When the reality television genre exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were inundated with competition show after competition show after competition show spinoff. I can understand the appeal of watching programs like this. It is similar to the appeal of watching sports; as a viewer, you get to pick your favorites, root for them the entire season, and gloat when they win. Now, however, with such high grossing shows as The Real Housewives of Wherever, Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, and the ubiquitous Keeping up with the Kardashians/Kardashians Take the Kountry, we seem to have fallen into a pattern of simply watching extremely privileged, and often very snobbish people live their lives. Cameras follow the cast around while they run errands, have lunch, talk to other cast members about what a third cast member did last episode, and throw parties. Why, then am I, and so many others, willing to put my own life on hold to watch this voyeuristic, mundane programming?
According to a Psychology Today blog, the growing fascination with reality television stems from our desire to fantasize about the prospect of easily acquired fame. We see seemingly regular people doing regular people things, and we think to ourselves that we too are regular people who do regular things; we could be famous too! It is important to note, however, that this blog was posted in 2001, when the majority of reality television was competition-based. To be on a reality show these days (with the exception of the few competition shows still airing), you need a hook. Because you have to be part of some sort of elite or fringe group in order to garner any interest from the discerning public, it seems that this explanation may not adequately explain the fascination with the particular brand of reality television in question.
Leon Festinger might cite his social comparison theory to explain my query: We watch because it makes us feel better about ourselves. There may be some truth to this. I can’t count how many times I’ve felt incredibly lucky not to have people in my life who start drama simply for drama’s sake, nor can I count the times that I’ve felt like a veritable genius after watching reality stars make fools of themselves with their half-baked schemes. Although I do tend to feel a sense of relief and contentment with my own life after watching these shows, this is often short-lived. In real life, my problems aren’t neatly solved within the thirty-minute timeframe. In reality television land, however, we’re introduced to a problem or argument within the first few minutes, and by the time the credits roll, everyone has made up and we’re all happy. Every once in a while, a character gets a slightly longer story arc, where the problem takes 2 or 3 episodes to be solved completely, but on the whole this is rare. In this case, according to social comparison theory, we might feel worse after watching reality television, citing our less than superhuman ability to find solutions to problems in the time left over after the commercial breaks.
There must be something more than a desire to compare ourselves to others that is driving this desire to watch insanely wealthy people doing basically nothing. Perhaps, because reality programming has slowly and steadily dominated our screens, and because we are so exposed to these characters than ever before, they become, in a sense, our friends. I don’t mean that they become our friends in the traditional sense. They cannot actually be our friends, as television is a one-way medium. However, our classification of friendship has changed radically within the past ten years; Facebook allows me to check up on friends, without ever having to actually speak to them, I can look at a friend’s Instagram and keep up with what’s going on in their lives, without having to dial their number. We’re so able to be connected without ever having to connect, that the way we experience friendship is changing. We can see portions of our friends’ lives through social media platforms, look at a picture from their vacation, see what they Tweeted about something that happened at work, allowing us to feel a sense of intimacy with them. It appears that this particular brand of reality television is formatted in such a way as to recreate the detached connection we have with some of our friends.
This is not to say that we have lost our capacity for friendship, or that we never interact with our comrades in more traditional, low-tech ways. Rather, the fact that our definition of friendship is shifting may be impacting the way in which we watch television, and may help to explain the fascination with and attachment to reality stars.