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What Makes Reality TV so Popular?


Would you eat worms? Live on a deserted island with a group of strangers who want you off the island? Sing - off-key - in front of the entire world? Tens of thousands of people would… all for a chance to be on reality TV. Experts say the drama of dealing with the real and unexpected challenges makes these shows appealing to the participants and increasingly popular with viewers.

In one of the newest reality programs on American television, fifteen 21st century adventurers traveled back in time to post civil war Texas, where they spent a summer learning to rope, ride and ranch like the cowboys of 1867 - with no modern conveniences. "For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience to live probably every American man's dream, to go out and play cowboy for a summer," Jared Ficklin, a show participant says. But the 30 year-old computer programmer soon realized it was going to be more work than play. "The typical day for a cowboy was wake up before the sun, with the rooster's crow," he says. "Go feed the cattle, which is uplifting about 250 pounds of hay, running about 50 gallons of water, saddling up and riding for 8 to 10 hours."

Who would sign up for such a grueling experience? About 10,000 people applied. Program producer Luis Barreto chose 15. "I really tried to pick people that were relatable to a wide range of individuals watching the show," he says. "Of course the big challenge was to get the ranch running because it was an abandoned ranch. And just to survive the whole thing."

Survival is the ultimate goal of contestants on all reality TV shows, whether it's being the last comic standing, or the apprentice who gets hired, or the treasure hunter who ends up with all the treasure. There are hundreds of these shows, airing around the globe. For media researchers, like Jonathan Gray of Fordham University, the reality is - we're more alike than we think. "There have been different versions of shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the Pop Idol phenomenon, Survivor, Temptation Island, et cetera," he says. "They are nearly always localized, produced with contestants from the country where it's airing. There are a few exceptions, like American Idol. It's played relatively well in Australia. But largely, even when it's global, it's sort of global-slash-local. It has a local flavor."

For example, Texas Ranch House follows the same format as the BBC's 1800 House, but is set in the American past rather than 19th century London. England's Pop Idol has spawned similar contests in 30 other countries… including the wildly popular American Idol. There are versions of Big Brother, which originated in the Netherlands, in more than three-dozen countries, including Russia, Thailand and Ecuador. Japan's Iron Chef is still cooking on US television.

Professor Gray says while the highly produced competitions became popular only 5 or 6 years ago, the genre has existed in some forms since the early days of television. "If you go back to the long line of game shows, there's a large amount there, the sort of, strange set ups with rules, flashing lights when you get things right and so forth," he says. "I think reality TV added a much more physical element to this. If you think of things like Survivor, or the Amazing Race, there is something appealing to many people about the idea of taking part in a big game, a sort of large scale game."

Although it may seem odd to call programs from such unrealistic settings "reality" TV, the paradox apparently doesn't bother participants or viewers. Gray says participants feel like the center of attention, and viewers can see themselves in the ordinary people onscreen. And these shows are so popular, Jonathan Gray suggests, because they are so unrealistic.

"A lot of television seems to take itself so seriously, or deals with serious issues, even when it's something fictional and supposedly a break from everyday life," he says. "And the fantastical element of reality shows -- being in a house that's set 100 years in the past, or being on a desert island and having to vote people out, or racing around the world -- I think all of these fantastical premises make themselves very playful and so there can be something very fun about watching them."

Even if the viewers' interest in reality shows starts to wane, Gray says, TV production companies will still make them, because of a very compelling economic reason. "They are remarkably cheap to make," he says. "Once you got a bunch of no names, you didn't even deal with agents, you're getting not only very cheap labor, you're getting non-unionized labor. Reality TV has also become wonderful for product placement. When you look at Survivor, for instance, the prize this week is beer and Pringles. It's such blatant product placement that you know there is a lot of money funding this cultural trend."

And that bottom line is something that makes the reality game show a winner for the entertainment industry, anywhere in the world.