Is reality TV a legitimate art form?

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Reality TV constructs situations that expose the very essence of the human psyche. What happens if two people who hate each other get trapped in a room together? How does the beauty queen react when the ugly duckling steals her man? While it may be semi-scripted or even fully staged, doesn’t that make it less believable than a work of fiction? And if not, why to most people is Big Brother (the reality show) a lesser work of art than George Orwell’s 1984?

We all have our own definition of what constitutes art; therefore, the question “what is art?” not really worth answering. “What is ‘good’ art?” might be more appropriate. In my opinion, art itself is nothing more than the act of creation, while “good art” evokes a feeling in me. And as much as I hate to admit it, reality TV can do just that. While I take all of this with a pinch of salt, even I can feel emotional during an X-Factor montage, or anger at Lauren Conrad’s best friend for flirting with her boyfriend.

We watch reality TV with a preconception of disbelief. We understand and recognize that melodramatic, amplified characters play the tabloid game, desperate for fame. No one cares about over-the-top personalities, dramatized sets, and behind-the-scenes manipulation. We are not gullible; we just don’t find excitement in the truth. But why on earth does this trigger an emotional reaction?

At its heart, reality TV is an expression of truth; therefore, it’s not that different from a surrealist painting – although the creative world probably wouldn’t appreciate it if I started comparing Picasso’s works to Jedward. But just as good fictional characters often stem from heightened stereotypes, good reality TV exposes all those embarrassing personality traits and opinions that we tend to keep locked inside, at least the proportion of us “socially aware”. So while we cringe at reality stars, they make us feel kinda normal.

Reality TV will continue to grow

Reality TV has become a massive industry. Paris Hilton and the Kardashian clan have used the platform, along with their socialite status, to amass an empire that would make any business mogul salivate — and that’s commendable. We may roll our eyes, laugh and feel disgusted at their way of life, but what they do is no different than what we all do on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We document our lives for all to see, but we shake our heads when others do the exact same thing on TV and feel angry because they’re monetizing fame.

While many of us hoped all reality TV was just a fad, the truth is that it’s not only bigger than ever, but the digital environment is creating the perfect breeding ground for the medium. Last year in the United States, telecommunications company AT&T announced a new TV Everywhere strategy, aimed at making content available on all platforms (wireless, satellite and cable broadband). Imagine being able to keep tabs on your favorite reality show around the clock, without even needing a TV, or tuning in at a specific time – like Big Brother Live times a thousand. This is where we are heading. With video streaming services, Facebook live, and 24/7 access to mobile content, reality TV is no longer just for the Gogglebox. In fact, the term “reality television” no longer seems appropriate. Perhaps “mobile” reality or “broadcast” reality would be more appropriate?

Reality TV has a firm grip on modern culture

Reality television is often considered the lowest form of television entertainment. But it really is an unstoppable force with a massive influence on society. When British polling firm Into the Blue asked 1,000 16-year-olds “what would you like to do as a career?” 56% said “become a celebrity”, with nearly a quarter hoping to fulfill their ambitions through a reality TV show. Additionally, 70% of the population has publicly stated that they watch reality TV (note the phrase “recorded”). And don’t forget that the leader of the free world, President Trump, pretty much owes his last gig to his appearances on The Apprentice.

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that reality TV has a strong hold on modern culture, perhaps more so than any other art form. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he changed the world… surely that makes him legit?

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