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Simply Irresistible: Reality TV Consumption Patterns
Lisa K. Lundy
Louisiana State University
Manship School of Mass Communication
245 Hodges Hall
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-7202
[log in to unmask]
Amanda M. Ruth
College of Charleston
Department of Communication
66 George Street
Charleston, SC 29424
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Travis D. Park
Department of Education
Kennedy Hall, 4th Floor
Ithaca, NY 14853-4203
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This purpose of this study was to explore college students'
consumption patterns in regard to reality television, their rationale
for watching, their perceptions of the situations portrayed in
reality television, and the role of social affiliation in their
consumption of reality television. The results of focus groups
indicate that while participants perceive a social stigma associated
with watching reality television, they continue to watch because of
the perceived escapism and social affiliation provided.
Extreme sports, celebrity lives, and dating shows. While the
phenomenon of reality television (hereafter "RT") lacks clear
definition (Nabi, Biely, Morgan, & Stitt, 2003), it pervades
contemporary network and cable programming. "Reality programming is
a new, growing trend in both programming and viewership" (Joniak,
2001, p. 5). Scholars in psychology and media studies, among others,
have shown interest in this genre of television and its effects on
modern culture. "As a presentation of non-actors in legitimately
natural settings and situations working without a script, reality TV
stakes its claim with viewers to regard its depictions as unadorned
and spontaneous truthful documentation of natural reality" (Bagley,
2001, p. 1).
RT began to appear as a distinctive genre in the late 1980's (Hill &
Quin, 2001). However, the recent increase in popularity of RT alone
demonstrates the critical attention and investigation that this genre
deserves in terms of communication research. "Reality television
holds a unique power in that the images it purports to depict
accurately, or at least viewers take for granted as true
significations, affect how our society experiences and reacts to the
subjects of a text" (Joniak, 2001, p. 68). The assumed realistic
nature of RT programming is commonly associated with the television
talk-show genre. Both of these television genres are similar in that
they "create audiences by breaking cultural rules, by managed shocks,
by shifting our conceptions of what is acceptable, by transforming
the bases for cultural judgment, by redefining deviance and
appropriate reactions to it, by eroding social barriers, inhibitions
and cultural distinctions" (Abt & Seesholtz, 1994, p.171).
Contradiction surrounds this television phenomenon as "network
executives say they'd be happy to be rid of it," yet "still it
mutates across the airwaves like a disease, growing nastier in its
new forms" (Kronke, 2004, D1). For a phenomenon that blossomed a few
years ago, reality programming dominates broadcast television
(Joniak, 2001; Kronke, 2004). According to Hight (2001), most
assumptions about the psychology of RT viewership are derived from
textual analyses of reality-based programs, rather than researching
involving audiences. Thus, Hight calls for investigations of
reality-based programming based on the assumption that such programs
may implicate a network of social, economic and political changes in
According to Pecora (2002),
Reality TV is, for me, the expression of a powerful, and increasingly
unbridled, tendency within democratic society, one also embedded in
academic institutions, to reveal the norms and limits of individual
responsibility and group identity, however exaggerated (and
commercialized) the settings that reveal such knowledge may be. In
effect, television is now doing the kind of social psychological
research our universities no longer permit (p. 356).
Nabi et al (2003) offer a definition of reality-based television
programming, which excludes news programs, talk and interview shows,
and nonfiction narrative programs. They refer to several
characteristics of RT, which include: (1) characters are real people
(not actors), (2) programs are not filmed on a set, but in natural
living or working environments, (3) programs are not scripted, (4)
events are unplanned, but evolve from narrative contexts, and (5) the
primary purpose is viewer entertainment. In uncovering these
characteristics, Nabi et al conducted a study of randomly-selected
city residents to determine their construction of the RT genre. They
found that respondents perceived some reality programs as more
realistic than others.
