerns itself with the criteria discussed, and the case study appropriated by Hill that includes various pet programmes revealed the reasons and objectives of audiences in watching such shows (Hill, 2005).

V.        Findings and Evidence

            The historical research provided by Hill showed how audiences have reacted throughout time to programmes that are perceived real and factual.  This is evident in the transition of news programmes and documentaries from formal and impersonal to dramatic and entertaining.  In fact, many journalists have been actively reformatting their stories to uphold drama over evidence (Benett, 2005).  This validates the entertainment appeal of reality TV, which promotes both drama and fact.  Moreover, the revelation of information through the surveillance style of many reality TV shows commodifies the person and his or her feelings, making them marketable items (Andrejevic, 2002).  To its extreme, reality TV is seen by some as having less reality and more inclination toward performativity, construction, and triviality (Holmes, 2004).

            Education has also become redefined in the light of reality programming, with the increasing presence of how-to shows that teach audiences new skills and provide new information. Shows such as Changing Rooms and, indirectly, competition-based programmes such as Iron Chef or American Idol impart essential knowledge about a particular skill, talent, or project.  Compared to traditional education programmes, these reality-oriented shows also focus on practical application and creativity as a method of teaching, thus making them popular among an increasing number of audiences.

            Moral values and the ethics of care that had been exposed in Hill’s research on audience response to pet programmes confirms the growing concern of programming with social and personal responsibility.  What had started as a genre that centred on exposing raw and real events and emotions as a selling point is now transitioning into a vehicle that espouses care and concern for a number of subjects—people, animals, places, etc.  The emergence of reality TV shows such as Extreme Makeover Home Edition exemplifies this new brand of programming, which advocates individual and personal volunteerism as well as corporate social responsibility (McMurria, 2008) in the process of building new homes for families.

            In the midst of all this, the affinity of reality TV with audiences shows a significant reinforcement of the successful traits of the traditional drama, evidenced by the narrative style employed by programmes such as Big Brother or Survivor.  Dramas or soap operas and these newer reality TV programmes appeal to the personal preferences and cultural inclinations of audiences, infusing issues and topics that work well within the context of any conversation or gossip.  This in turn creates a mirroring relationship between the show’s messages and the audience’s preferences and interests—which may, depending on the professed objective of a show, result in higher ratings, more votes, or make celebrities out of the participants (Turner, 2005, and Collins, 2008).

VI.      Conclusion

            The phenomenon of reality TV programmes and their undeniable connection with audiences of all ages is one that requires theorising and explaining in order to be understood by scholars of media, particularly of television.  Annette Hill’s commendable work on tracing the history of reality TV programming, including its influences and earliest forms, is a feat that will indeed make an indelible mark in media studies worldwide.  With the genre considered young compared to the other players in the arena of TV programming, studies of reality TV as extensive as Hill’s may not be as numerous or replicated by other research work.

            But there is much to be gleaned from the relationship of this transitioning genre and the audiences it caters to; the movement from mere and generic reality TV to the more purposive popular factual television corresponds to the maturing tastes and preferences of viewers.  The basic effects of reality TV remain—the presentation of emotions, the audience’s validation of self through the participants, and the creation of instant celebrities heralding the banner of supposed truth—but the standards or expectations have improved.  The interest in reality programming is not solely in the real or rawness, but in the essence of the project—will it help people?  If so, will it help people in the right manner?  Permutations of this inquiry are abound in the evaluation of a reality TV show at present, and this is where Hill’s ethics of care come in.  Though entertainment is still at the core of the genre, as it is still the competency of television, the objectives of learning and helping—values inherent in all societies—are being permanently put in focus, thus making the shift from reality TV to popular factual television relevant, important, and finally, deserving of the claim of changing the landscape of television and media.



Hill, Annette.  2005.  Reality TV:  Audiences and Popular Factual Television.  Routledge.


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Aslama, M. and Pantti. M.  2006.  ‘Talking Alone:  Reality TV, emotions and authenticity’.

            European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 9 No. 2, pp. 167-184.

Benett, W.  2005.  ‘Beyond Pseudoevents:  Election News as Reality TV’.  American Behavioral

            Scientist, Vol. 49 No. 3, pp. 364-378.

Collins, S.  2008.  ‘Making the Most out of 15 Minutes:  Reality TV’s Dispensable Celebrity’.

            Television & New Media, Vol. 9 No. 2, pp. 87-110.

Griffin, E.  2003.  A First Look at Communication Theory.  New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Holmes, S.  2004.  ‘“Reality Goes Pop!”:  Reality TV, Popular Music, and Narratives of Stardom

            in Pop Idol’.  Television & New Media, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp.147-172.

McMurria, J.  ‘Desperate Citizens and Good Samaritans:  Neoliberalism and Makeover Reality

            TV’.  Television & New Media, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 305-332.

Piper, H.  2006.  ‘Review’.  Screen, Vol. 47 No.1, pp. 133-138.

Skeggs, B, Thumin, N, and Wood, H.  2008.  ‘‘Oh goodness, I am watching reality TV’”  How

methods make class in audience research’.  European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 11 No.1, pp. 5-24.

Turner, G.  2005.  ‘Cultural Identity, Soap Narrative, and Reality TV’.  Television & New

            Media, Vol. 6 No. 4, pp. 415-422.


Cite this A Critical Review of Annette Hill’s Reality TV

A Critical Review of Annette Hill’s Reality TV. (2016, Nov 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/a-critical-review-of-annette-hills-reality-tv/

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