Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Reality of Reality Shows


Television is an influential medium of entertainment reaching out to millions. It is, therefore, necessary to utilize its potential as a positive influence while serving that purpose.

The importance of entertainment as a central cultural phenomenon cannot be overlooked since it serves as an indicator of larger cultural trends. Media is considered to be one of the most influential entertainment tools effectively utilizing its many genres. It is interesting to note that while particular entertainment preferences guide our choices influenced by cultural conditioning, appeal of some entertainment genre transcends cultural barriers. Reality television is one such genre of entertainment that has claimed universal appeal in the global media.

Reality television is characterized by programming in which ordinary people are featured encountering dramatic or unusual situations, supposedly while performing actual everyday tasks. The genre is not new and has existed of long in the form of game shows, but in the last decade it has been expanded to include a variety of topics, including drama, talent hunt, search for love, adventurE, celebrity lifestyles, highlighting a cause, and crime etc. Reality television is not very ‘real’ in the sense that it employs sensationalism to attract viewership and boost ratings. Sometimes, reality shows are scripted but an illusion of reality is created through editing. Shows based on lives of showbiz celebrities are mostly popular because of the element of glamour.

In India, the more popular reality shows entice viewers with gossip masala. In some Indian reality shows, a heightened sense of sensational drama is achieved by having the participants behave in an exaggerated manner often considered scandalous and challenging to social etiquette. Some other reality shows are based on contests for the purpose of talent hunt, especially in music-related fields which has a huge market in India. To better understand the popularity of this genre in India, an introduction of some Indian reality show might be helpful.

Many Indian reality shows are inspired by shows from abroad, again highlighting the universal appeal of the topics explored. Big Brother inspired the production of the Indian version, Big Boss; Sach Ka Saamna from Moment Of Truth, and Indian Idol and Chotay Utaad – which features child singer and performers – from the UK Pop Idol and American Idol. Among music programmes, Indian Idol has served as a big platform for many budding singers. India’s Got Talent, is the Indian version of the ‘Got Talent’ series. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, a competition of standup comedians, is a very successful comedy reality show on Indian television, inspired by the American programme, ‘Who’s Line is it, Anyway’? Another ‘hunt for love’ show MTVsplitvilla, is based on the concept of the American dating game show, The Bachelor, in which a rich bachelor finds the ultimate girl of his dreams by choosing from a group of girls through a process of grueling tests and elimination. Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa is the Indian version of BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’; Kaun Banega Crorepati’ is the Indian version of the UK game show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ This show combines the celebrity aspect of reality genre featuring the legendary star, Amitabh Bachhan. This is also the show on which the 2009 blockbuster film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire” was based, creating a unique and highly successful reality film. Another important reality show called Haath se Haath Mila, (Let’s Join Hands) is an influential show highlighting the importance of community service by creating awareness about HIV/AIDS in India and features celebrities from Bollywood. .

A quick glance on reality show format and their focus shows that their popularity stems from their perceived relation to our own dreams and aspirations. The common thread that runs through most reality shows is their popular appeal in terms of sharing achievements, heartbreak, joys and tears in a quest for success. While the talent-hunt shows provide a useful platform for showcasing unexplored talent and to give opportunities, their greater appeal also lies in the public’s own desire to see ordinary people change their destinies and achieve their dreams. In others, where contests strive to find their dream partner, heartbreak and high drama entails through much of the series. However, the concept of making the contestants go through sometimes humiliating experiences to avoid elimination teaches values that the society does not approve of at large. At the same time, the viewers and men in these Indian reality shows have a fun time at the expense of the participants, while the girls end up demeaning themselves through catfights and obscenity. Feminists have been up in arms against reality shows that show women as sex objects, to no avail.

Another trend in the West which is still under consideration in India, is the reality show production of political figures as stars. Sarah Palin's Alaska has faced strong criticism in the US media, and a Time Magazine report questioned the motive of the show as being “the world's most expensive political ad” at $1 million for each episode, produced free of charge. In India, though no reality show has been made exclusively for a politician as yet, people with political links have occasionally appeared on such shows; Sanjay Nirupam was a participant in Bigg Boss, and Rahul Mahajan has featured in several reality shows.

