Determining dimensions of reality: a concept mapping of the reality TV landscape.

Author:Nabi, Robin L.
 
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The increased presence of reality-based programming across the television landscape has generated not only millions of dedicated viewers but also waves of scholarly interest in recent years. Such interest comes from a range of perspectives, including empirical investigations based on contemporary media effects theories (e.g., Kooistra, Mahoney, & Westervelt, 1998; Nabi, Biely, Morgan, & Stitt, 2003; Oliver, 1994) and more cultural, qualitative analyses (see Fishman & Cavender, 1998, and Murray & Ouellette, 2004). This growing body of research has generally taken one of two tacks: analysis of individual programs, like Big Brother (e.g., Couldry, 2002; Hill, 2002; Jones, 2003), Survivor (e.g., Haralovich & Trosset, 2004; LeBesco, 2004; Schapiro, 2002), or The Real World (e.g., Kraszewski, 2004), or consideration of the emerging genre as a whole (e.g., Nabi et al., 2003; Reiss & Wiltz, 2004). However, as the number of reality programs has proliferated, a new focus on subgenres within reality TV has emerged. Reality crime shows, like Cops and America's Most Wanted, have received the most attention (e.g., Cavender & Bond-Maupin, 1993; Cavender & Fishman, 1998; Eschholz, Blackwell, Gertz, & Chiricos, 2002; Oliver, 1994; Oliver & Armstrong, 1995, 1998), though reference to other categories, such as gamedocs (e.g., Survivor), dating (e.g., the Bachelor), and makeover/lifestyle programs (e.g., A Wedding Story), are becoming more common (e.g., Couldry, 2004; Everett, 2004).

Although the interest in examining categories of reality TV programs reflects the development of both the programming style and related research, the nature of this research deserves more careful attention as it has implications for the theoretical scope and validity of the conclusions that might be drawn. For example, when lumping a range of reality programming together under the auspices of studying "reality TV," the implication is that all reality programs share some common features or themes that, regardless of the particular program, will explain why they are watched or the effects such viewing might have on perceptions of society. However, apart from "reality," which itself is not clearly defined, it is not obvious what unifying theme justifies the massing together of such diverse programs as Cops, American Idol, and The Real World.

Particularly troublesome for the study of reality TV subgenres is that scholars appear to group programs based on personal impressions of similarity rather than on either clearly defined program characteristics or, alternatively, viewers' subjective perceptions of common themes. Consequently, this type of inquiry is left vulnerable to inconsistency across studies, threatening comparability of research findings and, thus, the creation of a coherent knowledge base. Yet by exploring the systematic themes that might exist in the vast array of reality programming, researchers would be well-situated to consider the effects of viewing such programming on a range of theoretically relevant outcomes, including social reality beliefs and perceived norms as per cultivation theory (see Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002), behavioral enactment as central to social cognitive theory (see Bandura, 2002), construct priming (Roskos-Ewoldsen, Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Carpentier, 2002), third-person effects (Perloff, 2002), and the like. This, in turn, would expand the range of theoretically based research on this still developing media phenomenon, allowing for a richer understanding of the processing and effects of this type of programming.

The purpose of this research, then, is to identify the most salient themes viewers perceive across reality-based programming, and to the extent possible, to identify reality TV subgenres and their defining attributes. In doing so, researchers may be better positioned to both study the themes most likely to be linked to theoretically driven, perception-based effects and bolster the methodological soundness of research on subgenres of reality TV by offering a coherent rationale for creating such groupings free of researcher idiosyncrasy.

The Genre (and Subgenres) of Reality-Based TV

Although people might have a sense of the programs that fall into the category of reality television, there is no clear industry standard or definition of the genre. With the range of various incarnations in mind, Nabi et al. (2003) offered the following definition of reality TV: "programs that film real people as they live out events in their lives, contrived or otherwise, as they occur" (p. 304). They further identify several key elements that characterize such programs: (a) people portraying themselves, (b) filmed at least in part in their living or working environment rather than on a set, (c) without a script, (d) with events placed in a narrative context, (e) for the primary purpose of viewer entertainment. In essence, reality programs are marked by ordinary people engaged in unscripted action and interaction.

