Publicized Intimacies on Reality Television: An Analysis of Voyeuristic Content and Its Contribution to the Appeal of Reality Programming

By Baruh, Lemi | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Publicized Intimacies on Reality Television: An Analysis of Voyeuristic Content and Its Contribution to the Appeal of Reality Programming


Baruh, Lemi, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Accounts of the rising popularity of reality television cite voyeurism as an important reason for its success among viewers. Several studies suggest that television viewers themselves perceive reality programs to be both exhibitionistic and voyeuristic (Hill, 2005), and acknowledge that they are drawn to this voyeuristic component of reality programs (Johnson-Woods, 2002). Similarly, studies focusing on the psychological appeal of reality television provide preliminary empirical evidence regarding the positive association between the tendency to use media for voyeuristic purposes and the consumption of reality programs (Nabi, Biely, Morgan & Stitt; 2003; Nabi, Stitt, Halford & Finnerty, 2006; Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2007).

However, an important flaw in this assumption regarding the voyeuristic appeal of reality television is that not all reality programs are created equal. Reality television is a catchall phrase alluding to many different formats (Brenton & Cohen, 2003; Dovey, 2000). Hence, developing a coherent understanding of reality programs' voyeuristic appeal requires the identification of programming attributes that accommodate television viewers' voyeurism. In order to address this need, a content analysis and a survey were used in conjunction with each other to identify content features that may contribute to the voyeuristic appeal of reality programs. First, informed by concepts related to accessibility of information and private behavior, the content analysis counted the presence of programming features that may add to a program's voyeuristic appeal. Then, the results from the content analysis were used to weight the survey data investigating the association between voyeurism and reality television consumption to identify the content features that contribute to a reality program's voyeuristic appeal.

Voyeuristic Appeal of Reality TV

Dimensions of Voyeuristic Tendencies

The construct of voyeurism adopted in this article differs from the conceptualization of voyeurism utilized in the psychiatric domain, which defines voyeurism as a psychopathological condition characterized by becoming sexually aroused from the covert observation of others while they have sex, or are nude (Freund, Watson & Rienzo, 1988). Rather than emphasizing sexual deviance, recent accounts of contemporary culture conceptualize voyeurism as a common (and not solely sexual) pleasure derived from access to private details (Metzl, 2004). Accordingly, partly because of electronic media, curious peeking into the private lives of others has become a defining characteristic of contemporary society (Calvert, 2004).

Despite growing interest in non-pathological voyeurism, there is very little research exploring its psychological dimensions (Rye & Meaney, 2007). The construct of voyeurism as a common form of guilty pleasure points to several important dimensions of a typical individual's voyeuristic tendencies. First, in contrast to the covert nature of pathological voyeurism, "normal" voyeurism is satisfied through more acceptable and consensual forms such as films, gossip news and/or webcams (Koskela, 2004; Ytreberg, 2002). Second, as evidenced by the high number of government and private sector employees browsing personal information just for sport--Sullivan (2008) labels this data voyeurism--the normal voyeur is opportunistic, and the act of looking or listening can be considered an end in itself. Third, not all forms of observation will be satisfactory: the appeal of voyeurism is the pleasure derived from learning about what is typically forbidden or private (Calvert, 2004; Metzl, 2004).

The Appeal of Reality TV for the "Normal" Voyeur

A central tenet of the Uses and Gratifications perspective is that audience members actively engage in content selection in order to fulfill certain needs (Katz, Blumler & Gurevitch, 1974). If so, to the extent that non-pathological voyeurism is defined as an opportunistic tendency to derive pleasure from learning about others' private details, the question is whether, and to what extent reality programs can accommodate this form of voyeurism. …

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