11 REALITY TV
This is a topic that gets surprisingly little attention from centres offering GCSE
Media Studies, given that it is very popular among students as well as the
population as a whole. Key areas for exploration include:
how real is realism?
the nature of narrative; the role that reality TV plays in filling airtime for
institutions, especially in the context of digitalisation; and audience interaction
One potential difficulty is how to define the genre with any degree of precision.
Clearly there are many links between the docu-soap, a genre which has been
around for about 30 years, and some contemporary shows that battle for
prime-time ratings such as Celebrity Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice. At
this level it is perhaps best not to worry about specific demarcation lines
between different formats but to encourage students to explore the nature of
all these shows and their role in relation to audiences and producers. Hence
the term reality TV can be used to cover quite a range of different formats.
Narrative is a fertile area of study. As with most visual media, narrative plays
a key role in the success of reality TV. Although generally more often explored
through fictional texts, narrative in this ‘factual’ context works mainly through
the use of character types and the conflicts that arise from placing people in
close proximity to each other. The ultimate outcome of the narrative of many
of these shows is to create celebrity, which is in itself another interesting area
Reality TV is a good example of the shifting power balance between
producers and audiences. The direct engagement of audiences with these
shows and their ability to influence the outcomes through voting and other
interaction is often seen as a form of empowerment, although a more cynical
take might suggest that it is designed primarily to increase revenue through
the use of premium rate telephone numbers. Certainly some engagement with
these issues should produce lively responses from students.
Intertextuality can usefully be explored through the medium of reality TV. Few
other examples of TV output attract the same level of coverage in the print
media, radio, the web and through other TV programmes as reality TV shows,
especially the two leading programmes, Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity, Get
Me Out of Here! This is a good opportunity to look at the way in which the
media feeds off itself and fuels interest in other media products.
The importance of reality TV shows to television networks cannot be
underplayed. With large amounts of airtime to fill owing to the increased
capacity brought about by digitalisation, the role of reality TV as a popular
means of filling this time can be explored. The revenue that reality TV brings
to institutions through features such as phone voting and other forms of
interaction can also be explored.
One great value of studying reality TV is that it offers the chance to tackle a
core media issue – how real is realism? Most examples of reality TV shows
demonstrate transparently the way in which they manipulate both the
participants and the audience. There are ethical issues to be considered here,
as well as the nature of television output in a multi-channel digital
environment. The way in which reality TV is a highly constructed artefact that
is designed to appear ‘real’ can lead to some interesting work from students.
Here are some suggestions for how you might want to cover the key concepts
for this topic.
• The different formats and types of reality TV show, e.g. celebrity/non-
celebrity, life swap, talent search.
• The manipulation of narrative by producers.
• The purpose and effect of the controlled environments.
• Character typologies and the conflicts they create.
• How real is reality TV?
• The nature and appeal of celebrity.
• The importance of gender relations within the formats, e.g. romances in
I’m a Celebrity and battle of the sexes (Wife Swap etc.).
• Reality TV as a ‘freak show’.
• Digitalisation and the demand to fill airtime through ancillary
• The revenue brought to TV companies from phone voting and other
forms of audience interaction.
• Intertextuality and the promotion of shows through other media.
• Participation through voting and interaction: the empowerment of
audiences in determining narrative outcomes.
• The uses and gratifications model – how audiences use and respond to
• The audience appeal of celebrities (and their downfall).
Beware: asking students come up with an idea for a new reality show is a
demanding task, and one that defeats many TV executives. It is best to curb
your students’ ambition and work with what exists. Some more realistic
practical production ideas are:
• Writing a listings magazine feature about new series of an existing
• Producing a trailer for a new series (using a storyboard).
• Scripting a GMTV report about a new series.
• Introducing a new character or narrative conflict into an existing show.
1 Different realities
Both BBC and commercial channels broadcast reality television programmes
of different sorts. Do you think there is any difference in the types of
programmes of programmes of this format that they broadcast?
2 Audience appeal
Watch an extract from a reality TV show such as Big Brother. You could use
the extracts from the website (I’m A Celebrity and Dog Borstal).
• What do you think are the qualities of the programme that appeal to
• Are there any qualities that you think might not appeal to audiences?
3 A school docu-soap
Imagine you have been asked to create a fly-on-the-wall documentary about
your school. Make a list of what you would want to include in the programme:
You should consider some of the following:
• The locations you would want to film in.
• The people/characters you would want to feature in the film.
• How you would attempt to ensure that the action appeared as natural
• Any narratives that you would want to include.
Reality TV shows often work by setting people different challenges that they
must overcome in order to get some reward. Choose a reality show that you
have watched and try to think up ideas for new challenges that contestants
might be expected to undertake. Explain why you think your proposals would
be of interest to the audience.
5 A new character
Choose a reality TV show that you watch regularly. Imagine you have been
invited to help in the production of the show.
• Describe a new character who could be introduced to the show.
• What do you think this character’s presence would add to the show?
• How do you think the existing people in the show would respond?
6 The cult of celebrity
Write down the names of three people associated with reality TV programmes
who have become celebrities. For each one explain how they have exploited
their fame after the show finished.