Another important aspect of reality show production is its strong marketing value. Since people tend to identify and relate with participants of reality shows on some level, there is a greater chance of being influenced by their preferences. Sometimes reality shows feature use of popular brands to boost their own profits. These brands pay high rates for advertisement. This is known as product placement. It is a form of advertisement where branded goods are casually placed in the story line. An advertisement is accepted as having a great impact on minors too, whether it is the decision of purchasing toys or imitating their favorite character’s actions. That makes it a big responsibility for the marketing agencies. The negative influence of smoking by lead actors in the past is known to have influenced minors and adults alike.

In the US, an example of embedded marketing includes ‘Extreme Makeover’, which promotes sponsors like Sears and Ford. The designers of the programme executing the makeovers are often shown shopping at Sears and fitting Kenmore appliances in the homes undergoing makeovers. The Indian show Haath se Haath Mila also uses placement ads to promote its message. Film clips of the stars supporting the cause and appearing on the show are used as embedded marketing tools to draw viewership and enhance profits. A few examples of product placement in Indian movies include Coke in Taal, Maruti Swift in Bunty Aur Babli and Calvin Klein in Salaam Namaste.

Most reality shows focus on profits and don’t mind promoting negative messages to boost their viewership.  It is important to realize that reality television is an indispensible and influential tool of entertainment today. Instead of providing meaningless or detrimental entertainment, we can utilize its potential as a positive influence on the viewership alongside its real purpose.


PUBLISHED: SouthAsia Magazine, Jan 2011.


  1. I often see reality televisions as being a darker fantasy of people.

    In places like India and Pakistan there is much that frustrates people, the lawlessness and the helplessness for instance, or the large population and the apparent insignificance of a person resulting from it. The high competition for survival and impractically high standards one is expected to reach and so on...

    The pent up feelings resulting from these many obligations are raging to see the least. When they see a reality television show with all the people bickering and yelling and speaking their thoughts out loud to the camera, they can feel their same but muted emotions running through these reality tv stars.

    Because it is set on real-life scenarios, these exaggerated emotions are even easier to feel and the 'enemies' and 'friends' from the show are almost instantly associated. The fact that the audience can vote and have their say on the outcome adds to the feel of playing god over this and actually electing their hero. Due to it being a tv show and most moral etiquettes being discarded, it plays out like say a war story for the army, or a Shakespeare for the dramatist and because of it 'just being a show' there is the apparent guiltlessness for the conservative to play voyeur.

    These feelings are so strong that even the acting is sometimes discarded because of the heavy emotion fuel to which the scenarios are laid out.

    And yes, for the scathing critics there is always the 'you know you can change the channel' rebuttal. Win-win.

    Its not exclusively Indian/Pakistani of course. But in the conservative yet deluded mindset of quite a few people in here, it is one of the forgiven sins that provide the deep attraction to it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Taimur.

    That's actually a great analysis of why people watch and connect with the stars of these shows. Perhaps it is then a valid reason to let them continue?

  3. I don't see much harm in it. There are views on it being deteriorating to human morality and the sort, being bad for kids, etc. It does seem like that and I may be convinced, but these shows stems from our own demands and desires. Its there because we want it.

    Kids, well its not that they aren't hearing examples of it in their own house, over dinner convos, shaadis and the sort. The primary reason why they would employ the moralities from these shows is probably because of the attention (maybe notoriety) that they get from it. Once it becomes a norm and not in the spotlight kids may leave it.

    It all comes down to perception you know. The more clearer it is the less problems it will create.

    As for using reality tv shows as a positive, well I would agree with you. In fact, a broader definition of reality shows might include documentaries of science, history, engineering, wildlife and so on. We have already used them positively, but because we aren't angels there will be a notorious use of reality TV as well.

  4. Taimur, my apologies for not responding to you sooner.

    I agree with much of what you say, and you put it so nicely:"these shows stems from our own demands and desires. Its there because we want it."

    I suppose some of the more aware among us could help channelize our desires/frustrations towards a more productive path....but "because we aren't angels..." it will not always be easy. Well said!

    Thanks again for your input...


Thank you for sharing your views.