Spare a thought for your favourite reality TV stars. They seem like they have the best life, don’t they? Constant partying, free clothes, holidays, cars…all the trappings of the consumer lifestyle! But they are in fact just puppets. The likely scenario is that they have been selected and manipulated by television producers to satisfy the public’s appetite at this moment in time and before they know it, there will be a new, different and ‘better’ celebrity being offered up in their place faster than you can say ‘spray tan’. Our research explores the processes that make this all happen and helps understand why we as a consuming public LOVE reality TV.

Our attention was on ‘structured reality TV’. There are countless examples of this, but the epitome of structured reality TV is of course, Keeping Up With The Kardashians. This genre is an intriguing hybrid of dramatization and real life. We all know that the scenes are scripted or at least ‘directed’ in order to create a deliberate dramatic narrative. We also know that the events portrayed are to some extent based on what is really going on in the stars’ lives. So we have bought-in to the paradox, we play along because it wouldn’t be as entertaining if we had to wait for the action to actually happen (the problem with Big Brother) but we also wouldn’t find it as compelling if we knew it was fiction (like with soap operas). Thus, structured reality suits us rather well as an audience.

Three theories were constructed into a framework that presents the idea of reality TV stars as preconceived, designed and packaged products. The three theories: Tournaments of Ritual, Spectacle, and Transformative Performances combine to tell us that

  1. we have an interest in the competitive aspect of reality TV (Tournaments of Ritual),
  2. we like certain elements of that reality to be exaggerated or stylised (Spectacle), and
  3. we rely on stereotyping and cultural hallmarks to help us understand the environment (Transformative Performances).

It’s funny, when you see how these theories combine to tell us why we love reality TV so much it is obvious why The Hunger Games franchise is so successful with modern readers (and viewers), as it uses all these elements in the building of its storyline.

Some fascinating things emerge to demonstrate what structured reality TV says about society today, why we enjoy watching it so much, and why their stars become so famous, so quickly. Structured reality TV is successful because we know that the cast is broadly in control of the storylines, but consumption of the events portrayed is not restricted to watching the TV shows. We can get an intimate and vivid experience by engaging with these people on social media and seeing them discussed in gossip columns outside the limitations of the actual show. This social media interaction in practice takes the place of voting. Competitions like Big Brother and X-Factor are successful based on the audience’s ability to influence the outcomes of the participants through voting, structured reality TV takes this one stage further by embedding the sensation of voting within the normal rhythms of social activity for the consuming public: the more popular they are on social media, the more famous they become.

What really sets the genre apart is how the stylised, exaggerated and idealistic world portrayed on TV is dragged into reality by the stars being accessible (digitally at least) real people. This bridges the gap for the viewers between aspiring to be like the stylised ‘characters’ on the shows and how acceptable it is to try to fulfil the aspiration. In practice it simply seems more achievable because people may think you were mad to aspire to live your life like James Bond because he is a fictional character and he exists in an augmented reality, but we allow the trick to be played on us when we see Kim Kardashian on TV knowing that she is not a fictional character and therefore assume that the augmented reality we see represented on TV is in fact real and something that is possible to aspire towards. For example, it is notable that people from Essex have become more like people from Essex since ‘TOWIE’ was broadcast as they have aspired to be like the ‘real’ Essex residents portrayed in the show, which is about the place they already live … Inception moment alert!

The really neat trick the producers play is that because they have this rich resource from which they can choose the next direction they will take (i.e. our online activity as an audience), all they need to do is steer the ‘drama’ in the direction we, the public, want it to go in. And hey presto! We feel like we get exactly what we want and we adore the next big reality TV star until their appeal has worn off. But have no fear; the clever producers will already be lining-up the next show, with the next big star with their catchphrases, idiosyncrasies and fashion sense that will captivate us once more!

You can also read Andrew’s piece with Kevin O’Gorman in The Conversation, where they apply the framework from their JMM article to the rise of Donald Trump – How Donald Trump turned the presidency into greatest reality TV show on Earth.

Read the original research article: Thompson, A., Stringfellow, L., Maclean, M., MacLaren, A. & O’Gorman, K. (2015). Puppets of necessity? Celebritisation in structured reality television. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(5-6), 478-501.

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, unless otherwise stated. Third party materials remain the copyright of the original rightsholder.

Andrew MacLaren

Andrew MacLaren

Dr Andrew MacLaren is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Heriot-Watt University. His main research interests focus on the service industry. His outlook is international and he works throughout Europe, the USA, the Middle East, India and China. He has published widely in the field on multiple topics, contributing in the domains of theory, method and industry practice.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.