Is there a benefit for people from “reality” shows?

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Beginning with the program “Survivor,” CBS introduced a new type of tv show in 1983, which would become a global sensation and hallmark of cable television that has extended into nearly every area of daily life or outlandish experience imaginable. The diversity of reality TV currently available can often confuse even the most ardent TV viewer, whether it be the lives of celebrities pretending to behave like everyday people, average people placed in unusual circumstances, or regular people going through their ordinary lives. A lot of reality programming has outlandish themes, and equally outlandish stars, however, some reality shows, such as the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” not only shows real people doing real jobs, but also has the added benefit of being educational. For those unfamiliar with this form of reality TV, “American Pickers” is a show which follows real-life collectible junkies Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz who drive around the U.S. in search of antique and collectible treasures to buy and resell. The treasures they seek for their “Antique Archeology” business are to be found hidden in storage sheds, old buildings, and just about anywhere else anyone could ever imagine. Even though reality TV shows are meant mainly to entertain, series like “American Pickers” are more fulfilling to the viewer because they offer a chance to learn and to be entertained at the same time.

The theme of “American Pickers” is distinctive from most available TV programming making it unique on the reality shows’ market. “American Pickers” offers no cash rewards (other than the profits Mike and Frank make for their business), there is no being voted off the show (although sometimes this aspect is up for grabs when Mike and Frank bicker), and there’s no immunity. There are snippets of explanations of the history of the items as well as illustrations of them. The show also features reality footage of Mike and Frank finding the items and negotiating with the owners trying to get the best price. The strategy does not always work but the back and forth between Mike, Frank, and the owners makes for interesting viewing.

Reality TV falls into many categories and researchers have several opinions as to which category shows like “American Pickers” should be associated with. Some researchers have dubbed these types of reality shows as “trash TV”(Plothe and Buck 1089), not because they are in any way tawdry or not suitable for younger audiences, but because the shows deal in items found by the protagonists of the shows, which have been discarded or otherwise left to rot or rust. Troy Patterson in Slate magazine describes these types of reality shows as “scavenger capitalism” because of the boost they have had with the advent of the 2008 recession (qtd. in Plothe and Buck 1089). Other researchers like Penzhorn and Pitout, have noted that all reality television has four characteristics; “the tendency to focus on ordinary people, the voyeuristic element involved, the encouragement of audience participation and the attempt to simulate real life (qtd. in Plothe and Buck 1091). The voyeuristic element is probably one of the strongest characteristics because it satisfies a basic when a lot of people secretly have to “spy” in on other peoples’ lives.

One aspect of “trash TV” that sets it apart from other genres of reality shows, and in some ways, makes “trash TV” more viable than other reality programs, is the connection it maintains to actual capitalism. Collecting antiques and collectibles like comic books, coins, and other categories of items is a viable hedge to inflation, recession, and other market fluctuations which can sometimes rob investors of their hard-earned money. As a rule, the collectibles market, unlike the stock market or other hedges against tough monetary times, maintains a positive growth factor because collectible tend to increase, rather than decrease, in value over time. Per research of Plothe and Buck, “collecting high value items such as first editions of famous comic books was a more stable form of investment in ‘troubled economic times” (1094). This is not only true because of the monetary value of the items collected but also because “it is an important cultural practice that is not only identity building, but also connects the past to a reflexive and tangible identity in the present” (Plothe and Buck 1094). Therefore, it can be said that “trash TV’ as it is sometimes referred to, does have redeeming qualities which other forms of reality TV often lack.

Returning for one moment to the regular brand of reality TV shows, one positive characteristic that is common to most reality shows is that they give certain viewers a boost. People who are status-motivated tend to get a great deal out of watching reality programs. In the study by Steven Reiss entitled, “Why People Watch Reality TV”, the author opines that “One possibility is that viewers feel they are more important (have higher status) than the ordinary people portrayed in reality television shows. The idea that these are ‘real’ people gives psychological significance to the viewers’ perceptions of superiority” (qtd. in Iltis). This opinion could also apply to “trash TV” because people who watch the shows might also feel more important than those who make their living by digging through what some would consider trash to find that one item of value.

This writer tends to stick to shows like “American Pickers” because they stimulate not only the need for entertainment but also feeds the need for knowledge. Nowadays, there are a lot of shows which entertain as well as educate on networks such as the Discovery Channel, HGTV, the National Geographic family of channels, and many more. Although this writer can appreciate the pure voyeuristic aspects of some reality shows, it is much more important to this writer to be informed and educated by what one chooses to watch than to sit blindly in front of a screen for hours on end peeking in on what others are doing and becoming interested what they will do next. However, concerning what shows are gaining in popularity and what shows are falling by the wayside, it seems to this writer that more shows which appeal to the baser instincts of humanity will continue to be popular in the future.

As noted above, the number and variety of reality television programming available today almost rivals the number and size of the viewing public. If one has an interest or is stimulated by a certain type of activity or just likes to watch it, there is likely a reality television program which will cater to their needs. For this writer though, programming which educates as well as entertains is certainly beneficial and will continue to be at the top of the programming choices.

Works Cited

Iltis, Lindsey. “Why Do People Watch Reality TV?”, Southwestern University website. http://people.southwestern.edu/~bednarb/su_netWorks/projects/iltis/why.html, Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

Plothe, Theo and Amber M. Buck. “Taking in the Trash: Storage Wars, Audience Response, and Trash TV.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 48, no. 6, Dec. 2015, pp. 1089-1107. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jpcu.12350, Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

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