Reality Television Programming and Diverging Gratifications: The Influence of Content on Gratifications Obtained

By Barton, Kristin M. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Reality Television Programming and Diverging Gratifications: The Influence of Content on Gratifications Obtained


Barton, Kristin M., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Within the realm of the contemporary television landscape, reality-based television is a force that has changed the television industry as well as the culture that surrounds it. Although some argument still exists regarding the exact nature and criteria for reality television, its impact is nothing short of phenomenal. For example, four of the top five prime-time broadcast TV programs for 2006 were reality-based programs (Zappia, 2006), out performing perennial powerhouse shows such as CSI, Desperate Housewives, and Law & Order. Additionally, Nielsen ratings show that for the week of October 29, 2007, Dancing With the Stars held two of the top three spots with their Monday and Tuesday airings (Nielsen Media Research, 2007). In fact, reality television has become so popular that recent statistics indicate, "there are now more people applying to The Real World each year than to Harvard" (Andrejevic, 2003). These facts raise several questions that media scholars have yet to address directly: What do these shows provide that traditional television programming does not? Why are these shows able to draw in viewers better than longstanding, established comedy and drama programs? Why is everyone watching so much reality-based television?

This study examined these questions to gain a better understanding the appeal of this programming has for viewers. An exploration of the uses and gratifications of competition-based reality programming was used to determine what satisfaction viewers get from these shows and their motivations for watching. With broadcast and cable networks scrambling to develop reality-based programming faster than ever, a better understanding of viewers' gratifications sought and obtained from this genre will have practical implications for the television industry as well as produce a better understanding of audiences' uses of television in fulfilling psychological needs.

Literature Review

Many researchers have examined reality-based programming in an attempt to understand its appeal for viewers. For example, Nabi, Biely, Morgan, and Stitt (2003) analyzed the psychological appeals reality television has to offer. Barton and Raney (2002) employed disposition theory to examine viewer enjoyment. Oliver (1996) examined the depiction of race in reality-based crime dramas. One area where the field of reality programming research is still lacking is in the fundamental understanding of viewers' motivations for watching these programs. Certainly the level at which these shows are created by the networks and consumed by audiences is an indication that they provide something other genres cannot or do not.

The uses and gratifications approach to communication research examines media effects from the perspective, "ask not what media do to people, but ask what people do with media" (Blumler & Katz, 1974). This is the core of the uses and gratifications approach: how audience members use the mass media, and what gratifications they receive in return. Since Blumler and Katz's work, many studies have been conducted in support of this idea, several of which predate the formal conceptualization of the approach.

One early study that examined gratifications sought was Lasswell's (1948) study of why people attend to media. Lasswell identified three functions of media: surveillance of environment, correlation of events, and transmission of social heritage.

Although future research identified many more uses, this initial identification illuminated that there were numerous reasons to explain why viewers attend to one medium over another. These explanations have been updated and revised several times (McQuail, Blumler, & Brown, 1972; Wright, 1960), and the list continues to expand as new media and genres of programming emerge.

In light of these facts, there still existed a problem distinguishing between what media consumers were seeking and what consumers were actually receiving.

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