Could our mutual fascination with reality TV be genetically predetermined?
According to at least one expert, the answer is yes.
"Reality shows may appeal to something reptile in our brain," says Bob Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Human beings around the world tend toward voyeurism."
In fact, Thompson believes being nosey increased the odds of survival for primitive man tens of thousands of years ago.
"The person who was peeping into the next door cave and found that they had a lot more bones in it than we did, that was important information," he says. "These people must be doing something because they are eating more than we are. I think it is a human tendency to be nosy, to look into the medicine cabinet when you're in some else's bathroom. Reality shows give you a window to someone else's world."
Reality TV comes in many different forms: from competitions like "Survivor" to shows that follow the day-to-day activities of otherwise ordinary people such as on "Jersey Shore".
Bob Thompson thinks part of the appeal is similar to when drivers slow down as they pass the scene of a crash.
"Reality shows are like an accident waiting to happen," says Thompson. "It is the equivalent of taking a big room full of tables, filling it with breakable objects and glass vases pushed to the very edge of the table and releasing 10 kittens. Turn on the camera, you know it will be exciting. In about 15 minutes, all that glass will be on the floor in pieces."
Reality TV is not an exclusively American phenomenon.
"It's definitely global," says Thompson who points out that most reality TV started outside the United States.
The show "Pop Idol" first sprouted overseas and was reversioned with US themes and people. That revamped version went on to become the ratings smash, "American Idol."
Thompson sees reality TV as an interesting social experiment.
"It is kind of like a documentary but what it documents are artificial situations. These people are carefully selected. They are put into controlled and artificial situations and then and only then do you turn on the cameras and record what people without scripts do," he says. "Even in Jersey Shore, those people didn't know each other and they would not have been in that house on the Jersey shore. You get a bunch of people and its' like a chemistry experiment."
Mark Cronin is an American reality show producer with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He draws on that expertise to create chemistry between people he casts in his shows. Cronin has produced reality shows such as, "Charm School," "Rock of Love," and "I Love NY."
"The shows usually feature people whose thinking is unfiltered, a person who tells you what they are feeling and doesn't hold back on what they are thinking," says Cronin. "They have an outrageous personality, not necessarily a marketable skill other than doing another reality show."
American reality shows are hot overseas. They are cheap to produce and since they are so popular in America, there is a buzz about them worldwide.
Cronin sold his company, Mindless Entertainment, to an international company which is now showing popular American reality shows overseas.
"Our shows can be seen in many, many countries from Scandinavia, to Europe, down to the Middle East and even into Asia and they also sell the formats of the shows," says Cronin. "They sell the format to be produced in the local countries in the local language."
That does not surprise TV expert Thompson.
"I think a lot of American reality TV shows are eminently exportable. There is a lot of inventory and this stuff is proven to do very well with one audience," he says. "And the expectation is that it may do well with other audiences, especially the stuff that has already been played and has the buzz of these shows in the first place."
Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University director Bob Thompson does not think reality TV is a passing fad. In fact, he sees it as a form of contemporary art.
"Anyone holding their breath that reality TV is going away had better quit holding it because they are going to suffocate. Reality is here to stay."
As reality TV continues to mushroom all over the world, it could give foreign audiences a warped view of the United States and Americans.
"To understand a culture, you not only have to know about its leaders, its wars, and economic history, you have to know about its love songs, lawn ornaments and TV shows," Thompson says." When you export any kind of culture, or programming, storytelling or whatever, those things become ambassadors of the country of origin to the places they will later play. They create all kinds of stereotypes and impressions."
That could be seen as a negative impact of reality TV.
"It is kind of scary. If we learned about what America was like only by watching reality TV, we would have a really, really bad opinion of the country," says Thompson.
Despite his reservations, Thompson still finds reality shows fun to watch. And he's obviously not alone since millions of people worldwide enjoy them, too.