THE SURPRISING ORIGIN OF REALITY TELEVISION
If you were to guess, what year would you say that reality television began?
Some might be surprised to learn that the genre was birthed in 1973 with a groundbreaking show called An American Family. The show was aired by PBS and it examined the lives of the Loud family. For seven months, producers filmed the lives of this family, capturing the tedium and turmoil of their day-to-day, and condensed it into twelve one-hour episodes. In that period, Bill and Pat Loud separated and divorced, and their oldest son, Lance, came out as gay.
The show’s producer, Craig Gilbert, was convinced that this show would be significant, and that “an accurate portrayal of an American family would shock audiences.” He had no idea just how significant this project would actually be.
An American Family was revolutinoary on many fronts. Lance was the first openly gay “character” on television, and the show created an entirely new tv genre. In an essay published in TV Guide when the show first came out, the anthropologist Margaret Mead declared that An American Family constituded “a new kind of art form… as significant as the invention of drama or the novel.”
Mead’s assertion took some time to come to fruition. Though the show was a hit, for decades it appeared to be an anomaly, not a new art form. “It wasn’t until 2000,” according to Kalefa Sanneh of the New Yorker, “that Mead’s grand claim started to look prescient.” Sanneh continues: “That year, a pair of high-profile, high-concept summer series nudged the format into American prime time: ‘Big Brother,’ a Dutch import, was built around surveillance-style footage of competitors locked in a house; ‘Survivor,’ a Swedish import, isolated its stars by shipping them somewhere warm and distant, where they participated in faux tribal competitions. Both of these were essentially game shows, but they doubled as earthy anthropological experiments, and they convinced viewers and executives alike that television could provide action without actors.”
Reality TV is now ubiquitous. There are entire networks that base their programming solely on reality shows. We can find reality shows featuring characters doing just about anything: “run pawn shops, buy abandoned storage facilities, bake cupcakes, bake wedding cakes, size bras, sell houses, flip houses, redecorate houses, sell wedding dresses, and arrange marriages.” The options are seemingly endless.
WHY ARE WE SO DRAWN TO IT?
We are clearly drawn to reality TV. In fact, reality TV is now tied with comedy as the second most popular TV genre. Interestingly, however, American attitudes towards “unscripted shows” are overwhelmingly negative. “It's also the only genre that respondents say there's ‘too much’ of — and by a wide margin: 61 percent wish there were fewer unscripted shows. No other type of show comes close, with horror (29 percent say too much) garnering less than half the negative response.” Large numbers describe reality TV as "trashy" (69 percent), "predictable" (66 percent) and "meaningless" (68 percent). Yet we are still watching it. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have net ratings of -43, yet they get more than 7 million viewers a piece. “Keeping Up With the Kardashians (-51) and the Real Housewivesfranchise (-44) are also among the least-liked shows — and also among the highest-rated series on their respective networks, E! and Bravo.”
So then, if we don’t like reality television, why are we watching?
People have different reasons. Many = enjoy viewing reality TV as a sort of guilty pleasure. A lot of folks actually feel bad about watching this sort of television, but they can’t seem to stop themselves. In an interview for a Washington Post article, a fifty-year-old nonprofit manager explains her reality TV viewing habits in this way:
“You feel a little dirty in a way…I’m like… Why are you doing this to yourself, and why am I choosing to sit here and watch it when it’s just ridiculous?’ I feel terrible about myself. I’m like, ‘I’ve wasted twenty minutes here, just watching America’s Next Top Model.’ And, you know, I resolve never to do it again.”
But she does watch again, as do so many others. People will often think, “I’ll just watch one more,” or, “It’s been a hard day, and I just want to watch something mindless.” But most people who watch reality show as a guilty pleasure “claim it is simply out of their control, like being unable to look away from a car crash.”
Others watch reality shows ironically. These people don’t feel bad about watching trashy television, in fact, they revel in it. “Ironic consumers, or ‘hipster viewers,’ think that the shows they watch are really bad, but they still enjoy them: they derive great pleasure from making fun of a terrible show.” And where does this pleasure come from? The article by McCoy and Scarborough suggests, “In a way, by watching trashy TV from a position of superiority, ironic consumers can reaffirm their own self-perception of being cultured.”
