Reality Shows

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Sanjaya Malakar on American Idol 2007
Abhijeet Sawant, Sanjaya Malakar and Shilpa Shetty -- all these names have a single thread in common; they are all Indians who have been successful in Reality Shows on television. It is said that what Big Brother did to Shilpa Shetty career, 50 odd films and some sizzling item numbers could not do. Shilpa Shetty became not just a household name overnight in the West, but also became the face of young, dignified graceful India. Such is the power of reality shows which in a matter of hours make a star out of ordinary men and women.

Why are Reality Shows so significant? They are a hugely successful element of pop culture which has generated an interesting debate -- should we have TV programmes that show what the majority wants to watch? Or should we have television programmes that contain what we `ought' to watch? Critics say that Reality Shows feed on naked human emotions like fear, anxiety, greed and a lust for success. On the other hand, their producers argue that this is what the maximum people want to watch.)Critics say that they feed on naked human emotions like fear, anxiety, greed and a lust for success. Their producers and sponsors argue that their high TRP ratings show that this is what the maximum people want to watch.

Clearly, Reality Shows basically trade human emotions for money. They feed on the common man's desire to peep into someone else's life. Their basic premise, however, is that aspirants do know what they are getting into and it is unfair to blame the game format or the channel when things do go wrong and emotions do spiral out of hand.

Reality Shows- The Concept

Reality shows are a popular genre of television viewing which shows participants in situations that test their nerves, intelligence, emotions and sometimes even integrity. These responses are all caught on camera and are therefore totally natural. Reality shows stand apart from other television shows because the responses are supposedly unscripted and unmaneuvered. Their higher than average TRPs could be because Reality Shows thrive on naked human emotions, and play to an audience that thrives on voyeurism and hedonism. In many ways, Reality Shows demonstrate the ugly reality of what people actually want to do in their spare time.

Television channels have been quick to recognize the lucrative deal that lies within this genre and have been fast in their responses. In fact Sony which has pioneered the most successful reality shows in India as Indian Idol and Jhalak Dikhla Ja, a dance based show, along with the very popular Big Brother, has endeavored to connect with the audiences and redeem its position as the topmost television channel via these reality shows.

Reality Shows - Reasons for Popularity

All television channels have one basic aim that of capturing as much of the consumer market as it can. Consumer preferences dictate a lot of viewer content that is rolled out. The kind of sitcoms and soaps, the content of shows, is all factored by consumer preferences. Creative and marketing heads of a channel usually work alongside ensuring that the viewer gets what he wants and the channel gets to maximize its profits.

So what makes Reality Shows so popular? Here are some basic reasons --

  • Reality shows are shown at prime time, between 7-9 pm, which is when the maximum people turn on their television sets.
  • Reality television often has aspirants from the interiors of the country. The very sight of a person from an obscure place, who has little else other than his talent to bank upon, is enough to fuel the emotions and imaginations of the people.
  • Reality shows give the audience a breather from the run-of-the-mill kind of soaps.
  • Reality Shows invariably offer an enormous amount of prize money. The prize sometimes even entails a contract with a music label or a film production company, like in Zee Cine Stars Ki Khoj or the most popular show on Indian television, Kaun Banega Crorepati based on the popular show ‘Who wants to become a Millionaire’.
  • Another reason for the popularity of these shows would be the anchor or the host. The host of these shows would invariably be a popular film actor or singer…any body with a star power and popularity base that cut across rural and urban India. By roping in Amitabh Bacchan and Shah Rukh Khan, Star TV had a winner in their hands even before they got started with their show.
  • They provide a public stage for aspirants to show case their talents. As successful persons from the field of beauty and entertainment often say when they come to these shows, this kind of a platform was unavailable till some time back.
  • Reality shows pose a win-win situation for every one involved; the contestants, the production houses and the television channel that airs these shows. It is thus not very surprising that reality shows are occupying the maximum air space these days.

So people watch Reality Shows because they're fun, they don't require one to think and they're participatory in more ways than one. A viewer invests as much of his time, emotions and money (through the votes he sends) as that is invested by the participant. Scripted dramas often have less of twists and turns as those that happen on reality shows. Hence they are viewed by most people who enjoy a legally allowed peep into other people’s lives, especially those who happen to be celebrities.

