InScope: Australia, there’s a reason you’re obsessed with reality TV, and it all comes down to science.

Anna Ogilby is a Partnerships and Experience Executive for OMD Create Sydney, executing activation, sponsorship and content solutions for a wide range of client needs.

Whether you’re a reality television fiend (hello, Married at First Sight!) or someone who has sworn off the entire TV genre, chances are that you’ve watched at least one episode, or have heard people in your life discussing it. From the beloved hunks of The Bachelor, to the love triangle masterpiece that is Love Island, reality TV has crafted the perfect formula to capture mass audiences, provide effortless viewing, and create an obsessive fan base who can’t be anywhere else on their Monday nights but in front of their screens, ready to tweet about the next drama-filled cat fight.

So, what is the science behind this reality TV phenomenon? Why has Australia become so obsessed? Experts have been diving into our cultural obsession with reality shows for decades, trying to get a better understanding of the love of the genre, and the general need for every day escapism. According to ‘Psychology Today’, there is a fine line between living vicariously, and living voyeuristically through the drama of reality TV, and it’s no shock that our culture is very good at peeking into the private lives of the rich and famous. For example; I live vicariously through the champagne showers of Kimmy K, however, voyeuristically, I can’t stop watching the craziness of her family life and questioning “How can I get my hands on that private footage of North’s birthday party?!” and “Did Jordan just peck, or actually kiss Tristan before leaving the party?” (just tell us the truth Jordan). I want to know it all, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Voyeurism is the common denominator when it comes to the popularity of reality TV. Psychologists Reiss and Wilts researched the focus on audience gratification and motivation factors as a way of distinguishing the appeal of reality TV over fictional TV programs, taking time to understand the broad appeal of the genre. They examined the association between 16 human desires and values within reality TV viewing, and concluded that the motivation to feel self-worth was most strongly associated with reality TV consumption. That being said, reality TV allows viewers to peek into other people’s lives, which Reiss and Wilts explain is the most self-imposed inner motivation that makes reality TV more enjoyable to the average viewer.

Voyeurism is not uncommon, and it’s actually pretty normal! We shouldn’t be concerned about the voyeuristic routine involved in spending hours invested in the lives of strangers, especially given over 1.6m of us tune in for an episode of The Block each night. It’s this inner curiosity that keeps us hooked to these programs, so really, there’s no harm in investing in a little clinical voyeurism to get through the long hard days. “Its only a red flag when the viewer doesn’t know when to stop”, according to phycologist Dr Henry. I’m okay with that!

On top of satisfying our psychological needs to feel self-worth, reality TV has evolved itself to serve as a form of fantasy escapism that nearly everyone can relate to.  Psychologist Lemi Baruah published a paper in 2009 stating that “voyeurism and social comparison tendency were positively correlated with the preference to watching reality TV”. Meaning, the audience tendency for watching reality TV stems from an underlying fantasy of acquiring fame quickly and (somewhat) easily. I’m sure many people could raise their hand to admit that, if given the opportunity, they would quit their jobs to become famous. “If that seamlessly ordinary person can become famous, then I could do it too!”. It’s a fantasy to be involved in television and be admired by the masses, however, the flipside of national admiration that comes with reality TV fame is the judgement from an audience looking for their own self-assurance.

As Steven Reiss of Psychology Today said, “The message of reality television is that ordinary people can become so important that millions will watch them. And the secret thrill of many of those viewers is the thought that perhaps next time, the new celebrities might be them.”

The social comparison theory explains this, which is defined as a way “for individuals to determine their own social and personal worth” based on how they perceive themselves amongst others. In other words, how many times have you counted how lucky you are to not have the drama or chaos of reality TV in your life? Or to not be put under chronic stress to perform not only in front of three judges, but the whole nation? Reality TV brings our lives back into perspective, which further reinforces the voyeuristic charm to the genre. It’s better to watch someone else’s drama unfold before your eyes than to have it happen in your own reality. It’s a fact that tends to make audiences feel more content and somewhat happier with their lives when they compare it to the lives of those on screen. And as Dr Carole Lieberman states “We live vicariously through the experiences of the reality TV stars – from the safety of our own homes. We don’t actually have to risk our heart or our reputation when we vicariously live through the experiences of the reality show participants themselves.”

Australia’s reality obsession is currently at the hands of Channel Nine’s producers, who have conjured up the winning formula for viewer voyeurism through “Australia’s most controversial social experiment” – Married at First Sight. This show is the epitome of Australian reality obsession, crushing the average television ratings (approx. 1.4m p/nightly) and delivering an impressive television audience growth, particularly in the all-important key demographics of 25-54’s, 16-39’s and ‘Total Shopper with Child’. As described by the show’s producer, Tara McWilliams, “the show resonates with audiences because it is both a real-life soap opera and a deep dive into how relationships work.” The unpredictability of the contestant’s actions on the show has audiences on the edge of their seats, yearning for deeper insights in the ‘dramatic’ lives of the unconventional couples. The intimacy of the couples combined with the ‘fly on the wall’ cinematic approach lifts the curtains on the aspects of relationships that are usually left behind closed doors. The audience love it, as it is satisfying their psychological need for escapism, and in the end, leaves them feeling genuinely better about themselves. Let’s just say that overall, the show can be a great self-esteem boost…

So, considering this, the show checks off our now realised need for voyeurism, escapism, reassurance of self-worth, as well as letting us be (secretly) judgemental in the safe space of our own home. No wonder I’m obsessed. I speak on behalf of all of Australia – I blame it on science.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08838151003734995

https://www.mamamia.com.au/married-at-first-sight-obsession/

https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/tv-shows/science-behind-watching-reality-shows/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/why-bad-looks-good/201801/how-reality-tv-preferences-reveal-personality

https://greatist.com/happiness/why-were-obsessed-reality-tv

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/social-comparison-theory

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