Following the uses and gratifications perspective that Nabi et al
(2003) offer, the present study attempts to explore the choice of RT
and the gratifications sought from RT viewing. In explaining media
choice and the types of gratifications that result from that choice,
Lazarsfeld and Stanton (1944) developed the uses and gratifications
theory. At the core of extensive communication research, uses and
gratifications theory has been the focus of research on understanding
audience needs and motives for using mass media. Uses and
gratifications theory also aids in understanding audience consumption
patterns of specific mass media channels. Considered a sub-tradition
of media effects research (McQuail, 1994), Wimmer and Dominick (1994)
suggest that uses and gratifications originated with the interest in
audiences and why they engaged in certain forms of media behavior.
For example, Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch (1974) list initial
research in this area:
• Lazarsfeld-Stanton collections (1942, 1944, 1949),
• Herzog (1942) on quiz programs and the gratifications derived from
listening to soap operas,
• Suchman (1942) on the motives for getting interest in serious music
• Wolfe and Fiske (1949) on the development of children's interest in comics,
• Berelson (1949) on the functions of newspaper reading.
Although uses and gratifications has been used in varying
communication contexts, Rubin (1986) confers that uses and
gratifications research is best applied when exploring specific links
among attitudes, motives, behaviors, and communication effects. In a
summary of Katz and Blumler's contribution to this theory, Lin (1996)
the strength of this theory is its ability to allow researchers to
study mediated communication situations via a single or multiple sets
of psychological needs, psychological motives, communication
channels, communications content, and psychological gratifications
within a particular or cross-cultural context (p.574).
Katz et al (1974) describe uses and gratifications as having three
main objectives: 1) to explain how people use media to gratify their
needs, 2) to understand motives for media behaviors, and 3) to
identify functions or consequences that follow from needs, motives,
and behavior. As a major communication theory, uses and
gratifications is based on five basic assumptions (Katz et al, 1974;
Rosengren, 1974; Palmgreen, 1984; Palmgreen, Wenner, & Rosengren,
1985; Rubin, 1986):
• Behavior is purposive, goal directed and motivated.
• People select and use media to satisfy biological, psychological,
and social needs.
• Individuals are influenced by various social and psychological
factors when selecting media.
• Media consumers are aware of their needs and whether they are being
satisfied by a given media option.
• Different media compete for attention, selection and use.
With these assumptions in mind, the purpose of this qualitative study
was to explore college students' consumption of RT. This study was
guided by the following research questions:
RQ1: What are the consumption patterns of college students in regard
to reality television?
RQ2: What rationale do college students provide for watching reality
RQ3: How do college students perceive the situations portrayed in
RQ4: What role does social affiliation play in consumption of reality
television for college students?
Due to the limited literature regarding consumption of RT, a
qualitative research design was most appropriate for exploring the
research questions posed at the outset of this study. Focus groups
were used as the method of data collection for this exploratory,
qualitative study, allowing for in-depth exploration into the
phenomenon. Focus groups allow for rich and enlightening exchanges
between participants, where ideas can build upon one another. Through
the interactions of RT viewers, the researchers sought to explore and
understand consumption patterns for young adults of RT.
Four focus groups were conducted, with each group ranging between six
and 12 undergraduate participants. Focus group participants were
recruited from a large, undergraduate, core-curriculum course offered
at a southern university. College students were selected because they
represent one of the most targeted viewing audiences of RT
programming (Carter, 2000).
Focus groups were conducted over a four-month time period from March
2004 through July 2004. Four focus groups were chosen based on
Morgan's (1997) suggestion that three to five focus groups suffice
for a research project because more groups seldom provide meaningful
new insights. The size of each focus group, six to twelve students,
was chosen based on the characteristics of the population under
study. It was the assumption of the researchers that a smaller focus
group would be more manageable in terms of response and the feeling
of confidentiality for the college student participants. The focus
groups were conducted in a classroom environment due to its
convenience and familiarity for participants.
Prior to the start of the focus group, participants were asked to
complete a short survey including several demographic questions as
well as basic questions about their television viewing
behaviors. Once the informed consent process and a short explanation
of the study's procedures and purpose were reviewed, the focus group
discussion began with the participants introducing themselves by
sharing their name, major, hometown, and favorite television show. A
question guide was then used to facilitate participants' responses to
questions regarding their opinions, perceptions, and behaviors toward
RT programming. A moderator opened and guided the group discussion.
