What accounts for the popularity of reality TV? People may find a certain fascination in contrasting what they think they would do in a given situation to the actions taken by the "real" participants — a group of individuals they perceive as their peers.

That's the conclusion of a new study that examines the ongoing popularity of reality TV. Unlike other shows such as news programs or sitcoms, reality TV allows viewers to imagine themselves as actual participants.

The research appears in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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Blending Fantasy and Reality

In many of the reality shows, "ordinary" people are placed in exotic, unfamiliar surroundings where they are pitted against the elements.

Others focus on ordinary people engaging in common activities such as dating or home redecorating. In both instances, viewers are given the chance to compare and contrast their own lives with those of the shows' protagonists.

The resulting experience is a complexly constructed — and highly individualized — experience the researchers call "hyperauthenticity."

That viewers may be drawn by the chance to mentally "test" their behavior against that of the actual participants contrasts with the common criticism of reality TV viewers as passive voyeurs.

Researchers interviewed 15 reality TV viewers. The viewers were asked to keep a journal recording their thoughts, feelings, and experiences while viewing at least one of three reality TV programs that aired during the 2000-2001 American television season.

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They were asked to choose a program to watch. Those with no preference were assigned one. Six participants watched Survivor II, while four each watched Temptation Island or The Mole. The participants also wrote about their thoughts on other reality TV shows.

Participants who watched The Mole said they were drawn to its exotic setting. "It's not like Survivor where you have to go to the outback, on a desert island, eat rats, and cook food, although that has its entertainment value as well. But these guys stayed in five-star hotels in Spain and France and ate grapefruit. That's great," writes Calvin, one of the participants, in his journal.

At the same time, Calvin thought The Mole had more basis in reality because, unlike the other shows, players in The Mole control their own fate.

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Gina, another participant, said that although she enjoyed most reality shows, she found Big Brother "too real." "It was just too 'oh, we're sitting around on the couch,' and that was too real ... There's a line between, you know, true reality and reality that's entertaining." To Gina, entertainment value resided in the program's provision of a situation that was beyond the viewer's daily "real" life.

Ability to Identify Critical to Enjoyment

Priscilla and Pam, two other study participants, rejected Temptation Island, not because they didn't like the fantasy element provided by the locale, but because they saw the goals of the "characters" as not being genuine and consistent with personal standards of conduct.

Participants in the study agreed that character identification, or engagement, could only evolve over time. "When you first start watching Survivor, you don't know the people ... It gets more interesting once you get to know them," writes Shirley, one of the participants.

She began to enjoy the show only after she learned enough about the participants to begin to identify the social relations among them, she says - a process that allowed her to define herself through social comparison.

Participants agreed that the presence of a "person you love to hate" made the shows more interesting.

What Actually Happened vs. What Might Have Been

Whereas some were drawn to shows like Temptation Island because they found the singles "so beautiful" and "like people they knew," others found the shows fun to watch because they featured people like themselves.

Most agreed that the main thing that made reality TV shows more interesting than sitcoms like Frazier is that, unlike Frazier, they are unscripted.

In conclusion, say the researchers, the success of reality-based entertainment may be the depiction by certain shows, such as TemptationIsland, of a reality that is totally foreign to viewers. "It may reflect a nostalgia for authenticity among the class of consumers to whom it is most rigorously denied," they write.

According to the researchers, others may appeal simply because they are so familiar, and therefore understandable, to viewers.

"Shows like Cops or Big Brother could be viewed as an echo of modernist angst," they write.

"Study participants wondered why the cast members acted or spoke as they did, they wondered what they would do if in the cast member's place, they wondered what the producers were 'up to,' and they wondered what actually happened and what might have been."

By Patti Connor, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Rose, R.L. Journal of Consumer Research, September 2005; vol 32: pp 284-296. News release.