So many of the depictions of “reality” that are presented in this genre of television are manipulated so as to highlight the superlative, the extremes. Otherwise, it is thought, they wouldn’t hold our attention. Flaws are accentuated, and “characters” themselves are presented as being larger than life. They are “framed, packaged, and beamed into our living rooms where we can oversee their judgement with impunity.”
THE QUEST FOR GLORY
While the above explanations may be helpful, I think there is another, deeper reason that we are drawn to reality television: a desire for glory. Back in the 70’s, when asked about the success of An American Family, Lance Loud (one of the teenage boys in the featured family) explained that the show promoted the sentiment of “the middle-class dream that you can become famous for being just who you are.”
While this sentiment has been exacerbated in recent years, it is certainly nothing new. Augustine of Hippo describes his ambition as a young man in similar terms. He continually “pursued the empty glory of popularity, ambitious for the applause of the audience… concerned with the follies of public entertainments and unrestrained lusts.” The Christian philosopher James Smith comments on these thoughts of Augustine writing, “When Augustine reflects on ambition, he’s really delving into the dynamics of fame. Could anything be more contemporary? We live in an age where everybody’s famous. We’ve traded the hope of immortality for a shot at going viral.”
This desire for recognition and glory, however, isn’t bad in and of itself. Remember that the story of the gospel is bookended with creation and consummation. In Genesis human beings are described as the crown of creation, as divine image bearers. This points to our capacity for tremendous glory and beauty. But we have sought such things away from their source, greatly diminishing our capacity. There will come a day, however, when that glory will be restored in Christ. We will finally possess what we have so longed for. Granted, it will be a reflected glory (as it was always meant to be), but it will be true glory, and not the counterfeit idolatry for which we all too easily settle. Smith describes our idolatries as “learned dispositions to hope in what will disappoint.” Isn’t that a fitting description of what happens when we try to obtain fame and glory apart from God?
Our problem isn’t that we desire praise and recognition, it is that we look for it in the wrong direction. Cosper writes:
“There is something innately good, natural, and childlike in wanting to be praised for who we are and what we’ve done. We were made for glory; after God created us, he said we were ‘good.’ We long to hear him tell us this again; we long for an affirmation that who we are and what we are is ‘good.’ All of the rewards of social media, all of the fans and followers we might collect as reality TV celebrities, pale in comparison to the glory that awaits the children of God when we hear the divine affirmation of our redeemed goodness.”
That desire becomes ugly when the focus is turned inward, and when we become more concerned with people’s approval than God’s. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis warns that “the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please” can quickly turn “into the deadly poison of self-admiration.” But this is simply the corruption of a deeper and better longing. It is the longing for our creator and sustainer, for our Father. If we truly knew what awaited us, “the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised to us in the Gospels,” we wouldn’t settle for anything less. We are promised “a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is… The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
 Carter Hathaway, “Analysis | The Surprising Origins of Reality TV,” The Washington Post (WP Company, November 8, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/11/08/the-surprising-origins-of-reality-tv/.
 Kelefa Sanneh, “The Rise and Rise of Reality Television,” The New Yorker (The New Yorker, August 25, 2017), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/09/the-reality-principle.
 Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) Kindle, Chapter 10.
 Amy Watson, “Most Popular TV Genres U.S. 2017,” Statista, August 9, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/201565/most-popular-genres-in-us-primetime-tv/.
 Rick Porter, “Most Americans Think There's Too Much Reality TV - But They're Still Watching,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 4, 2020, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/americans-think-reality-tv-but-theyre-still-watching-1164205.
 Roscoe Scarborough Charles McCoy, “Why Do We Watch Trashy TV?,” The Washington Post (WP Company, May 27, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/05/27/why-do-we-watch-trashy-tv/.
 Cosper, Kindle, Chapter 10. Cosper uses Keeping Up with the Kardashians as an example. He writes: “The show highlights aspects of the family’s life that demonstrate how spoiled, pampered, and detached they are from real life. It’s not hard to feel indignant, particularly when Kim is known for saying things like, ‘I hate when women wear the wrong foundation color, it might be the worst thing on the planet when they wear their make up too light.’”
 Cosper, Kindle, Chapter 10.
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998), 52.
 James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 80.
 Ibid, 82.
 Cosper, Kindle, Chapter 10.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2009), 38, 39, 42.