What I’ve learned from reality TV shows…

The show that started it all!

The show that started it all!

These days a reality TV show exists for just about every scenario: wilderness survival, gold mining, weight loss, preparing for doomsday, hoarding, drug addiction, marriage, polygamy, dating, home decorating, cooking, modeling, celebrity shenanigans, real estate. Some are little more than game shows, while some offer a “real life” peek behind closed doors. Others fall into the middle of the range.

I watch a few of them, and will concede the following:

a) Cameras do affect people’s behavior, both negatively and positively and b) Casting is self-selecting. It takes a certain personality type to be willing to expose oneself on national television, and producers select people who will create drama.

So “real” is not pure and unadulterated.

That said, I see a social science experiment aspect to reality shows that fascinates me. Take a group of strangers (or friends), put then in a controlled environment (in a house, on an island, in the wilderness, in a specific town) and introduce a variable (a stressor) and observe the reaction/response.

For instance, in the short-lived reality TV show, Lost, (not to be confused with an ABC drama in which a plane crash landed on an island) three teams of two were dropped in the middle of nowhere (Mongolia, actually) and had to find their way to New York City. They had no idea where they were. One team mastered the challenge. Another team handled it but with some difficulty. The third team had a meltdown and ended up calling the producers to rescue them (they had a special cell phone for that purpose).

Same circumstances, but different people with different reactions.

I have watched many reality TV shows since Survivor debuted in May 2000 and changed the nature of television by using ”real” people instead of actors (although traditional game shows have always done that). These are my observations:

  • Mental stamina matters more than physical strength. The proper attitude makes or breaks a person. Example: Naked and Afraid, a Discovery channel show in which two strangers (male and female) are deposited naked and without food or tools in the wilderness. They have a certain number of days to get the pickup location to be rescued. All participants have some sort of survival background. But time and again, the person who may be weaker physically (okay, I’ll name it: the woman) triumphs when the stronger, brawnier partner (the man) caves to stress.
  • Women do not hunt. Our caveperson programming in which males hunt and females gather remains true to this day. Now, I personally know women who have killed animals for sport and/or food. And many a farm wife has run down a chicken and wrung its neck. But: in the wilderness when there are men around, the women don’t even attempt to hunt (or fish, for that matter). The women will build shelters, gather firewood, excel in physical challenges, but they leave it to the men to hunt. Why is this?
  • Women do not form teams with other women. In 28 seasons of Survivor over 14 years, only twice have women banded together to vote out the men whereas the men always readily and immediately target the women for elimination. What happened to feminism? Woman power? Why is it at parties that men and women automatically segregate by sex, yet on an island with a million dollars at stake, the women sell out their gender faster than you can say, “the tribe has spoken?”
  • Some people are natural leaders. They can be “good” or “bad” individuals, but others willingly, almost blindly follow them. These leaders seem to be coated with Teflon. When they make bad decisions or if their motives are less than honorable, the “ick” doesn’t stick. People continue to support them.

I personally tend to favor the survival type shows and the relationship-oriented ones. I could argue that the latter amounts to “research”  since I write romance, but I doubt anyone would buy it.

My current list of recent or current faves include: Survivor (Survival); Amazing Race (travel); Real Housewives (of various cities); My Five Wives (polygamy); Sister Wives (polygamy);  Naked and Afraid (survival); Dude, You’re Screwed (survival); Millionaire Matchmaker (dating), Flipping Out (home decorating), and Million Dollar Listing New York/Los Angeles (real estate). It’s a wonder I have time to write, huh? I don’t watch The Bachelor—I have to have some standards.

What shows do you watch? What observations or conclusions have you drawn as a result?

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18 Responses to What I’ve learned from reality TV shows…

  1. I want to know what happened to just plain old actors on TV in a sitcom? I miss shows like Friends and Seinfeld!

    Most interesting is how women don’t band together in a majority of the cases. I want to know why this is. I believe it and know it in real life but why?

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I think reality shows are much cheaper to produce than regular TV because they don’t have to pay actors exorbitant salaries. Paying one $1 million prize for an entire season of shows is cheap compared to paying actors of hundreds of thousands or even millions per episode.

      I, too, wonder why women don’t band together on the shows, although I have seen them do it in real life. They form women’s professional organizations, and I have seen them support (mentor) other women in business. I have also seen women rush to help another woman who needs help (if she’s sick, has a baby, etc.). What I have not observed is women closing ranks to lock out/take down the men.

  2. Casey McKay says:

    I mostly watch cooking reality shows (Top Chef, Chopped), but I loved the Amazing Race for a hot minute. I try to say I don’t watch reality shows as a rule, but I get sucked into marathons on the weekends. I just watched a bunch of episodes of some reality show about Mark Wahlberg’s brother, who is a chef, it was mildly entertaining, but I have no clue why it is a show!

    Yes, and what the hell happened to feminism?

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I’ve watched some food shows, although not those.

      I’d like to think that Survivor is an anomaly, and that in real life, the women would band together to kick male ass and vote off all the men. I remain hopeful.

  3. It is fascinating, particularly after reading your take on this Cara. The real influx of “Reality TV” came about when the mainstream drama’s and comedy’s writers and directors forged a strike against the major networks several years ago. The networks scrambled to find programming to replace the missing favorite shows that were on strike. The reality concept took off and of course have stayed the course in TV viewership. And you are so correct, in that they cost so much less than the staid drama and comedy to produce.

