Behind the scenes of reality TV

Carrie Circosta

Amanda Patterson, freshman photo illustration major, and Mike Davidson, freshman finance major, watch “American Idol” last night. Patterson has watched the reality television show since it began.

Credit: Jason Hall

The time is 1970, and two families from different ends of the country meet at Walt Disney World.

What television show are they most likely to discuss?

According to John Podhoretz, author of Survivor and the End of Television, probably “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Now, there is a television show for every member of the family. Everyone quenches his or her own entertainment thirst in different ways, and one of those ways has been through reality television. But what each viewer thinks is entertainment depends on his or her own personality.

Basic motivation influences what people pay attention to and what they do, say psychology professors Steven Reiss and James Wiltz of Ohio State University, and viewers are filling their desires by watching reality television.

But viewers are often too distracted to realize reality television may have some negative effects because of the messages conveyed in the shows. Four out of five adults between the ages of 19 and 24 believe reality television can’t be linked to depression, but researchers and health-care professionals, on the other hand, are bothered that viewers and participants may be experiencing psychological effects, such as depression.

Katy Bryan, a psychology professor at Kent State, said there aren’t necessarily bad psychological effects caused by watching reality TV.

“Reality television doesn’t cause depression,” Bryan said. “(People) are more prone to watch reality television because they are depressed.”

Bryan added that even though reality television and psychological symptoms can be linked, actually studying the effects over a period of time is hard because reality television changes so fast that research cannot keep up.

But the fact that reality television doesn’t depict reality can be proven. Occupations such as doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, crime-scene investigators and forensic scientists aren’t truly represented by reality television.

“Real crime fighting work is complicated, and crime solving work is painstakingly slow,” said Elka Jones, the author of As seen on TV: Reality vs. Fantasy in Occupational Portrayals on the Small Screen.

Max Grubb, an assistant journalism and mass communication professor at Kent State, also pointed out that reality television doesn’t depict reality because it’s not unscripted.

“It’s not reality anymore because how it’s laid out,” Grubb said. “They edit the information in the story – it has to be socially constructed to have a story.”

But according to Reiss and Wiltz, some viewers don’t need the storyline to be realistic, just as long as the characters are ordinary people: Then ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and fantasize that they could gain celebrity status.

Maybe that’s why reality television accounts for about 56 percent of American TV shows and about 69 percent of world TV shows, according to Nielson Media Research. Grubb said one reason there are so many reality television shows is networks jump on the “bandwagon” after they see a show become popular.

And don’t think viewers haven’t noticed.

Four out of five believe there are too many reality shows, according to an AP-TV Guide poll.

Even though the percentage of viewers has gone down since 2001, there is still a considerable percent of reality television watchers to keep networks producing these shows. One reason why networks love reality television is because it’s so ridiculously cheap to make.

“Average people are not being paid like actors,” Grubb said. Networks only have to pay people behind the scenes, he added.

The job market for actors and actresses has decreased. Since the birth of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” the pool of jobs for actors in the United States decreased by 10 percent, according to the Screen Actors Guild.

At, ordinary people interested in modeling, acting and reality television, can sign up to receive a list of casting calls for a monthly fee.

Reality television is a phenomenon without a doubt. According to, the first reality show in the modern sense was probably the PBS series “An American Family” that dealt with a nuclear family going through a divorce.

But of course, the series that is perhaps most responsible for inspiring the recent interest in reality television is “COPS,” which aired on Fox in 1989. Soon after came “The Real World” on MTV. With the emergence in 2000 of “Big Brother” from Europe and “Survivor” in the United States, reality television was fully opened to the world.

Grubb said he believes the genre will always be around in some form.

Contact features correspondent Carrie Circosta at [email protected].



To be a savvy reality television viewer, here are some helpful tips from G. Brent Ludwig, a psychologist with Psychology Associates, in Moline, Illinois:

  • Remember that “reality TV” doesn’t reflect reality.
  • Don’t be a passive recipient of the shows’ messages. Identify the values that are being promoted and how they fit with your own beliefs.
  • Limit the amount of time you watch.
  • Pay attention when the host says, “Don’t try this at home.”

Ludwig advises: “We can even learn from the so-called reality TV programs if we put them in the proper perspective.”