• Would any of them have become famous if they had not appeared on a
• Do you think they will continue to be famous or do you think their fame
will be short-lived?
7 Presenting reality TV
Most reality TV programmes rely on the use of a presenter or presenters.
Consider some of the reality TV programmes that you watch and answer the
• What is the role of the presenter?
• What sort of person has been chosen to act as presenter?
• How do you think the presenter addresses the audience and what
impact does this have?
• Do you think someone else would make a better presenter?
8 Other media
Reality TV shows often promote themselves through other media, for example
stories in the press and features on TV and the radio. Keep a diary or
scrapbook with examples of stories and features about a series of a reality TV
show. Analyse the coverage and consider whether it is positive or negative.
9 Audience participation
Write down some of the ways in which audiences are expected to get involved
with reality TV shows, for example by texting in their opinions. Have you ever
voted or got in touch with a show? Explain why you did nor did not do this.
10 Complaints about content
Reality television programmes often attract complaints about their content.
For example, a series of Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 resulted in 40,000
complaints to Ofcom about racism and bullying. Check on the Ofcom website,
www.ofcom.org.uk, to see what the procedure is for complaining and what
can happen if Ofcom believes a complaint is justified. Have you ever felt that
you wanted to complain about a reality TV programme? Give details.
1 Audience participation
This is a good worksheet to get students thinking about ways in which
audiences are involved in reality shows. Links can also be made with the idea
of how some channels use audience participation as a means of generating
revenue. Encourage students to observe how people in their own household
2 Famous for fifteen minutes
Many students are themselves quite taken with the idea of celebrity. This is an
opportunity to explore the concept and consider some of the implications
behind being famous. As an extension activity, students could do some
research into specific celebrities and their coverage in the media.
3 Finding a celebrity
Simulating a celebrity production presents an interesting opportunity to do
some work on representation. As background and stimulus material you could
utilise the stories that often appear in the press prior to I’m a Celebrity shows
speculating about who might be taking part and which celebrities have
This is an opportunity to explore how many shows are created to fill airtime.
Often a prime-time show has spin-offs into minority digital channels.
Encourage students to identify these spin-offs and, if time permits, watch and
Choose a reality TV show that interests you. It is probably best to look at one
programme in detail, although you may wish to look at ‘highlights’ from
Identify what qualities in the show appeal to the audience and explain why
you think they appeal in this way. Include the way in which audiences interact
with and influence the outcomes of the show.
Imagine that you have been asked to come up with an idea for a spin-off
programme on another channel linked to the show you have chosen.
Create a title for the show, choose a presenter and suggest a format. Write a
short description of part of one show, including snatches of dialogue, to give
an idea of what your show would be like.
Write an email to the producers of the first reality TV show outlining how you
think your show would appeal to a similar audience.
Choose a reality TV show that relies on either celebrities or ‘ordinary people’
for its impact.
Choose four of the characters that appear in the show and for each write a
character profile. Explain what you think is their main role in the developing
the programme’s narrative.
Imagine you have been asked by the producers of the programme to find an
interesting character for the next series of the show.
Choose a character, either someone you know or a celebrity. Explain what
sort of role the character would play in the programme and what effect they
would have on other contestants.
Write a short note to the producer explaining what person you have chosen
and justifying your choice.
Select a reality TV show that gets a lot of coverage in other media such as the
Choose at least two examples of this coverage and produce a detailed
analysis of how you think the coverage links to the show. You should also
explain why you think the show has been covered in this way and what the
likely impact is on the audience.
Write an article for a magazine or popular newspaper which features the
activities of one of the contestants in the show.
Explain what impact your article is likely to have on viewers of the show, for
example how it may affect their interest in the show.
Choose two reality TV shows that invite audiences to participate with them.
Think about these questions, and fill in the grid.
TV show 1 TV show 2
List the ways in which
audiences are able to
audiences are voting for
on the show and how
Write down the cost of
each method of
Try to find out where the
revenue from voting
goes, e.g. charity.
What do you think
makes people want to
Famous for fifteen minutes
Andy Warhol famously argued that everyone would one day be famous for 15
A What sort of people do you think seek fame through appearing on
B Do you think people who achieve fame deserve it?
C Think of some of the ways that people who have become celebrities
maintain this status.
D Do you think anyone you know will become a celebrity?
Finding a celebrity
A Imagine you are responsible for finding celebrities for a new series of
Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! Make a list of three
people you would invite to take part. For each person make a list of the
qualities that you think they would bring to the show.
Celebrity 1 Celebrity 2 Celebrity 3
B How well do you think they would get on with each other?
C Imagine that your three personalities have agreed to take part. Write a
feature for a listings magazine such as TV Times introducing each of
these characters and predicting how you think they will behave on the
show. Say if you expect any of them to win.
A Choose a show that is broadcast on more than one channel and make
a list of all the slots that it is broadcast in during the week.
Name of show:
B Mark which you think are the main slots and which are used to fill
C Do you think the spin-off programmes do more than simply fill up time?
Give your reasons.