In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reality Television

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Communication Reality Television
Laurie Ouellette
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0057


Reality television, which can be broadly defined as unscripted entertainment programming, has existed since the emergence of television in the late 1940s. Hidden-camera programs, daytime talk shows featuring ordinary people as guests, and cop shows involving real police officers are some early strands of reality television in the United States and Europe. The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a surge of prime-time reality formats that combined the conventions of dramatic entertainment and documentary, including “docu-soaps,” reality sitcoms, adventure games, and makeover programs. Because of their cost efficiency and adaptability, these formats and their cultural offspring have become a staple of television production across the globe. On broadcast and specialized cable channels, ordinary people provide the raw material for a seemingly unstoppable wave of unscripted entertainment that trades on a combination of authenticity and spectacle. Television’s investment in the “real” has also triggered a wave of scholarship concerned with the ethical, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of entertainment built around nonactors and real-life situations with unpredictable outcomes. Debates about reality television’s commercialism, voyeurism, and cost-cutting techniques soon emerged, as have questions about reality television’s contrived settings and staged conventions. Because reality entertainment has overtaken less profitable forms of news and information on television, scholars have pondered its relationship to a “post-documentary” culture and an increasingly privatized civic landscape. Because reality television has concurrently served as a testing ground for integrated marketing, branding, and audience participation across new media platforms, including cell phones and computers, other scholars have focused on its place in a rapidly changing media environment. Debates over whether viewer interactivity is democratic or exploitative cut across the literature, as do questions about the new forms of ordinary celebrity and “fifteen minutes of fame” encouraged—and commodified—by reality television. What unites the relatively new discussion is an attempt to situate the forms, meanings, and stakes of unscripted television entertainment within the intersecting institutional, cultural, and social contexts in which it has taken hold.

General Overviews

Scholars bring interdisciplinary approaches to the study of reality television. Scholarly literature draws from film and television studies, media studies, political economy, and social and cultural theory to address reality television from multiple methodological and theoretical vantage points. Several books provide useful starting points for the study of reality television. Because reality entertainment only emerged as a major strand of global television in the past fifteen years, this literature is fairly new and continually evolving. Edited collections offering a range of conceptual, historical, methodological, and political economic frameworks on reality television have been particularly influential in defining what is still an emerging field of study. Particularly helpful anthologies include Friedman 2002, Holmes and Jermyn 2004, and Murray and Ouellette 2009. The earliest book-length treatments of reality television also established an agenda for scholarly inquiry and future research. Biressi and Nunn 2005 situates reality television’s conventions within a history of documentary and visual culture. Andrejevic 2003 places reality entertainment within the interactive capitalist economy and theorizes its conventions in relation to critical theories of voyeurism and surveillance. Hill 2005 explores how audiences understand the hybrid conventions and truth claims of reality programs.

  • Andrejevic, Mark. 2003. Reality TV: The work of being watched. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Focusing on Big Brother, a global program that set the template for many reality shows, Andrejevic shows how “watching and being watched” manipulates unconscious psychic desires and connects viewers to new forms of marketing and corporate surveillance. The book also critiques the interactivity (such as voting via cell phone) associated with shows such as Big Brother, arguing that profit-making threatens any meaningful connection between participation in television and political democracy.

  • Biressi, Anita, and Heather Nunn. 2005. Reality TV: Realism and revelation. London: Wallflower.

    This book examines reality television’s claims to authenticity and truth. Focusing on the hybrid conventions of the shows and putting reality television into a larger history of film and television, the authors show that what appears as spontaneous reality is shaped by the genre’s entertaining twist on established visual conventions of realism and surveillance.

  • Friedman, James, ed. 2002. Reality squared: Televisual discourse on the real. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    The first scholarly treatment of reality entertainment, this edited collection examines the history of unscripted television formats and the changing conventions of liveness, handheld camera footage, and “real” events covered 24/7 by television cameras. Anticipating the explosion of prime-time reality entertainment since it was published, the book shows how unscripted television combines the conventions of spectacle, documentary, political structures (such as courtrooms), and therapy.

  • Hill, Annette. 2005. Reality TV: Factual entertainment and reality audiences. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203337158

    This book offers an overview of reality television’s conventions, with a focus on the British context. Arguing that understandings of the real are culturally shaped, the author presents qualitative and quantitative research on how audiences evaluate the authenticity of reality programs and how they judge the performance of ordinary people on television.

  • Holmes, Su, and Deborah Jermyn, eds. 2004. Understanding reality television. London: Routledge.

    This collection examines the aesthetics and cultural politics of prime-time reality television from a range of critical, sociological, and philosophical perspectives. Essays discuss the cultural merger of documentary and fiction, the representation of “real” people and social groups, and the active audience presumed by reality entertainment programming.

  • Murray, Susan, and Laurie Ouellette, eds. 2009. Reality TV: Remaking television culture. 2d ed. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    This collection argues that reality television is remaking television culture and attributes the shift in part to changes in the political economy of television. Several essays examine the industry’s turn to cost-cutting production styles (including the avoidance of paid talent and unionized writers) and the integration of advertising into content and website participation. Other essays examine the hybrid conventions and representational politics of reality formats and situate waves of reality television within changing sociopolitical contexts, from the 1950s to the present.

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