The focus groups were recorded using both audio and videotape, which
complimented the observations and field notes recorded by the
research team during the focus group discussions. The audio- and
videotapes were transcribed; transcripts were compared with field
notes, and analyzed using the inductive data analysis method outlined
by Hatch (2002). Following analytic methods similar to other
important inductive models (e.g., Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Spradley,
1979; Miles & Huberman, 1994), the model of analysis used in this
study searches for "patterns of meaning in data so that general
statements about phenomena under investigation can be made" (Hatch, p. 161).
The inductive analysis methods utilized followed the subsequent
steps: 1) read data and identify frames of analysis, 2) create
domains based on semantic relationships discovered within frames of
analysis, 3) identify salient domains and assign them a code, 4)
refine salient domains and keep record of emerging relationships, 5)
decide if domains are supported by data, 6) complete analysis within
domains, 7) search for themes across domains, 8) outline
relationships within and among domains, and 9) select data excerpts
to support the relationships (Hatch, 2002). The three researchers
analyzed the data following the inductive analysis procedures
outlined above. Following the analysis, the research team discussed
emerging themes and supporting elements and identified the dominant
themes that characterized the data.
The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore college
students' consumption of RT. From the four focus groups conducted,
data was gathered from 20 females and 14 males, totaling 34
participants. Results from a preliminary participant survey indicated
that participants watch anywhere from three to 30 hours of television
per week, with the average being 11.5 hours. The majority of
participants, 76.4% (n=26), indicated that they watch a RT program on
a regular basis (at least two to three times a week).
Through the preliminary participant survey administered to the
students preceding the focus group discussion, students provided
their responses to basic open-ended questions regarding RT. First,
participants were asked to provide their own definition of RT and
through a comparative analysis of the provided definitions,
participants' confusion over the nature of RT emerged. Participants
provided diverse definitions of RT. Although varying, most
definitions included characteristics like "unscripted," "everyday
people," "non-actors," "portraying some aspect of real life," "real
people in front of cameras," and "real life yet edited situations."
RQ1: What are the consumption patterns of college students in regard
to reality television?
"Oh no…I don't really watch reality television"
The first theme that emerged from the data was the underestimation of
RT viewing. Initially, participants denied watching much RT; in fact,
RT was rarely mentioned when participants were asked to describe the
type of television shows that they typically watched. Instead, shows
that were typically mentioned included adult and teenage drama,
sports broadcasting, comedy sitcoms, and news shows. However, over
the course of the focus group discussions, it was evident that
participants watched (or were at least familiar with) more RT shows
than first indicated. Despite the fact that participants from each
focus group listed only half a dozen reality shows at the beginning
of the focus groups, at least 25 different RT shows were discussed
throughout the focus groups as shows that were watched on a regular
basis. One participant realized this phenomenon in saying, "I didn't
think I watched this much or knew this much about reality television
but apparently I was wrong." The RT shows that were most commonly
discussed included The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, American Idol, The
Real World, Trading Spaces, The Swan, Survivor, Joe Millionaire,
Average Joe, Extreme Make-Over, The Simple Life, and American
Chopper. There were several occasions in which a specific RT show
was not mentioned as being watched; however, when it was referred to
in conversation, the majority of the participants were familiar
enough with the show to partake in the discussion.
RQ2: What rationale do college students provide for watching reality
"It's like a great escape": Escapism and living vicariously through others
Escapism emerged from the data as an escape from reality for
participants. Participants felt that RT offered the viewer a
"glimpse" into another world, which for a moment could take the
viewer away from their own reality. One participant suggested,
I think because it is an escape from the reality of like the war and
a lot of economic problems and like political problems. I mean you
have the option of watching reality television, which although it can
be extreme, it is amusing, as opposed to watching the news about
Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant or even the war.
Basically something that is depressing as opposed to something, while
ridiculous, is entertaining and an escape from some of the negative
reality that people deal with day in and day out.
