Reality television is often seen as the wasteland of television. Our time period has been called by some the Second Golden Age of Television, as drama and comedy writers alike seem to push creative and genre limits in order to pursue something that may well be art. But for every Mad Men, there's a Keeping Up with the Kardashians; for every Breaking Bad, there's a Here Comes Honey Boo Boo; for every Modern Family, there's a Real Housewives franchise (five series, not counting the international iterations, and counting!).
As the number of channels on the dial increased, executives and producers needed to fill the air with something and, finding that reruns weren't cutting it, needed something else cheap to take up air time - hence reality television. Even TV Land has reality television shows on its slate these days. Now, one anthropologist argues that may not be a bad thing, and that reality television is actually making us smarter.
Grant McCracken writes that reality TV is the logical endpoint of television. When the medium was first brought into people's homes in the 1950s, creative and executives were faced with a problem. For many people touched by the new technology, English was not their first language and American culture was still mysterious. So the early solution to the problem was to use genre conventions. If a watcher knew that they were watching a "cop show" or a western, they could settle in for the ride.
But audiences alike became savvier, able to tell the twists and turns coming before they occurred. And writers became more intelligent too. As audiences became increasingly bored by genre templates, writers broke out of the mold, creating genre-bending shows like Soap and, later, Lost. But, even though shows became more complex, they still bored audiences because they were still hampered by creating a narrative.
McCracken says that, because reality TV is not straight out of genre, it is inherently unpredictable and spontaneous. And, even though producers manipulate situations, no one quite knows where episodes will end up.
He says that reality TV is making audiences into anthropologists. For example, by watching Project Runway, McCracken develops an understanding of garment making, and why the judges vote in the way that they do. Shark Tank similarly creates budding entrepreneurs, helping them gain insight into the difference between a product and a plan. Because the worlds are ostensibly real, people understand them more.
McCracken likens watching reality TV to ethnographies. Ethnographies are case reports collected by anthropologists who observe cultures without being part of them. The idea is that no one can successfully lie for a sustained amount of time, so the truth will come out. So, he says, even though the Kardashian family and producers try to maintain appearances, McCracken says that we the audience will see into their souls - and that we're all better for it.