Since 1927 when the black and white television was born, almost 99% of households in America own a television set today with 66% of these homes owning three or more TV sets (TV-Free America, AC Nielsen, Co. n.p.). Since then, various types of shows that aim to inform, educate, document, entice, empathize and entertain viewers have been introduced. With the arrival of reality shows, local television imbibes its viewers with a new wave of destructive and suggestive satires that pose as entertainment, reality-mirror shows and induce a subliminal desire for material wealth, unneeded physical improvements and worldly ventures.
According to an AC Neilsen, Co. research compiled by TV-Free America, an American household spends more than four hours of watching the television every given day while an average undergraduate student spends around 10% (179.93 minutes per week) of this time watching reality shows (Leon et al., n.p.). Although reality shows are viewed by every age group, they are most liked by the younger generation. They absorb much more than just information, jokes, language, music, sexual preference and lifestyle. However, they are more exposed to wrong values and virtues that they often claim to be right, cool and practical. Experts from the TV Free America movement and the Australian Early Childhood Association found out that exposure of young generation to violence in television is massively increasing. Children are often forced to watch TV as parents utilize it as a makeshift babysitter or a decoy nanny. The study also proves that even kids show can depict violence and elicit a response that is quite similar to that of post-traumatic stress. This fact is evident in reality television where young viewers are most affected because they have not yet formed their values. As exposure to violence causes harm to the unknowing mind of a child, so have these so-called reality shows impacted its older avid viewers.
Previous reality shows in the contest format featured contestants who would lie, cheat or criticize other contestants to win and get more airtime. Sometimes, the mentality that “winning is everything” becomes a mantra that propels the contestants to succeed even if it means backing out on an alliance, taking back a promise, or betraying a friend, a comrade and a long-time lover. Cash seems to be a driving force that conquers and overpowers fears and limitations (such as Fear Factor), the need for sleep (Shattered), hunger and friendship (such as Survivor), love, morals, and values (such as Joe Millionaire) – all in the spirit of the game. On the other hand, reality shows of the talent/ game show format that require viewer votes and allow the count to decide who wins or not do not guarantee that contestants with excellent skill and talent will bring home the prize. For these types of shows, it is never a level playing field.
Reality shows in the format of body and self-improvement are equally sensationalized and have a tremendous effect on the way most people value their physical bodies over their mental, social and spiritual disposition. A comparison of the impact of a reality TV cosmetic surgery program and a reality TV home improvement program show that although self-improvement shows promote an increasing desire to better physical appearance and increasing the person’s confidence in her ability to do so, this does not necessarily result in improved well-being and increased positive physical outlook. Instead, according to the recent study done by Mazzeo and colleagues (390-7), it contributes to reinforcing the “thin is beautiful” concept and the idea that physical beauty and how others perceive you is vital for better self-confidence. They add that, based on this survey, cosmetic surgery/ makeover reality programs have affected some females to have behavioral eating disorders and incur a negative outlook of her body as a result of internalizing this misleading beauty concept.
Reality dating shows also become a significant source of sexual information of the younger generation. Increased ratings of these types of shows have resulted in a 1000-fold increase in the number of these types of programs from 1997 to 2004. The danger lies from the fact that these types of programs are not just “sexually oriented but that they provide constricting and often negative messages about dating and relationships.” These shows have affected this generation’s attitude towards sex, sexual behavior, and socialization. They have created misconceptions about adult relationships (Zurbriggen and Morgan, n.p.).
Improper and untimely exposure of the young generation to cosmetic and plastic surgery reality television shows have also affected and transformed into a culture of physical beauty driven individuals that focus more on the outcome of an operation rather than on risks and reasons why they should have the procedure. Studies also prove that four out of five persons who seek physical improvement and augmentation by cosmetic surgery are intensive viewers of these kinds of shows and have been influenced by the television to pursue the procedure (Crocket et al., 316-24). The researchers add that the awareness, perception, and knowledge of the patient on the type of reconstruction to be made as well as his or her decision-making capabilities is also affected by the reality television show. At least fifty-seven percent of individuals surveyed in this study who seek surgery enhancements for their bodies are avid viewers of cosmetic surgery reality television shows. Most patients also believe that they are more educated in cosmetic surgery operations and consider plastic surgery reality television to be more parallel to real life because of watching these types of reality television shows.
Other reality shows of a similar medical format to plastic surgery reality show themes have also elicited fears in normal patients who are undergoing similar operations as the “characters” in the reality show. Lothian and Grauer (vi-viii) have observed that television shows portraying real-life births have elicited fears and increased additional concerns on childbirth to expectant parents through the years. In addition to the spills that add suspense to the show but fear of pregnant mothers, the programs often focus on high-risk pregnancies and the medical mishaps that occur during childbirth. Also, constant exposure of pregnant subjects to camera lights and glare may also pose harmful effects.
Other forms of reality TV shows such as documentary soap, dating, prank, celebrity reality, talk shows, sports and talent game shows, celebrity talent game shows, clinical/ medical reality programs, and others have a broad-spectrum influence that continues to rise as more sensationalized and new concepts for reality shows emerge. However, as stressed by Leon et al. (n.p.), despite criticisms, no rules can be applied for censorship or regulation of reality shows because of its broad category and nil presence of violence and pornography, which are usually grounds for restriction. Besides, these shows pose “no clear-cut anti-social immoral dimension” because it simply depicts human behavior. As aptly put by Leon et al., “Reality shows intention is not to inform or to educate (like news) or to persuade or influence (like political advertisements), and do not necessarily or instinctively evoke negative feelings in subjects when used by researchers as a stimulus as media violence, pornography, or death metal lyrics do. Because reality television is generally seen as lowbrow but innocuous, the question of what types of perceptual gaps it produces may point to the difficulty of locating entertainment media”.
The “reality” of these types of programs has also garnered attention. Certain issues that arise construe that “reality programming is the production of a ‘reality effect,’ rather than realism itself.” Certain imagery, camera, editing techniques, and even unrealistic timescales present a different and even exaggerated picture to the viewer that may twist his understanding of the facts about the “reality” being presented (Leon et al., n.p.). Some settings of reality TV shows are also real but atypical and made worse by staged situations which are often programmed by the producer and are therefore scripted or planted. Otherwise, these shows would be boring and senseless.
Reality TV bets its fame on real-life emotions of people who are placed in an uncommon but “real” situation that may bring out the best or worst in him. It is a game that plays with the emotions of people who, too many viewers, are “little” celebrities that they mimic and admire. Zurbriggen and Morgan (n.p.) reiterate that the effect of reality television is summarized by the cultivation theory which proposes that as viewers watch more programs carrying the lucid portrayals of staged “reality,” they cultivate the message that is relayed to them and adapt it to be true. Thus, reality shows should be made accountable for the values that they transmit especially to their young viewers. And although these shows depict human reactions to unusual but real stimuli, a consensus regarding censorship should be studied to prevent the spread of a secular culture that portrays life as a game to be won against all the odds.