This theme of escapism also emerged in discussion of viewers living
vicariously through reality shows. One participant mentioned, "You
can see yourself in the show," while another said, "I mean you put
yourself in their situation and you're watching and you think, 'Oh
what would I do? Would I eat that? Would I eat whatever they are
eating or do whatever they are doing?'" Eloquently stated, one
participant divulged what they believed to be the secret of RT by
saying, "I don't think it is real life but that is the point. Real
life is boring and you watch reality show to live vicariously through
others." As one participant said,
reality television is reality television because as a viewer you can
see yourself in that situation or you can say to yourself, if I was
on that show this is what I would do. It is reality 'cause you can
see yourself in it.
Clearly, for most participants, RT provided an escape from reality,
"a break from the depressing stuff." It seemed as though in this
situation most participants projected their lives onto the characters
of the shows, trying to determine what better decisions could have
been made and what they would have done differently.
"It's like a train wreck, I just can't turn away"
For most participants, disparity existed between perceptions of RT
and consumption of RT. One participant best described this
phenomenon by saying, "it is like watching a train wreck—horrible,
but [you] can't turn away." While Nabi et al (2003) hesitated to
characterize viewers as voyeuristic, they stopped short of
generalizing reality viewers as innocent. Although listing many
reasons for watching RT, participants most commonly shared that they
watched because they were bored, it was humorous and entertaining,
they liked to see other people fail, or the shock factor made them
tune in every week. Further reasons participants provided were that
they watched RT because "it doesn't require full attention," or "it
is something that you do not have to watch every week to understand
what is going on."
Candid responses from participants conveyed the voyeuristic quality
of RT. For example, one participant admitted, "It is just plain
funny. It's pure entertainment and it may not be real but it is
funny." Confirming this quality, another participant echoed, "If the
show has like 20 ridiculously hot girls who are all used to being
pampered and are put outside in some extraordinary situation where
they have to like shovel manure or something like that, it really
amuses me." Aside from the pure entertainment factor of reality
television, participants also mentioned that they, or their friends,
had become addicted to RT. One participant's response was, "I heard
so much about it that I had to see what it was about. Now I am
hooked." While another participant said, "It makes you want to turn
it on week after week. I don't know, maybe because you want to see
who wins or who gets picked. It just has an addictive quality." Some
participants even remarked that RT feels like a "cliffhanger" making
it nearly impossible to prematurely abandon the show.
RQ3: How do college students perceive the situations portrayed in
"It's definitely the good, bad, and the ugly of TV": Good vs. Bad Reality TV
When discussing opinions toward RT, participants described certain
elements of RT shows. From these descriptions, "good" RT
materialized as: beneficial because they gave the viewer useful
ideas or advice, giving people a second chance, entertaining, funny,
and being able to apply things to your actual life. Good reality
shows were commonly associated with home or personal appearance
improvement, like The Learning Channel's Trading Spaces and Baby
Story. From the participants' perspective, these shows provide a
"happy" and "uplifting" perspective of reality. As one participant
mentioned, these shows "make you feel good and they attempt to
educate the viewers about something, often a skill." Other aspects
of "good" RT included shows that improve participant's appearances or
self-esteem, shows that are funny and entertaining without a personal
expense to participants, and shows that give the viewer a positive
glimpse into the lives of others.
Conversely, "bad" RT was commonly linked to concepts of immorality.
Bad RT, though indicated as entertaining at times, included
television shows that were based on deception, ridicule, contempt,
and physical or emotional harm. According to the participants, RT
has "gone too far" with regard to the conceptual foundation of some
of the shows. One participant corroborated this stance toward RT by
saying that "too much humiliation exists for
participants." Characterizations of "bad" RT included:
"unrealistic", "just plain mean", "misrepresentation of reality",
"obvious attempts to spur controversy", "ridiculous situations",
"manipulated and exaggerated", and "driven by the shock value". Shows
that were cited as "bad" RT typically included Married by America, I
Married a Millionaire, Married a Midget, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé,
and several other dating shows. One participant described "bad" RT by
saying, "At first it was kind of a cool concept but now it is beyond
the point of entertaining. It has really gone downhill."
