Reality television has been generating controversy ever since "An American Family" aired on PBS in 1973 and exposed a family's private life to the public. That controversy was echoed when MTV turned cameras on seven strangers for "The Real World" in 1992. Even now, 10 years after "Survivor's" big debut and reality programming became a staple on broadcast TV as well as a dominant force on cable, people still freak out about it.
"I don't watch reality TV," they say. "I hate reality shows. Reality television sucks."
Some reality TV absolutely sucks, but so do some movies. Heck, a lot of movies suck, even ones that people watch. And not every book is great literature. Some are so trashy and poorly written that they aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
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But no one ever says, "I don't read novels. I hate novels. Novels suck." Even people who aren't voracious fiction readers don't go around bragging about not reading novels because they realize how ignorant and stupid that sounds.
It's just as ignorant to dismiss an entire genre of television, one that ranges from utter trash to programs that are better produced and more engaging than scripted series.
In the closet
Often, people who dismiss reality TV are the very same people who contribute to a show's huge ratings. They watch, but are for some reason ashamed and don't want to admit it. There's certainly no reason to embrace or celebrate mediocrity, but spending an hour a week with a guilty pleasure television show is one of the least egregious things imaginable.
People who pretend they don't watch probably fear the judgment of others. Of course, those other people are probably watching reality TV shows too. It seems like a very American thing to judge and condemn something publicly and then do it secretly in private, so perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise. It doesn't make it any less ridiculous, though, for everyone to pretend that no one's watching, say, "American Idol," when it's the most popular TV show in the country.
Other people may not actually realize that they're watching a genre they profess to hate. "I don't watch reality TV," someone might say. "But I do love that 'American Idol.' And did you see 'Hoarders' last night?"
A big tent
It's easy to think of reality shows as those programs that fit into a very narrow definition. A "reality show" might be one that resembles "The Real World," MTV's groundbreaking series that established a lot of the genre's conventions.
The problem may just be with the term — "reality TV" implies a certain kind of low-quality, low-budget, low-brow series — but it's the term we have, and it's unfair to automatically assign those kinds of labels to it. Just try to apply the usual cliche arguments about reality to the final scene of the "Deadliest Catch" episode during which captain Phil Harris dies.
Reality TV is a big tent that includes all episodic, unscripted, nonfiction television shows, from Discovery's "Deadliest Catch" to MTV's "Jersey Shore" to Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," from ABC's "The Bachelor" to MTV's "Teen Mom" to Bravo's "Real Housewives" to NBC's "Apprentice."
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Some reality shows are competitions, some are docudramas and some are competitions that feel like a docudrama. Even within in a narrower subcategory such as competitions, there's an incredible range of options. How do you compare CBS' "Survivor" to Bravo's "Top Chef" or Fox's "American Idol"? Heck, how do you compare "Survivor" to "The Amazing Race"? It's tough to do — and the Emmys increasingly have a problem because the shows are so difficult to compare.
Make a choice
That's the best part about reality TV, though: There's an incredible range and a surprising amount of diversity in subject matter, formats and approaches. Some shows are light, entertaining fun; some are dramatic and emotional; others teach you something about the world or its inhabitants.
There's so much that it's impossible to watch it all, and therefore we have the ability to choose. We can choose to watch only the best series, the ones where producers and networks have spent time and money to craft beautiful programming about real people.
We can choose to ignore the awful stuff — or we can watch the awful stuff and celebrate its awfulness, laughing about it with our friends and with fellow viewers. And yes, it's possible to choose to watch none of it at all.
But whatever that choice is, we shouldn't automatically dismiss an entire genre of television that's here to stay.
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