Reality programming is an expansive television industry label which includes both syndicated and "on-net" (network) programs such as "tabloid" television newsmagazine shows (Entertainment Tonight, Hard Copy, A Current Affair, Inside Edition, Day One, Dateline NBC), video-verite (Cops) re-created crime or rescue programs (Top Cops, Rescue 911, America's Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol ), and family amateur video shows (America's Funniest Home Videos, America's Funniest People). While the corpus of programs grouped under this generic rubric is admittedly varied, the one consistent characteristic which underscores each of these genres is a visible reference to, and dramatization of, "real" events and occupations.

As a programme form which purports to exhibit the actual or "the real," reality programming is evocative of non-fictional genres, particularly mainstream television news. Many of the formal conventions of television journalism--such as the style of electronic news gathering, the use of anchors and stand-up shots of reporters on location--are variously found within reality programs. Most importantly, it is reality programming's involvement in the immediacy of the scene or the event which tends to evince the naturalism of television news. Additionally, such similarities are found not only on conventional, but structural levels. For instance, syndicated "tabloid" newsmagazines or crime shows are often competitively time-shifted into the "prime access" scheduling time-slots immediately succeeding local or regional news.

Nonetheless, "the real" in reality programming is a highly flexible concept. Rather than solely relying upon the use of actual documentary or "live" footage for its credibility, reality programming often draws upon a mix of acting, news footage, interviews and re-creations in a highly simulated pretense towards the "real." Admittedly, mainstream television news is also involved in the recreation of reality, rather than simply recording actual events. And yet, "reality" is dramatized on reality programming to an extent quite unlike conventional television news, and this dramatization is often geared towards more promotional, rather than informational, ends. Tabloid newsmagazines for instance, make liberal use of flashy graphics, creative editing and increased use of music beds in an effort to "hype" the story, often to the point where there is little difference between the promotional trailers for the upcoming report and the actual story itself. In essence, the effectivity of reality programs lies in their ability to dramatize "the real" by drawing upon popular memory and forms, specifically the popular forms of commodity culture.

In addition to a reliance upon an actual or fabricated "real," much reality programming (particularly of the "law and order" or tabloid genre), is concerned with defining moral boundaries within society. These programs tend to accentuate moral or criminal threats to everyday life, and their narrative structure follows classical lines of contrasting victims and heroes against criminals and deviants. Criminality and deviance are posed as constant and random factors of everyday life, and their existence demands moral response and redress. It is this heightened emphasis upon moral or criminal disorder which accounts for much of reality programming's disrepute as sensational, excessive, and indulgent of vulgar tastes.

Coupled with the tendency towards moral polarity in reality programming is an emphasis upon the subjective or personal. Reality programming expresses social or moral dilemmas in emotional terms; and it is the emotional affectivity of a programme which acts as the key support for its "truthfulness" or credibility. Stress is laid less upon the social, political or historical context of an event, than on its individual and immediate ramifications, particularly in terms of how someone feels or responds to the reported event. In this respect, it is no longer a supposedly neutral objectivity which acts to establish the authenticity of "reality," but rather an appeal towards subjective identification, wherein a distanced or impartial reasoned analysis is replaced with the "closeness" of feeling and sensation. One feature which is emphasized within all types of reality programming--tabloid newsmagazines, crime and rescue shows, and family amateur video programs--is the proximity of the depicted "reality" to the experiences of the audience. In other words, the adulterous affair on Inside Edition, the senseless mugging on COPS, or the hapless pratfall on America's Funniest Home Videos could all possibly happen to the viewer. Additionally, subjective involvement is further established through participatory strategies which encourage audiences to "interact" with the programme itself. For instance, audiences of Hard Copy are offered 1-900 numbers in order to place phone-in votes at the end of the program--"Burt or Loni? Whom do you believe? (Callers must be 18 years or older"). America's Most Wanted asks it viewers to assist in the capture of suspected fugitives profiled on the show by calling a toll-free hotline. And studio audience members of America's Funniest Home Videos vote for the prize-winning "funniest" video shown during the programme.

Despite, or even perhaps due to, reality programming's emphasis upon moral conflict, its accentuation of the subjective, and its use of a simulated "real," the genre has experienced wide financial success since its inception in the late 1980s. Emerging during a period of intensified competition for viewers and advertising revenues, early reality-based shows such as the tabloid newsmagazine A Current Affair (which debuted in 1986), the video-verite "true crime" series COPS (1988) or the re-created "manhunt" series America's Most Wanted (1988)--all productions developed by Fox Television--have proven to be long-lasting and solid ratings performers. Similarly, during the 1988-89 season, each of the "Big Three" networks launched at least one weekly reality series,(NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, ABC's Funniest Home Videos and CBS's Rescue 911), each of which still enjoys consistent financial viability.