This classification between "good" and "bad" RT appeared ambiguous
because participants disagreed on some of the "good" and "bad"
characterizing traits. Nonetheless, it was noticeable that each
participant had his/her own established notions of good versus bad RT
and that each made their viewing decisions based on these notions.
"It's Morally Corrupt": Concerns over portrayal of ideals
The deception and lack of morals was a common concern expressed by
participants. Even though one participant indicated that RT is "not
going to affect my morals," the data collected revealed that
participants believed there were moral implications of RT when
judging its collective impact on society. Many participants
characterized RT programming as "morally corrupt." One participant
said, "I mean I think a lot of television has gone downhill, like the
morals of it. There is just not much left of it anymore."
Additionally, most participants were concerned at the concept behind
most RT shows, citing them as "wrong," and "corrupt." Describing this
moral corruption in association with money, one participant said,
It all happens when you put money at the end of the road. People lose
track of what is important and like their morals go out the window
and that is when I have a problem with the reality issue; when people
start doing things they normally wouldn't do in order to win.
Confirming the negative impact money has on the morals of reality
show participants, a participant echoed, "I think reality television
teaches lying and deceit…Like instead of wishing goodwill and
friendly competition, everybody lies and deceived just to get rid of
somebody and win the money, which is wrong." Yet another participant
noted that RT communicates to younger audiences, "that immoral and
unethical actions are OK," and thus even older viewers may think
that, "dating 20 different guys and having sex with several of them
is OK; that there are no consequences with actions like this."
As a result of the "moral corruption" demonstrated through RT
programming, many participants were concerned about the impact the
popularity of this television genre will eventually have on
society. Representing the majority view, one participant conferred,
"I really believe what goes in comes out and if you are constantly
watching trash you are going to get trash out…" While most
participants agreed that they believed RT can have a negative impact
on viewers' behaviors, another interesting finding from one of the
focus groups was that RT was more of a "reflection of society than an
influence on society," implying that maybe RT was only exemplifying
our "morally corrupt" world.
"The real truth and nothing but the truth, I don't think so"
Throughout the focus group discussions, participants frequently
referred to the "truth" of RT. One of the largest discrepancies in
participant opinions was the realism of specific RT shows.
Participants shared their strong opinions toward the realistic nature
of RT by referring to it as "drawing the line," which insinuated
distorting the premise of RT. Basically, most of the participants
indicated that many of the shows do not reflect reality
anymore. Specific to the reality dating shows, one participant
observed that it is "not realistic to find love with 50 people around
you." Feelings also were that many of the shows have gone "overboard"
in order to attract viewers. One participant communicated, "at first
it was kind of cool but now it is beyond the point of entertaining,
it is sickening what they will call reality television just to
increase ratings." Resonating with another participant, one response
was, "Because the networks are making so much money on this genre,
they are willing to go as far as they can." Overall, participants
believed that RT is set-up to make people "believe that these things
on the reality shows can actually happen." Manifest in the data was
the opinion that the shows and characters become exaggerated over
time, to the point that "characters are reacting to unreal situations."
Coupled with this exaggeration or "drawing the line" quality of RT,
the discussions also focused on the accurate portrayal of reality due
to the excessive amounts of editing that was believed to occur in the
development of the shows. Respondents in Nabi et al's (2003) study
voiced similar frustrations. Several participants mentioned watching
television programs that provided behind-the-scenes views of the RT
show production. Participants indicated that these behind-the-scenes
shows provided proof to the large amount of editing that takes place
during the final production phases for a RT show. A common belief
was that the shows producers, "don't show everything," but rather
only what they want the audience to see. In addition to the editing
process, many participants believed RT was "staged," "contrived,"
"exaggerated," and "fake." One participant summarized the realism
debate in saying,
I think it has always been staged because I mean, who do you know
that would get up in front of a TV and really act as if they would
not being in front of a camera, comfortable. I think it has always
been fake to a point but we are now beginning to notice it more cause
there are so many television stations and so many reality shows out
there to watch.
As such, it can be assumed that, for these focus group participants,
RT does not represent reality. Overall, RT was perceived as a
"misrepresentation of reality" in which participants suspected was
becoming more scripted and contrived in an effort to boost ratings
and derive profit for the producers and networks.