Within this subset of television programming, there are arguably a number of subgenres. Although there has been no systematic attempt at developing a typology of reality programs, some efforts to identify subgenres are in evidence. For example, Couldry (2004) refers to gamedocs, or programs that blend qualities of documentaries and game shows, and are further characterized by their social processes. Everett (2004) focuses on what she terms "transformation TV" (p. 160), her label for the disparate group of home improvement TV programs like Trading Spaces and While You Were Out, which she contrasts with so-called "voyeur programs," like The Real World, Survivor, and Big Brother (see Poniewozik, 2000).

Based on their assessment of the range of reality programming, Ouellette and Murray (2004) identified six subgenres: gamedocs (e.g., Survivor, Fear Factor), dating programs (e.g., Joe Millionaire, Blind Date), makeover/lifestyle (e.g., A Wedding Story, Extreme Makeover), docusoaps (e.g., The Real World, Sorority Life), court programs (e.g., Judge Judy), and reality sitcoms (e.g., The Osbournes), along with miscellaneous other programs featuring celebrities (e.g., Celebrity Boxing). Similarly, Nabi, Stitt, Halford, and Finnerty (2006) identified six subgenres based on an exploratory factor analysis of the viewing frequency of 12 reality-based programs: romance (The Bachelor), crime (e.g., Cops), informational (e.g., Trading Spaces), reality-drama (The Real World), competition/game (e.g., Survivor), and talent (e.g., American Idol). These groupings are not unlike categories identified from an industry perspective, including talent and survival competitions, personal makeover, home makeover, get-rich-quick schemes, docudramas, and "Mr. Right" programs (Fitzgerald, 2003b).

While on their face these typologies have merit with several overlapping categories, including dating, game/competition, and drama/soaps, they suffer from notable limitations. First, the typologies, such as they are, fail to capture the full range of reality programming. Ouellette and Murray (2004) overlook crime dramas and talent programs whereas Nabi et al. (2006) omit makeover programs. In fairness, new programs are developed every season so typologies developed in one year might be out of date the next. Thus, this limitation may be easily overcome, but it does speak to the idiosyncratic nature of these endeavors.

Second, the current typologies do not articulate the qualities or program characteristics that define each category. What, for example, would qualify as a "talent" program? Clearly, American Idol, in which singers compete for a recording contract, would. But would The Apprentice, in which candidates compete in a series of business tasks to win a job with Donald Trump? Ouellette and Murray (2004) offer no insight on this matter. While Nabi et al. (2006) rely on viewing frequency for category development, making the assumption that viewers may choose to watch programs with similar characteristics, this sort of method is imprecise given the host of reasons why people watch (or don't watch) what they do, including work or family commitments, viewing patterns of other household members, and so forth.

This feeds into a third and larger concern: What of programs that might straddle two or more categories? There are numerous examples. Survivor, the ultimate gamedoc, might also be considered a docusoap, given the intricate relational bonds that shift over the course of the season (see Haralovich & Trosser, 2004, and Schapiro, 2002). The Bachelorette revolves around dating, but there is a strong element of competition as suitors vie for a rose, the signal they will move on to the next round of evaluation. Indeed, Jagodozinki (2003) suggests reality game shows include not just Survivor and The Amazing Race, but also Temptation Island and Love Cruise. Further, Dhoest (2005) refers to The Osbournes as a docusoap whereas Ouellette and Murray (2004) categorize it as a docusitcom. Additional examples are readily identified. American Idol is a competition program based primarily on vocal talent just as The Swan is a makeover program with an element of competition to see which "ugly duckling" has transformed most dramatically. Further, Cops focuses on crime, but it is also informative as to police procedure just as Trading Spaces is informative about home decoration.

So, how might one handle these challenges to creating a typology for reality TV? One strategy is to continue to allow scholars to develop their own and look for points of cohesion among them--not the most efficient strategy to be sure. A second more viable approach might be to focus not on the groups the programs might fall into but rather to identify the dimensions that might underlie the wide range of current reality TV programs. Indeed, some passing references to this sort of approach exist in the literature. In her essay pointing out the difficulties that may...

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