Producers attribute the longevity of such programs to their ability to tell "good stories" and the fact that they are free from the capriciousness of actors or scripts. There are, however, more pragmatic reasons for the genre's success. Such programs are inexpensive to produce, particularly when compared to the production costs of network drama (typically $1 million per hour) or other conventional newsmagazines. While Paramount's Entertainment Tonight, (which has served as the programming model for other reality-based magazines since its inception in 1980), has one of the highest weekly production budgets at $500,000 to $600,000 per week, the production costs of other tabloid newsmagazines such as King World's Inside Edition typically range from $250,000 to $400,000 per week. Production costs for reality-based crime and rescue series are considerably lower at the $150,000 to $250,000 week range. This factor of cost is crucial for countries such as Canada, where both public and private broadcasters have always been dependent upon the availability of inexpensive American shows for their programming schedules, much to the demise of an indigenous product. It may be argued, then, that reality programs are especially attractive to countries outside of the United States. Because of their low cost, each country can create its own version of the programs, which then qualify as indigenous productions and therefore enjoy the privileges of state support. For example, the Canadian programme Battle Against Crime, produced by MacBac Productions, is modeled in part upon the video-verite style of Barbour-Langley's Cops.


Photo courtesy of FOX

An additional economic incentive is the proven syndication record of reality shows. While relatively strong on network schedules, such programs have also found prosperity when launched as either syndicated first-run series or half-hour strips aired during prime access or fringe time-slots. Reality programs are generally sold on a "cash-plus-barter" basis, meaning that in addition to receiving cash for license fees, syndicators reserve the right to sell one or two minutes of national advertising time while local stations sell the remaining minutes themselves. Much of the success of these syndicated shows is due to the ease with which they can be shifted into compatible schedules. Both tabloid newsmagazines (A Current Affair, Hard Copy) and law enforcement and rescue shows (Cops, Top Cops, Rescue 911) have done well in prime-access spots, acting as a lead-in or lead out from local newscasts with whom they share similarities in structure and content. The cop and rescue genre, however, evidences more flexibility in its ability to be sold for further programming in strip syndication. While conventional industry wisdom once held that first-run reality programs were too deadline-oriented and time-sensitive to be launched in repeat sales, the cop and rescue sub-genres are not limited to the same temporal constraints as newsmagazines.

Audiences for reality shows tend to fit conventional expectations with regard to the gender of viewers; men 18-49 are the predominant viewers of the crime and rescue sub-genre, and women 18-49 comprise the audience for the tabloid shows. An interesting variable is the audience for the family amateur video programs. Besides consistently garnering high weekly ratings, America's Funniest Home Videos is also atypical when defined as a "family" oriented program; it appeals foremost to men and children, rather than women.

While reality programs have earned relatively strong ratings, and their advertising time is inexpensive in comparison to programs garnering similar audience numbers, advertisers have often been wary of the genre. This is especially the case for the tabloid newsmagazine shows, sometimes termed "trash TV" for their excessive style and sensational stories. Unwilling to associate their product with programs considered exploitative or in ill-taste, many advertisers have refused to buy air-time on such programs. In response, reality shows have attempted to unburden themselves of the "trash TV" stigma. Paramount's Hard Copy, originally sold as Tabloid, changed its name after adverse media attention threatened advertiser support.

Such negative connotations do not appear to pertain to the crime, rescue or manhunt sub-genres. Producers of these programs claim this is due to the fact that they are perceived, and pitched as, "pro-social," as offering a form of public service. Supposedly, these shows are designed to foster a solid consensual ground of moral and social certitude. In their appeals to viewer identification, and the participatory strategies of toll-free numbers used to report criminal activity, they presumably offer an engagement with the social authority of the state. And yet, as the Canadian media scholar Graham Knight has argued (1989), the moral and political consensus established by these programs is directed less towards collectivist and statist ends, than it is geared towards an individualist and conservative populism.

This last point demonstrates the importance of situating the historical emergence of reality programming within a specific political and cultural climate. Much of the controversy surrounding the presence of reality Programs concerns the blurring between reality and representation, wherein the ability to determine what is real and what is not is increasingly brought under question. In this respect, the controversy and confusion surrounding reality programming's mutation of fictional and non-fictional genres may be indicative of wider cultural and political shifts within society. The genre's violation of conventional distinctions between reality and representation can be seen as symptomatic of a culture in which the lines drawn between culture and commerce, the private and the public, and around categories of social identities have become muddled at best. Hence, and in a quite contradictory way, the moral preoccupations of reality programming may also be read as attempts to re-assert social and moral order and to provide a simulated relief from the assault upon conventional cultural values.

-Beth Seaton


Glynn, Kevin. "Tabloid Television's Transgressive Aesthetic." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), April 1990.

Goodwin, Andrew. "Reality Programmes." Sight and Sound (London), January 1993.

Knight, Graham. "Reality Effects: Tabloid Television News." Queen's Quarterly (Toronto), Spring 1989.

Mellencamp, Patricia. High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal and Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Nichols, Bill. Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Scholle, David. "Buy Our News: Tabloid Television and Commodification." Journal of Communication Inquiry (Iowa City, Iowa), Winter 1993.


See also America's Funniest Home Videos; America's Most Wanted; Tabloid Television