RQ4: What role does social affiliation play in consumption of reality
television for college students?
"Social"ity TV: Social Affiliation
This social connection that RT provided for participants was
indicated in several different ways, including the way in which
participants watch RT shows, the conversations that result from RT
viewing, and the involvement that participants experience while watching RT.
Participants rarely watched RT alone. Participants revealed that they
watch RT programming in groups, with roommates, friends, and
family. It is important to note that many of the participants called
watching RT "our time" alluding to the scheduled time every week that
siblings or groups of friends spend together. Most of the
participants indicated this social component as a rationale for
watching RT. One participant exemplified this theme saying, "The
reason I like it [reality television] is for the social value."
Another participant described their viewing behavior saying, "When
there are like more people, you get more excited. You just feed off
the tension and the anticipation together." Several participants even
referred to watching the same reality show every week with friends as
a "routine"; conveyed by one participant, "I have friends that will
get together to watch Real World like every week." This routine was
echoed by another participant,
I mainly watch with my roommates, I mean it is just a time when we
all get together and kind of watch a show that is funny to watch
because people can make fools of the characters on the show. And then
we can kind of relate to it and discuss it from there.
The social connections provided by RT also include the conversations
that RT motivates between viewers. One participant mentioned the
social value of RT in that it is not age-specific, allowing the topic
of RT to establish common ground between any two people in a
conversation. For example, one participant described their behavior by saying,
When I meet people I am like, "Hey, do you watch reality TV?" 'cause
pretty much everyone has at least one show that they can relate to or
they know something about. It is always a good common ground when you
are talking a person for the first or second time.
Another participant mentioned watching RT in order to feel familiar
with what others were talking about and to be able to participate in
the conversation. The feeling of being left out in a RT conversation
was mentioned by one participant; "Some of my friends would sit and
talk to each other about certain reality characters and I would just
sit there like I have no idea what was going on, like they talk about
these people like they know them or something." Most participants
referred to these conversations about RT as "shallow," "just in
passing, or "nothing in-depth"; however, all participants indicated
at least having one discussion about "a memorable episode," the
"stupidity of the characters," or "what was going to happen next
week" on the show.
While most participants admitted to discussing RT on a regular basis,
they also insinuated an element of shame associated with such
conversations. One participant said,
I feel really stupid, I mean I am in college I should be smarter than
that. I mean, I am 20 and I know I have a lot to learn but I usually
like talking about something a little more intellectual than
something like that.
In agreement, another participant said, "It makes me feel kind of
silly, to actually be discussing reality television."
Respondents also referred to their involvement and interaction with
the characters of reality shows and the show themselves. Several
participants indicated that being able to make decisions affecting
the show's outcome, like voting, gives the viewer a connection, a
feeling of belongingness and importance to the show. Additionally,
participants indicated that the "real" context of some reality shows
makes it possible for them to participate and get involved with the
characters and situations on the show. For example, one participant conferred,
I don't personally have time to vote. Although I did talk to my
cousin and they were so hooked on American Idol that they voted every
night. She was talking about how she got on the land phone, her Mom
got on the cell phone, and her brother got on another cell phone and
they all called like three or four times…I mean they were that into it.
Another participant summarized this sub-theme by saying, "I voted on
Nashville Star once. So yeah, I think the interactivity of it
[reality television] gives people a connection to the show, they are
more involved because they have some kind of say with its' outcome."
College students' consumption of RT appears to be a complex
phenomenon, which offers many opportunities for further study. In
this exploratory study, focus-group participants progressed from
initial denial, or underestimation, of RT consumption to the shocking
realization of the actual amount of RT they consume. While reticent
to characterize themselves as RT viewers, participants appeared to be
watching a great deal of RT. Throughout the focus groups the modesty
over RT consumption appeared to be caused by the social stigma that
surrounds RT. For example, participants seemed hesitant as well as
embarrassed when they revealed the amount of RT that they consumed;
their reactions coupled with their responses insinuated that it is
bad to enjoy watching RT.
