The Politics of Reality Television: Global Perspectives

By Marwan M. Kraidy; Katherine Sender | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
Making populations appear

Nick Couldry


Introduction

Reality TV is more than just a series of texts or generic variations. At the very least, reality TV needs to be understood as a form whereby objects, mechanisms of representation, and people (producers, participants, audiences) are arranged so as to sustain claims – plausible at some level – that social “reality” is presented through these means. This social form (in many varieties) has persisted for nearly two decades across an ever-expanding range of countries. Five years ago, the death of reality TV was widely predicted, yet we are now debating its political implications on a global scale. This persistence is not guaranteed into the future, but so far it has surprised many, and so too needs explanation. If “reality production” proves an enduring social form in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century media – even as media interfaces undergo huge transformation – then we need to understand why.

Dominant so far have been explanations that prioritize economic factors and one type of political factor (neoliberalism and/or biopolitics). While I will acknowledge those explanations’ importance, I will link them to wider dynamics. We need here to separate long-term factors from shorter-term, more “local” (and more obviously contingent) factors. My wider aim will be to formulate ways of thinking about the phenomenon of reality TV that facilitate international comparative research. In so doing, I will extend aspects of my earlier analysis of how media rituals contribute to media’s role in the development of modernity.1


Long-term contexts for interpreting reality TV

Many analysts dismiss the “reality” claims of reality TV, as if the word “reality” was here just a dead metaphor. Of course audiences discount such claims, if made explicitly. But that doesn’t mean audiences (any more than marketers) treat these claims to “reality” as trivial. As research by Bev Skeggs, Helen Wood and Nancy Thumim and even more recently by Katherine Sender brings out,2 whether or not people say they discount such “reality” claims does not affect whether they act on them, for example, by treating reality shows as sources of

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