Reality television programming and diverging gratifications: the influence of content on gratifications obtained.

Author:Barton, Kristin M.

Within the realm of the contemporary television landscape, reality-based television is a force that has changed the television industry as well as the culture that surrounds it. Although some argument still exists regarding the exact nature and criteria for reality television, its impact is nothing short of phenomenal. For example, four of the top five prime-time broadcast TV programs for 2006 were reality-based programs (Zappia, 2006), out performing perennial powerhouse shows such as CSI, Desperate Housewives, and Law & Order. Additionally, Nielsen ratings show that for the week of October 29, 2007, Dancing With the Stars held two of the top three spots with their Monday and Tuesday airings (Nielsen Media Research, 2007). In fact, reality television has become so popular that recent statistics indicate, "there are now more people applying to The Real World each year than to Harvard" (Andrejevic, 2003). These facts raise several questions that media scholars have yet to address directly: What do these shows provide that traditional television programming does not? Why are these shows able to draw in viewers better than longstanding, established comedy and drama programs? Why is everyone watching so much reality-based television?

This study examined these questions to gain a better understanding the appeal of this programming has for viewers. An exploration of the uses and gratifications of competition-based reality programming was used to determine what satisfaction viewers get from these shows and their motivations for watching. With broadcast and cable networks scrambling to develop reality-based programming faster than ever, a better understanding of viewers' gratifications sought and obtained from this genre will have practical implications for the television industry as well as produce a better understanding of audiences' uses of television in fulfilling psychological needs.

Literature Review

Many researchers have examined reality-based programming in an attempt to understand its appeal for viewers. For example, Nabi, Biely, Morgan, and Stitt (2003) analyzed the psychological appeals reality television has to offer. Barton and Raney (2002) employed disposition theory to examine viewer enjoyment. Oliver (1996) examined the depiction of race in reality-based crime dramas. One area where the field of reality programming research is still lacking is in the fundamental understanding of viewers' motivations for watching these programs. Certainly the level at which these shows are created by the networks and consumed by audiences is an indication that they provide something other genres cannot or do not.

The uses and gratifications approach to communication research examines media effects from the perspective, "ask not what media do to people, but ask what people do with media" (Blumler & Katz, 1974). This is the core of the uses and gratifications approach: how audience members use the mass media, and what gratifications they receive in return. Since Blumler and Katz's work, many studies have been conducted in support of this idea, several of which predate the formal conceptualization of the approach.

One early study that examined gratifications sought was Lasswell's (1948) study of why people attend to media. Lasswell identified three functions of media: surveillance of environment, correlation of events, and transmission of social heritage.

Although future research identified many more uses, this initial identification illuminated that there were numerous reasons to explain why viewers attend to one medium over another. These explanations have been updated and revised several times (McQuail, Blumler, & Brown, 1972; Wright, 1960), and the list continues to expand as new media and genres of programming emerge.

In light of these facts, there still existed a problem distinguishing between what media consumers were seeking and what consumers were actually receiving. Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch addressed these concerns by stating that, "a distinction may be drawn between a) expectation about content formed in advance of exposure and b) satisfactions subsequently secured from consumption of it" (1974, p. 27). This distinction was further supported by Greenberg (1974), and Lometti, Reeves, and Bybee (1977), all of whom stated that there is no direct evidence that gratifications sought (GS) and gratifications obtained (GO) are the same. Early studies to demonstrate empirically the separation between GS and GO include Palmgreen and Rayburn's (1979) Kentucky Educational Television study, and Wenner's (1982) study on television news programs, both of which found that gratifications sought are not necessarily congruent with gratifications obtained from media vehicles.

More recently, the uses and gratifications approach has been employed for a number of new and developing communication technologies. As television usage and technology has grown, issues such as VCR usage (Levy, 1980; Rubin & Bantz, 1989), cable television (Heeter & Greenberg, 1985), and the remote control (Perse & Ferguson, 1993), have all been explored. Additionally, the popularity and resulting widespread dissemination of the Internet (Charney & Greenberg, 2001; Parker & Plank, 2000), the World Wide Web (Eighmey & McCord, 1998; Kaye, 1998), and e-mail usage (Dimmick, Kline, & Stafford, 2000) have been examined as well.

Although this approach may instead be applied to a wide range of material, in recent years it has most frequently been applied to genre-specific television programming in an attempt to discern what certain shows provide viewers that is not provided through other types of programming. Some examples of these include research on news programming (Palmgreen, Wenner, & Rayburn, 1980; Rayburn, Palmgreen, & Acker, 1984; Rubin, 1981), religious programming (Abelman, 1987), and soap operas (Babrow, 1987; Rubin, 1985). What is lacking thus far from a more contemporary look at genre-specific uses and gratifications research is an in-depth understanding of the GS and GO associated with reality-based television. The absence of literature on these subjects led directly to the first research question in the current study:

[RQ.sub.1]: What are the gratifications sought and the gratifications obtained from viewing competition-based reality programming?

For this study, reality TV shows are defined as any show featuring non-actors under constant surveillance, reacting in spontaneous and unscripted ways to their environment, and ultimately seeking to outperform or outlast their opponents in some sort of competition. The shows used in the current study include The Apprentice, The Bachelor (and its mirror show, The Bachelorette), and Survivor. The study examined the question by asking viewers to indicate their GS for competition-based reality programming in general, and their GO for these shows specifically. The methodology for extracting GS and GO was originally employed in Palmgreen et al. (1980) where they noted that, "when the level of abstraction of the obtained measures is shifted to a component of the medium (content type, etc.) under consideration at the sought level, the problem [respondents distinguishing between GS and GOI is greatly reduced" (p. 166). To that extent, the three shows employed in this study (The Apprentice, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, and Survivor) were chosen based on the criteria that they were regularly shown to have the highest viewer ratings according to Nielsen (The Hollywood Reporter, 2004), and were familiar to most respondents.

Previous studies in the uses and gratifications tradition have assumed that gratifications obtained from a particular genre of programming have been universal within that genre. That is to say, it has been assumed by most that one show within a particular television genre is interchangeable with the next. The current study seeks to extend that line of thinking to determine if different types of shows within a specific genre (competition-based reality shows in this case) yield different GO.

Each show selected for the current study contained different content within the competition-based reality-programming field. NBC's The Apprentice offered a...

To continue reading