The researchers believe one of three possible explanations for the
underestimation of RT viewing. First, it is plausible that the
participants did not realize that the shows they watch are considered
RT; for example, there was an in-depth discussion in two of the focus
groups as to whether certain shows were "reality television shows."
Second, it is possible that participants were embarrassed or hesitant
in disclosing the actual amount of RT that they watch in the
beginning of the focus group because of the social stigma associated
with RT. Finally, another possible explanation is students simply
forgot or had a hard time recalling all the RT shows that they
watched throughout the year, implying that they did not omit the
information on purpose.
Regarding their rationale for watching RT, participants referred to
the "great escape" provided by RT. They felt that RT offered an
opportunity to sample other lifestyles and realities than their
own. Participants discussed living vicariously through the
characters in reality programs. For these college students, RT
seemed to offer an opportunity for them to contemplate and discuss
how they would respond or behave in the situations portrayed in the
programs. Many of the situations characters face in reality programs
– dating, family issues, racial tension, moral decisions – are
particularly relevant for college students. More research should be
done to see how the decisions or actions of RT characters are
impacting the decisions or actions of their viewers.
Another rationale given by participants for watching RT is their
perception of the discrete nature of each episode. Participants felt
they could watch a given episode at their convenience and
out-of-sequence. They also felt watching RT did not require their
full attention, unlike scripted television dramas where they fall
behind if they miss an episode; therefore, the RT genre seems to fit
well with the changing schedules and active lifestyles of college students.
Focus-group participants articulated several perceived types of
RT. They characterized "good" RT as giving viewers useful ideas or
advice, giving characters a second chance, and providing
entertainment or humor. They also included, in "good" RT, shows that
improve participant's appearances or self-esteem, shows that are
funny and entertaining without a personal expense to participants,
and shows that give the viewer a positive glimpse into the lives of
others. In contrast, participants characterized "bad" RT as shows
based on deception, ridicule, contempt, and physical or emotional
harm. While participants disagreed on some of the "good" and "bad"
characterizing traits, it was clear that each participant had his/her
own established notions of "good" versus "bad" RT and that these
perceptions influenced their viewing decisions. Participants also
expressed concern regarding morality in RT. They expressed a shared
sentiment that RT's collective moral impact on society was negative.
The college students in this study do not watch RT alone. Social
affiliation appears to play a significant role in RT viewing for the
participants in this study. Participants watch RT with their
roommates, friends, and family members. Television is sometimes
criticized for breaking down social connections where people watch
television rather than spend time developing interpersonal
relationships (McKenna and Bargh, 2000). Reality television, for the
college students in this study, seemed to have the opposite
influence. RT appeared to bring students together, not only for
watching the shows, but in conversations resulting from RT
viewing. In fact, participants even acknowledged watching RT shows
they do not particularly enjoy because of the social affiliation of
RT viewership. They do not want to be "left out" of conversations about RT.
Participants discussed the realism of RT. Overall, they did not
perceive RT as real. They felt that RT shows go overboard in order
to maintain ratings. They were also skeptical of the editing process
in RT. However, participants did seem to associate their feelings
about the realism of RT to their consumption patterns.
Throughout the focus groups, the third person effect was observed in
participant responses. For example, in describing the effect RT may
have on behaviors as well as in explaining the popularity of RT,
participants commonly exemplified the "I don't watch but I know
someone who does" syndrome. This provides an area of interesting
Overall, the findings from this study indicate that RT is and will
continue to be a significant part of the young adult television
appetite. Although students are generally confused about what
constitutes RT programming, they are absolute in their opinions and
perceptions toward this growing genre of television. Due to the
amount of RT consumption by these viewers, there are implications for
advertising and product placement, sitcoms and traditional television
programming, implications for extreme RT consumption on morals and
behaviors, especially among younger viewers.
Using this study as the foundation, future research on college
students' and RT programming should investigate its influence on
decision making, perceptions of reality, reactions toward specific
programs and program content, exploration of good versus bad RT and
association with viewing behaviors, exploration of the third person
effect in RT viewers, and comparison of perceptions toward RT of high
vs. low consumption/viewers.
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