The Origins

The first reality based show that appeared in the USA was Candid Camera, by Allen Funt. This show caught unsuspecting people in comic situations. The resultant unguarded responses were very popular among most people and the genre of reality television was born. Other shows such as Beat the Clock, Truth or Consequences also came up during this time. The popular Miss America Pageant was also covered live and joined the ranks of immensely popular shows that were broadcast. These shows were unscripted and gave viewers much more entertainment than the other serialized dramas that were shown.

The first reality show that was broadcast in the United Kingdom was in the year 1964. The show, named Seven Up traced the lives of seven ordinary people who were first interviewed when they were seven years old. They were then interviewed regularly in the years that were multiples of seven, that is, at age 14, 21, 28 and so on. There was no plot per se. All the show did was record responses of the candidates on the show over a certain time frame to understand their development and growth in terms of maturity and understanding.

The reality shows in the 1970s were mostly family based shows in which they showed families undergoing various stressful situations. These shows catered to voyeuristic viewers who waited eagerly to see what the responses of the participants were like. Shows like The American Family, The Family, Working class Wilkins Family of Reading did well, albeit with their share of controversy and ethical arguments.

The reality shows also became popular in the 1990s because there suddenly came a paucity of drama based shows. The strike called by the Writers Guild of America diminished the quantity of scipted serials giving rise to reality shows. The series NUMMER 28 that was aired on Dutch television in 1991 put strangers in a same environment and recorded their reactions. This set down the formula which reality television was about to follow. This format was followed by MTV’s The Real World.

In 1997, the Swedish reality show The Survivor introduced the idea of competition and elimination which has continued to be a much followed format. The Miss World and Miss Universe paegeants can also be considered reality shows since they did contain all the basic elements of a reality show-aspiring participants, competition, elimination and one triumphant winner.

In India the reality based shows caught on with the immensely popular show ‘Indian Idol’. This was a song based show which attracted scores of aspirants from all corners of the Nation. Perhaps the most awaited and talked about show was Kaun Banega Crorepati. The lethal combination of a winning format (it was borrowed from the popular ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ along with the very popular host Amitabh Bacchan and the marketing gimmicks of Star Television, this was a show that was a trendsetter of sorts. It brought in huge revenues for the company and catapulted Star TV to the numero uno position.

Mechanisms of a Reality Show

In addition to all the high TRPs why does a channel prefer to air reality shows? The answer lies in the fact that these shows are money spinning mechanisms that generate a lot of revenue for the channel. To start with, the basic format of the show requires one to vote for his or her favourite candidate. The voting can be cast through a text message or SMS or through a phone call which usually is a special number. These sms’s and phone calls cost much more than their ordinary counterparts. Television channels have a tie-up with the telephone companies in this regard and this generates a lot of money. Hence the more the votes, more is the money that comes in.

In addition advertisers also prefer to air their advertisements during the popular shows and this again translates to income for the channel. So high votes and ratings mean more advertisers and more money.

Types of Reality Shows

Reality Shows can be classified thus:

  • Documentary based shows in which the participant is asked to behave naturally in a new setting while the audience looks at his responses. An example would be Temptation Island where couple's commitment was tested by keeping them on a deserted island and surrounding them with single attractive men or women as the case may be. In some shows, the participant may also be given certain professional tasks. Like in Big Boss, where inmates of the house were also given weekly tasks to perform. Again there are reality based shows that put celebrities in a situations and see them going through every day life. Big Brother is an example of this as is The Osbournes, the Anna Nicole show. These celebrity based shows also go by another name; celebreality.
  • Elimination or game shows where the participants are required to live in a certain setting together until all the participants are eliminated one by one. So this is a documentary show but with a game format. An example would be Fame Gurukul or the very famous Big Brother. Contestants are eliminated through a system of public voting or through elimination by the contestants themselves. Talent hunt shows are also very popular and the difference between these shows and those that are documentary based is the fact the participant does not have to live together. Elimination rules remain the same. Examples are American Idol and the Indian counterpart Indian Idol.

There are also reality shows that look for the right candidate for a job. For example, Hells Kitchen looks for a chef who can intern with Gorden Ramsay. MTV and Channel V have shows that look for video jockeys or vjs as they are popularly called.

