New Book by Rensselaer Professor Explores Impact of Reality Television on Entertainment Industry and Culture
October 8, 2012
Love it or hate it, reality television is changing the face of the entertainment industry and our culture. In Consuming Reality, June Deery, associate professor of communication and media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, examines how this now-dominant media form has altered conceptions of entertainment, privacy, and commercialization. In other words, she is interested in how it “consumes” reality.
“You can snicker at its trivial nature, but there is no doubt that reality TV has become an enduring phenomenon,” said Deery. “It is worth asking what it reflects or amplifies about current trends in our society and economy, and that’s what I did with this book.”
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the book can be divided into two conversations, Deery said: an “internal discussion” about how reality TV has affected the business of television entertainment — experimenting with lower production costs and amateur actors, joining it with newer media, and commercializing content — and an “external discussion” about how reality TV is affecting our culture.
As part of the “internal discussion,” Deery said that reality television, which was born of efforts to control costs, has been a pioneer in several aspects of the entertainment industry.
“Reality TV has experimented a great deal with budget cutting and with making use of so-called ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ or non-professional actors,” Deery said. “That’s the ultimate selling point of this programming.”
“They were among the first to say ‘we want people who view our programming to also go online, to be part of a blog, part of a website, to interact with us,’” Deery said. “Reality TV articulates, or joins, with other media.”
Reality TV has also expanded the entertainment industry’s ability to make money from content.
“Television used to work on the model of the ‘commercial break,’ making money only in the time between content. It was like a Trojan horse — the show was only there to make you watch the advertising,” Deery said. “Ti-Vo and the DVR sent the industry into a crisis, by making it possible for people to access content without viewing advertising. Reality TV's solution is to commercialize the content through post-advertising strategies such as product placement, branded interactivity, and corporate donorship.”
The genre has also made inroads into daily culture, changes which Deery details in the “external discussion” of the book. In one example, Deery said that, by exposing the private lives of individuals for profit, reality TV has re-written concepts of privacy and intimacy.
“What’s supposed to be shared? What’s public? What does it meant to sell your persona on a media platform?” Deery said. “You are commodifying your experience, and these questions become controversial.”
Another “external” topic describes how a subset of reality TV shows — makeover programs — alter our expectations for what is acceptable, both in our appearance and in our lifestyle.
“I’ve got studies that show that because of these makeover programs that either cut people and re-sew them into newer bodies, or just style people’s current bodies, there’s a dramatic increase in cosmetic surgery in this country,” Deery said. “In general, I think it’s upping the ante, changing what we consider acceptable aesthetically. This is happening across a lot of cultures, but reality TV seems to have accelerated the trend. It’s really made it virtually impossible to be content with ordinary bodies.”
Reality TV also adds to the growing presence of public relations in today’s society. That “makeover” shows should often be affiliated with particular trades — like the building trade, real estate, or cosmetic surgery — is no coincidence, Deery said. “Nor are their sentimental narratives that uphold the mythology of the American Dream and of ‘caring capitalism.’”
“My opinion is that much reality TV is yet another spur to commercial activity. The examples seen on television put pressure on people to keep acquiring more things, whether it be clothing, or services, or surgery,” Deery said.
In her next book, Deery plans to expand her studies of reality television, exploring the reasons the genre has proven so popular with audiences and become such a commercially valuable commodity. Deery teaches courses in Media Theory and Advertising.