Publicized intimacies on reality television: an analysis of voyeuristic content and its contribution to the appeal of reality programming.

Author:Baruh, Lemi
Position::Report
 
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Accounts of the rising popularity of reality television cite voyeurism as an important reason for its success among viewers. Several studies suggest that television viewers themselves perceive reality programs to be both exhibitionistic and voyeuristic (Hill, 2005), and acknowledge that they are drawn to this voyeuristic component of reality programs (Johnson-Woods, 2002). Similarly, studies focusing on the psychological appeal of reality television provide preliminary empirical evidence regarding the positive association between the tendency to use media for voyeuristic purposes and the consumption of reality programs (Nabi, Biely, Morgan & Stitt; 2003; Nabi, Stitt, Halford & Finnerty, 2006; Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2007).

However, an important flaw in this assumption regarding the voyeuristic appeal of reality television is that not all reality programs are created equal. Reality television is a catchall phrase alluding to many different formats (Brenton & Cohen, 2003; Dovey, 2000). Hence, developing a coherent understanding of reality programs' voyeuristic appeal requires the identification of programming attributes that accommodate television viewers' voyeurism. In order to address this need, a content analysis and a survey were used in conjunction with each other to identify content features that may contribute to the voyeuristic appeal of reality programs. First, informed by concepts related to accessibility of information and private behavior, the content analysis counted the presence of programming features that may add to a program's voyeuristic appeal. Then, the results from the content analysis were used to weight the survey data investigating the association between voyeurism and reality television consumption to identify the content features that contribute to a reality program's voyeuristic appeal.

Voyeuristic Appeal of Reality TV

Dimensions of Voyeuristic Tendencies

The construct of voyeurism adopted in this article differs from the conceptualization of voyeurism utilized in the psychiatric domain, which defines voyeurism as a psychopathological condition characterized by becoming sexually aroused from the covert observation of others while they have sex, or are nude (Freund, Watson & Rienzo, 1988). Rather than emphasizing sexual deviance, recent accounts of contemporary culture conceptualize voyeurism as a common (and not solely sexual) pleasure derived from access to private details (Metzl, 2004). Accordingly, partly because of electronic media, curious peeking into the private lives of others has become a defining characteristic of contemporary society (Calvert, 2004).

Despite growing interest in non-pathological voyeurism, there is very little research exploring its psychological dimensions (Rye & Meaney, 2007). The construct of voyeurism as a common form of guilty pleasure points to several important dimensions of a typical individual's voyeuristic tendencies. First, in contrast to the covert nature of pathological voyeurism, "normal" voyeurism is satisfied through more acceptable and consensual forms such as films, gossip news and/or webcams (Koskela, 2004; Ytreberg, 2002). Second, as evidenced by the high number of government and private sector employees browsing personal information just for sport--Sullivan (2008) labels this data voyeurism--the normal voyeur is opportunistic, and the act of looking or listening can be considered an end in itself. Third, not all forms of observation will be satisfactory: the appeal of voyeurism is the pleasure derived from learning about what is typically forbidden or private (Calvert, 2004; Metzl, 2004).

The Appeal of Reality TV for the "Normal" Voyeur

A central tenet of the Uses and Gratifications perspective is that audience members actively engage in content selection in order to fulfill certain needs (Katz, Blumler & Gurevitch, 1974). If so, to the extent that non-pathological voyeurism is defined as an opportunistic tendency to derive pleasure from learning about others' private details, the question is whether, and to what extent reality programs can accommodate this form of voyeurism.