  • Some shows are Fear-centric and put participants through a fearful experience.
  • There are also reality shows that give makeovers to participants. This would include physical appearances, redecorating the home, redoing a single room, redoing a wardrobe, redoing the décor of a failing premise etc.
  • There are also pranks that are played on unsuspecting persons,like Chupa Rustom on the Indian television), or on entire town ships over an extended period of time like Invasion Iowa in which an entire town was under the impression that a shooting of a film was under way.

There are as many varieties of reality shows as there are scripted stories shown on the television. Popular in their make up, these reality shows are here to stay and the television channels, in India or across the globe are waking up to this genre that seems to have all the trappings within a single format.

The Truth about Reality Shows

Reality shows are touted as different from the sitcoms and soap operas that were immensely popular till sometime back. The difference lies in the unscripted nature of these shows. Participants are allowed to express themselves freely, whether it is to eliminate some other contestant or to voice other concerns and emotions. This undiluted exhibition of human emotions is what appeals to most people leading to the higher TRPs.

The modus operandi of these shows has raised several ethical questions. The main point that is raised is that do these reality shows really show what these shows really profess to show. Insider information about these shows has led to startling revelations.

The reality shows are not entirely scripted. In fact the footage for the entire day is collected and then edited in a manner so that it follows a definite sequence. Most of the participants, even the audience is asked to emote in a certain way. Participants, especially in celebrity based shows are given a certain brief to follow where they have to draw up their character according to a given set pattern. For example, Kashmera Shah and Rakhi Sawant were told to behave as a trouble maker and as a clown who goes about amusing people respectively. There are also romantic liaisons that are built up so that audience interest is kept alive. There is also an element of envy, competition etc that are added to keep interests on an upward acccent. In short every thing about reality shows is not really ‘real’, its manipulated, contorted to suit a story line and emotions are peddled and used with an amazing lack of scruples. A lot of times the winners fade into oblivion. The emotions that were manipulated often land the participants into a lot of distress when they go back to where they came from.

On the flip side to these arguments, participants these days know what to expect and sort of steel themselves for all the ensuing drama. Even then, should we be as an audience ready to give in to our voyeuristic tendencies so much that it is at the cost of other people and their families?

Need for Regulations and Transparency

The reality show industry is a market with a huge potential to create wealth and capture the imagination and emotions of the audience. This industry is estimated to be 100 crores in worth and this is only expected to grow. In this scenario it is of utmost importance to regulate this sector so as to mitigate the exploitative potentials and pitfalls that go with an industry having such characteristics.

  • Restructure Content: The first and foremost thing that producers need to do is to regulate the televised content. The editing table needs to be such that it includes people with an eye on quality. There is little sense in televising content that borders on vulgarity because after all television is a powerful medium with an outreach that far outdoes other forms of entertainment. What is to be shown and what is to be left out is a crucial decision and there should be an element of morality in the entire procedure.
  • Make selection and elimination procedures transparent: Secondly, critics also point out that the selection procedures and elimination procedures are often shrouded in controversy. The most controversial candidate, though not the most talented often remains in the race for a very long time. The reason for this is very obvious-it brings in revenue. As a show which seeks out talent, this is definitely one of the points that are hotly debated. Even news channels have included segments debating this controversy. Like how come Qazi Tauqeer managed to get the crown in Fame Gurukul? Prashanst Tamang and Dibbendu Barua both got the coveted prize and the same questions were asked. It is not a coincidence that all these people belonged to a minority religious group or came from states that are still not considered as ‘mainstream India’.
  • Money: Finally the whole aspect of a reality show is about money. Hence it is shrewd business sense to generate more controversy as it translates to hard cash. All these aspects are hidden from the consumer that is, the audience. This makes the entire exercise most ‘unreal’ justifying the call to make these shows more transparent. Why have a reality show that is every bit scripted as the family dramas?

At the end of the day, Reality Shows cheat; connive, blatantly look for ways to bring up their ratings and certainly do cater to the lowest common denominator -- but they are popular nonetheless, and here to stay.


  • Wikipedia
  • The Worst Reality Shows on Indian TV
  • Reality TV Links