Is reality TV harmless entertainment?

ABC / Craig Sjodin

Fact Box

  • Collins Dictionary defines reality TV as “a type of television programming that aims to show how ordinary people behave in everyday life, or in situations, often created by the program makers, which are intended to represent everyday life.”
  • Premiering in 1992, MTV’s The Real World is said to be the genre-defining first example of reality TV in the modern television era. The show was about “a group of young adults selected to live together in a house where cameras document their behavior and interpersonal relationships.”
  • Statista reports that, as of September 2023, 38% of Americans aged 30-49 watch reality TV.    
  • According to Ranker, the top three reality TV shows of 2023 were Next Level Chef, 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, and The Masked Singer.

Stephanie (No)

Although reality TV is generally presented as harmless entertainment, how it affects people can have serious repercussions. Just like watching a funny movie can boost one's spirits, watching reality TV packed with verbal abuse, drama, fights, and unrealistic beauty standards can also alter one’s mood and behavior. 

Reality TV shows often showcase harmful, toxic, and brutish behavior. Studies show that viewing reality TV, even in small quantities, can cause people to replicate similar patterns of conduct. Bullying and abuse are common plot points in these types of shows, and unfortunately, normalizing treating people with hurtful one-liners can become emulated too quickly. 

Further, the types of people cast for these shows can also promote harmful body image ideals for both young men and women. In such dating shows as Too Hot To Handle, it's clear to see that the cast is usually young, stereotypically beautiful and thin, as well as muscle-bound and tall. Seeing so many stellar bodies be normalized as if they were an accurate representation of society can directly cause adolescents' mental health to suffer--because rarely can someone live up to such unrealistic beauty standards. 

Beauty standards aside, there are ultra-macho, muscle-bound men usually cast for shows such as Love Island, who often display acts of physical harm and aggression. Showing these scenes to young men directly correlates with how aggressive they feel afterward. 

Therefore, the many harmful effects of reality TV shouldn't be ignored. Categorizing abnormal, overly dramatic, abusive relationships and unrealistic bodies as entertaining, harmless fun has a concrete impact on the behaviors and self-image of all television viewers.

Maha (Yes)

Reality TV has gotten such a bad rap that many of its top fans would go so far as to lie about watching it. However, these shows are more harmless than their critics let on. 

For starters, reality television is still governed by the strict Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an organization that fined Fox and its affiliates for reality-based Married by America, as it deemed pixelating private parts a violation of indecency laws. 

Another reason these shows are harmless is because a majority of their viewers believe they’re mostly scripted–61%, according to Statista. Moreover, 72% of American adults believe the shows are fake and meaningless despite being entertaining and inspiring. 

Also, regardless of the studies condemning reality TV, there’s sufficient evidence indicating the research is inconclusive. Take, for instance, a study that assessed 1,141 preteen and teenage girls–an age group considered more impressionable than adults. Researchers concluded that these shows produced both positive and negative influence, “defying easy categorization.”

Speaking of positive influence, reality TV has a lot to offer its viewers, including the potential to do good by highlighting social issues, such as when the show Survivor handled race and transgender rights. 

Other benefits of reality shows include allowing people to live vicariously through stars to explore various ‘what-if’ scenarios. Reality TV also helps viewers escape their own reality and get a break from their stressful lives. And according to psychologists, these shows allow people to practice empathy.

So, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some reality TV, even if it feels a little trashy. The important thing is to balance the amusement with a dose of actual reality.

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