Part of the answer to this question comes from the branding of reality programming as privacy invasive voyeur television (Calvert, 2004). Extant research suggests that genre labels may provide meaningful signals for viewers, influencing their preferences for specific television programs (Hall, 2007; Webster & Wakshlag, 1983). Considered from this perspective, reality programs promise (and partly deliver) the "thrill of seeing something intimate ... and doing so remotely and without accountability" (Deery, 2004, p. 6). Deery's comment about remoteness of the gaze underlines another component of the voyeuristic appeal of reality programs: the panoptic mode of observation within which there is an informational asymmetry between the audience member and the program participant, who can't gaze back at the viewer. This panoptic mode and the perceived distance between the viewer and the target allow the viewer to enjoy the private and the stolen (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Long before reality television, starting in the 1900s, contemporary society witnessed the birth of the cinematic gaze through which viewers enjoy this panoptic mode of looking (Denzin, 1995). However, reality programs differ from cinema and other forms of content due to the aura of realism and spontaneity they invoke (Calvert, 2004; Ruddock, 2008). Despite producer interventions and viewers' awareness that participants often act for the camera, the voyeuristic appeal of reality programs differs from other genres because "viewer detection skills are exercised not on ... celebrities ... but on the 'real' people 'just like the viewers'" (Andrejevic, 2006, p. 401).

The voyeuristic appeal of gazing upon individuals who come from the audiences' ranks is also closely linked to the reciprocity of the voyeuristic needs of television viewers and the exhibitionism of the program participants (Groombridge, 2002). Accordingly, in an era of extensive surveillance, webcams, blogs and reality television allow individuals to engage in "empowering exhibitionism" to reclaim control over the dissemination of information about themselves (Koskela, 2004, p.199). The reciprocity of the relationship between the voyeur and the exhibitionist is not only because the exhibitionist needs an audience to be successful in reclaiming control over the information (Dholakia & Zwick, 2001), but is also due to the fact that the non-pathological voyeur, looking for safe ways to gaze, needs the exhibitionist. Then, what reality programs do is to provide this safe, legally sanctioned (albeit potentially less fulfilling than corporeal) venue for the voyeur to meet the exhibitor.

[H.sub.1]: The higher the voyeuristic tendency of an audience member, the more likely he/she will be to watch reality programs.

A valid concern regarding this conceptualization of "normal" voyeurism is that it is very similar to psychological drives (social curiosity) to learn about other individuals. For example, it has been shown that some people who are more likely to be curious about others will either engage in social comparison (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999), or regulate their own conduct (self-monitoring) by observing others (Lennox & Wolfe, 1984). Social comparison researchers suggest that the ultimate goal of social comparison is self-evaluation (White & Lehman, 2005). Similarly, high self-monitors have been found to be sensitive to the behavioral cues of other people primarily for the purposes of self-adjustment and validation (Snyder, 1974). Conceptually, then, these two orientations differ from voyeurism in their purposeful utilization of looking at others to satisfy social needs such as figuring out how one fares in comparison with others. With their focus on the experiences of individuals from viewers' ranks, reality programs may also be a source of information for social comparison and self-monitoring. If so, an important question that needs to be answered is whether voyeurism is distinct from such a tendency for social comparison and self-monitoring in terms of predicting the consumption of reality programs.

[RQ.sub.1]: After controlling for social comparison and self-monitoring, will voyeurism be positively associated with watching reality television?

The Voyeuristic Appeal of Reality Content Features

Although genre labels may have an important influence on the programming choices that viewers make, these choices are more likely to depend on the content of specific programs as viewers get more acquainted with a genre (Hall, 2007). As suggested in the discussion above, an important dimension of non-pathological voyeurism is its reliance on "consumption of revealing images ... at the expense of privacy" (Calvert, 2004, p. 2). Considered from this perspective, social norms regarding privacy and intimacy are a proper starting point for the identification of content features that may contribute to a reality program's voyeuristic appeal.

A common usage of the concept of privacy is to refer to private spaces (Post, 1989). The walls themselves act to separate the private from the public due to their symbolic function as a communication barrier (Goffman, 1963). On the other hand, like other forms of mediated experiences (Drotner, 2005; Meyrowitz, 1985), reality programs cross these normative barriers suggested by physical space and do so at varying levels (with, for example, Big Brother taking place inside a house, and the Jerry Springer Show taking place in an auditorium open to the public).

Clearly, the presence of television cameras and participants' consent to be recorded by these same cameras make each reality television set an essentially public setting. However, in evaluating audience-content interaction, the proper question is not whether the mediated experience replicates the actual one, but rather what relationship is implied by the mediated...

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