What can we learn from watching reality TV? In this chapter, I consider the role of information within our experience of popular factual television. In its early incarnation, reality programming was often categorised as infotainment precisely because programmes such as Cops or 999 blurred boundaries between information and entertainment. Contemporary reality formats such as American Idol or Big Brother are closely associated with light entertainment genres such as talentshows or gameshows, and therefore retain few links with traditional infotainment series. But there are other reality formats that contain informative elements within an entertainment frame. In particular, lifestyle programming offers advice and tips on how to makeover your home, relationship, business, health and personal well-being. Infotainment and lifestyle programmes, in different ways, contain an informative address to the viewer. These reality programmes encourage audiences to learn about first aid, or decorating, whilst at the same time entertaining audiences with dramatic stories of rescue operations, or revelatory stories of DIY makeovers. We can call the informative elements in such reality programmes 'learning opportunities', as viewers have the opportunity to learn from the advice given in the programmes, but may choose not to take up or act on such advice. What follows in the rest of this chapter is an exploration of different types of learning in reality programming, and the way audiences make sense of information in popular factual television.
The suggestion that we can learn from watching reality TV is not common to discussion of the genre overall. The topics that dominate debate about reality TV in the media mainly refer to issues such as voyeurism, or quality standards (see Chapters 1 and 2). However, the first wave of reality programming in the late 1980s in America contained a range of programmes that were all, in one way or another, about information (see