I've always been something of a closeted reality television fan. When asked about my favourite TV shows I'll rarely cop to watching the reality programs I pour over, preferring to highlight my more highbrow viewing interests. However I've always watched reality television, starting with my childhood obsessions with Canadian Idol and America's Next Top Model, continuing onto my current guilty pleasures such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Despite being a recurring trend throughout my TV watching life, I've always felt at least mildly ashamed of my reality show habit.
In North America at least, reality television is often looked down on as a shameful indulgence that shamelessly panders to the lowest common denominator. But why is watching reality shows something to feel bad about? Canadian and American TV plays host to hundreds of (debateably) unscripted programs.
Reality shows cover a wide range of different genres, which are targeted at almost every possible potential audience -- from performance-based reality television to cooking competition shows to even the unlikely superstar of reality TV, crab-fishing chronicle Deadliest Catch. Dozens more of these shows are commissioned every year and viewership is on the rise. If reality programs are so popular among so many different demographics, why is the concept of reality still something we're supposed to balk at?
It is not this way everywhere. I have spent the last year living in England where reality television is embraced much more than it is on this side of the pond. In 2015, all 10 of the top 10 most watched TV programs of the year in the UK were episodes of reality television programs. 7 of the episodes from that list came from baking competition show The Great British Bake Off, with the top 10 being rounded out with episodes of Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing, the UK's answer to Dancing With the Stars.
I was in the UK when the finale of the latest season of The Great British Bake Off was aired, which would become the most watched TV program of the year. It gained over 15 million viewers, although it truly felt like everyone in the country was watching.
I feel why reality shows are viewed so highly, and so positively in the UK is because they engender a sense of community.
I was once staying with some extended family in England while Bake-Off was on, and it was something the whole family, children and adults, were invested in. My friends at university in England also introduced me to the popular program Love Island, a reality show where singles are sent to a villa in Spain with the goal of forming the strongest couple. The most recent series of Love Island just finished, but during the show's 6-week run there was a new episode every day. While I was still at university my friends and I would gather most days to watch it together, and since I've been back in Canada for the summer I've been keeping up with the show online and chatting with my friends about it hundreds of miles away.
Reality TV is not inherently shameful there because it is most often watched with other people or discussed among groups.
Because reality television is centred around real people, the stakes are seemingly higher and it is easy to rally around. While there are certainly smuttier reality shows on the market, and I will never be proud watching the Kardashians, reality, as a genre, is not bad.
There are those who argue that reality shows are an affront to culture, but if it is something that is enjoyable and brings people together, I would argue it is not something we should feel guilty about. In today's divided world we should be looking for more things to unite people, which is why reality TV should be brought into the open.
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