Reality of Reality Shows

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Features  •  January 2011 PDF Print E-mail

The importance of entertainment as a central cultural phenomenon cannot be overlooked since it serves as an indicator of larger cultural trends. Media is considered to be one of the most influential entertainment tools effectively utilizing its many genres. It is interesting to note that while particular entertainment preferences guide our choices influenced by cultural conditioning, appeal of some entertainment genre transcends cultural barriers. Reality television is one such genre of entertainment that has claimed universal appeal in the global media.

Reality television is characterized by programming in which ordinary people are featured encountering dramatic or unusual situations, supposedly while performing actual everyday tasks. The genre is not new and has existed of long in the form of game shows, but in the last decade it has been expanded to include a variety of topics, including drama, talent hunt, search for love, adventurous stunts, celebrity lifestyles, highlighting a cause, and crime etc. Reality television is not very ‘real’ in the sense that it employs sensationalism to attract viewership and boost ratings. Sometimes, they are scripted but an illusion of reality is created through editing. Shows based on lives of showbiz celebrities are mostly popular because of the element of glamour.

In India, the more popular reality shows entice viewers with gossip masala. In some Indian reality shows, a heightened sense of sensational drama is achieved by having the participants behave in an exaggerated manner often considered scandalous and challenging to social etiquette. Some other reality shows are based on contests for the purpose of talent hunt, especially in music-related fields which has a huge market in India. To better understand the popularity of this genre in India, an introduction of some Indian reality shows might be helpful.

Many reality shows in India are inspired by shows from abroad, again highlighting the universal appeal of the topics explored. Big Brother inspired the production of the Indian version, Big Boss; Kaun Banega Crorepati is inspired from Who Wants to be a Millionaire; Sach Ka Saamna from Moment Of Truth, and Indian Idol and Chotay Ustaad – which features child singers – from the UK Pop Idol and American Idol. Among music programs, Indian Idol has served as a big platform for many budding singers. India’s Got Talent, is the Indian version of the ‘Got Talent’ series. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, a competition of standup comedians, is a very successful comedy reality show on Indian television, inspired by the American program, ‘Who’s Line is it, Anyway’? Another ‘hunt for love’ show MTVsplitvilla, is based on the concept of the American dating game show, The Bachelor in which a rich bachelor finds the ultimate girl of his dreams by choosing from a group of girls through a process of grueling tests and elimination. Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa is the Indian version of BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’; Kaun Banega Crorepati is the Indian version of  the UK game show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ This show combines the celebrity aspect of reality genre featuring the legendary star, Amitabh Bachhan. This is also the show on which the 2009 blockbuster film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire” was based, creating a unique and highly successful reality film. Another important reality show called Haath se Haath Mila, (Let’s Join Hands) is an influential show highlighting the importance of community service by creating awareness about HIV/AIDS in India and features celebrities from Bollywood.

A quick glance on reality show format and their focus shows that their popularity stems from their perceived closeness to our own dreams and aspirations. The common thread that runs through most reality shows is their popular appeal in terms of the human aspect of sharing achievements, heartbreak, joys and tears in a quest for success. While the talent-hunt shows provide a useful platform for showcasing unexplored talent and to give them opportunities, their greater appeal also lies in the public’s own desire to see ordinary people change their destinies and achieve their dreams. In others, where contestants strive to find their dream partner, heartbreak and high drama entails through much of the series. The concept of making the contestants go through sometimes humiliating experiences to avoid elimination teaches values that the society does not approve of at large. At the same time, the viewers and men in these Indian reality shows have a fun time at the expense of the participants, while the girls end up demeaning themselves through catfights and obscenity. Feminists have been up in arms against reality shows that show women as sex objects, to no avail.

Another trend in the West which is still under consideration in India, is the reality show production of political figures as stars. Sarah Palin’s Alaska has faced strong criticism in the U.S. media, and a Time Magazine report questioned the motive of the show as being “the world’s most expensive political ad” at $1 million per episode, produced free of charge. In India, though no reality show has been made exclusively for a politician as yet, people with political links have occasionally appeared on such shows; Sanjay Nirupam was a participant in Bigg Boss, and Rahul Mahajan has featured in several reality shows.

Another important aspect of reality show production is its strong marketing value. Since people tend to identify and relate with participants of reality shows on various levels, there is a greater chance of being influenced by their preferences.  Sometimes reality shows feature use of popular brands to boost their own profits. These brands pay high rates for advertisement. This is known as product placement. It is a form of advertisement where branded goods are casually placed in the story line. An advertisement is accepted as having a great impact on minors too, whether it is the decision of purchasing toys or imitating their favorite character’s actions. That makes it a big responsibility for the marketing agencies. The negative influence of smoking by lead actors is known to have influenced minors and adults alike.

In the U.S., an example of embedded marketing includes ‘Extreme Makeover’, which promotes sponsors like Sears and Ford. The designers of the program executing the makeovers are often shown shopping at Sears and fitting Kenmore appliances. The Indian show Haath se Haath Mila also uses placement ads to promote its message. Film clips of the stars supporting the cause and appearing on the show are used as embedded marketing tools to draw viewership and enhance profits. A few examples of product placement in Indian movies include Coke in ‘Taal’, Maruti Swift in ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ and Calvin Klein in ‘Salaam Namaste’.

Reality television is an indispensable tool of entertainment today. Unfortunately, many of these shows focus on profits and don’t mind promoting negative messages to boost viewership. What is actually required of them is more focus on creating awareness to improve perceptions of the society at large in a productive manner instead of providing meaningless or detrimental entertainment. 

Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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