    I’m thinking, perhaps, a new reality show… “Who Gets the Spanking” – a weekly offering where couples react to various situations in life and the viewer gets to vote (Via Toll Free # or Text Mgs.) on who gets spanked each week. –I can already visualize a spin-off – “Paddle Me, Paddle You” for a network programming director to consider… (Thinking of the advertising for these shows, LooseID, Blushing Books, Amazon Kindle, etc.) *smile*

  4. Blondie says:

    Honestly, I do watch the Bachelor or parts of it. My husband is hilarious to watch it with. I laugh throughout the entire show. And I like American Idol, especially the judges, they are too funny. And I have watched some of the other shows like Naked and Afraid and Lost. I believe that having girls play sports will help make them be part of a team. Who knows
    Watching these reality shows are so mind numbing that it helps to calm the brain sometimes. That and a nice glass of wine.
    Maybe one of your books can be about a reality show that does have to do with spankings, like what J McNamara suggested

    • Cara Bristol says:

      LOL, Blondie! See the comment I made to Joseph. I AM thinking about a reality show type spanking romance. Just you wait…one day…

      I agree that one reason I like them is the escapism.

  5. Rollin Hand says:

    In reality TV the presence of the camera changes everything. So does the editing. You’re not getting reality, you’re getting a reaction from people who know they’re on camera. So to one extent or another, all of these shows are acted. It may be extemporaneous, it may be unrehearsed, but it’s acting nonetheless. It’s like the observer principle in Physics that in certain systems the observer influences the result just by being an observer.

    That said, I vote for a modified version of Survivor where you’re not only playing for reward, but where the losers take licks. I vote for a Bachelor in which the bachelor spanks the whiny manipulative diva who everyone hates (there’s always one of these). And yeah, the Wife Swap idea is a natural and why the hell didn’t I think of that?

    • Cara Bristol says:

      So do you think women would stick together if they weren’t on camera? I would think they’d be more likely TO band together knowing that they’re on camera. Or maybe I’m just in the minority. I’d try to mobilize the women to action.

      And yes, Wife Swap, is such a natural. A missed opportunity for all us spanking fiction authors.

  6. Cara, in my experience as a psychologist and a life-long student of human behavior woman do not have the same group dynamics as men. Men do lots of things together, organized sports being one of them. When men have an argument with one another they fight then move on and get back to playing/working together. Women are different. They are catty, gossipy, and LOTS more drama is involved in their relationships. Picture the Housewives and all their relationship drama. Men would never do that. They aren’t wired that way. And while I’m not saying women CAN’T have teamwork, I don’t think it’s as hard-wired in women as it is in men to work as a team.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Thanks, Normandie, for the insight. I’ve noticed that dynamic in men too. I do think it’s possible relationship dynamics may be hardwired in some way. Why else would the behavior have persisted so long? You make a good point about sports too. Sports do teach a team mentality and far fewer women participate in sports than men and sport have less importance (generally) in their lives.

      • Hi Cara,
        I mentioned this topic to my husband and he pointed out that in the military (mostly male) they also have a group dynamic where men must work together. Throughout history men as hunter/gatherers had needed to band together to hunt (think hunting parties) and to protect their families/tribes. While the usual womanly pursuit of cooking, raising children, and tending the home fires was a more solitary pursuit and did not REQUIRE a “group” of women. We might enjoy other women’s company but I think being a woman is more individual whereas to be a man I think you have to learn more “group” skills.

        • Cara Bristol says:

          That’s a good explanation why women might not build teams, but why do women ally themselves with men rather than women? It isn’t that they aren’t team players on the Survivor, it’s that they almost always join up with men at the expense of the other women.

  7. Cara Bristol says:

    In last night’s Suvivor (4/3), the women had an good alliance and strong plan going and then one of the “leaders” sold out her team mates and flip-flopped to the other side, which was mostly composed of men.

  8. Rayanna Jamison says:

    I don’t watch very much TV. That being said , In the past months since my move. I watched Sister Wives from start to finish, Polygamy USA, Breaking the faith, and Escaping the Prophet. Do you see a theme here LOL? I also recently started watching Marriage Boot Camp:Bridezillas. I always consider it research, but my main series is going to be a polygamist series.

  9. Cygnet says:

    I prefer to watch the reality shows where there is a skill involved: Project Runway; Chopped; and Top Chef.

    I have real issues with the ones where it is about how back stabbing you can be: Survivor; Big Brother, etc. I don’t like how the way to win often involves betraying someone, but then I also dislike April Fool’s jokes for the same reason: in my eyes you are taking advantage of someone’s trust in you.

    I don’t like the relationship ones either where is shows how horribly a woman or man can treat the person they are married to and have promised to love for life: The Kardashians.

    I did watch Sister Wives a couple of times because I have actually known some polygamous families, one of which actually appeared on Phil Donahue and had an article done about them in Redbook. There were nine wives and 50 kids and I was curious if all polygamous families were like them…I got kind of bored with Sister Wives after awhile though.

    Give me a drama with a cute man (Mark Harmon or Alex O’Loughlin) any day over a reality show. Lol…now I am off to watch “Under the Gunn”. I’m not sure if I like that one or not, but I am giving it a second chance.

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