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In Defense of Reality TV

Amazed couple watching tv program sitting on a couch at home.

Reality TV: The term sparks images of drama, conflict and extreme social behavior. For many, “trash TV” is an untouchable genre of television, one that is low-quality, unrefined and lacking any educational value. Everyone knows The Learning Channel (TLC) hasn’t focused on what’s traditionally been considered educational programing in decades. To call shows like 90 Day Fiancé educational would be a stretch beyond the majority of humanity’s imagination, but really, none of us are tuning into reality TV for its educational value.

For many of us, reality TV provides a fun escape from daily life. Gone are the worries of school and work, and we can focus our full energy on the (more often than not) scripted dramatic and often silly struggles of a rotating cast of characters. The escape can also be very therapeutic. One of the first patients I worked with as a medical student struggled with severe anxiety and depression. When we spoke, I was surprised to learn how watching The Great British Bake Off was one of her most helpful relaxation techniques.

Reality TV doesn’t just provide individual benefits. Many of us can remember fun times watching shows in groups, chatting and cheering on strangers in their quest for love, wilderness survival, baking prowess, ghosts, aliens and more. Just like other shows, reality TV has something for everyone, but it may also satisfy some of our 16 basic motives, which are the desires that guide all of our motivations in life. These 16 motives include idealism, romance, physical exercise, eating and more.

However, if you’re looking to a list to convince your friends to tune in to more reality TV, you can feel free to list the ones below:

  1. Entertainment: The main purpose of reality TV is to be fun to watch, regardless of what some who watch higher brow shows might say. Because of the vast variety of shows, anyone can find something they enjoy.
  2. Bonding: As mentioned earlier, watching trash TV can be a shared experience with friends, family and online communities. People have been hosting viewing parties of shows like The Bachelor since its inception.
  3. Education: I mentioned this is not the ultimate goal of reality TV, but some reality shows educate us on different cultures, skills and careers. Shows like The Amazing Race, Dr. Pimple Popper or Queer Eye are good examples of reality shows that can be educational, and we’ve all learned a thing or two about home decorating and DIY projects while watching the Home & Garden Television (HGTV) channel.
  4. Inspiration: Similarly, viewing potential new hobbies and watching contestants create masterpieces on camera can be quite inspiring! On a personal note, my first exposure to a favorite hobby, cake decorating, was through an older, since-canceled reality baking show, Amazing Wedding Cakes.
  5. Empathy: Some shows feature people from all around the world facing difficult or emotional situations with varying degrees of reality. Regardless, this allows us to think about the struggles others who are very different from us may be facing and give us more grace with others in our day-to-day lives. America’s Got Talent is a great example that often tugs at our heartstrings.
  6. Mental escape: I mentioned this earlier, but reality TV is a great mental escape and allows plentiful relaxation at the end of a long workday.
  7. Cultural relevance: Reality TV can keep us updated on current events and trends (both good and bad). While they might not be the most objective way to stay informed, they can allow people to be exposed to social issues in a way that’s easy to digest.

This is not all to say that watching trash TV is not without risks. Excessive consumption and forgetting to suspend one’s belief in reality TV can lead to harmful thinking and behaviors. For example, a group of researchers recently connected reality TV, sitcom and drama consumption to young women’s endorsement of the heterosexual script and acceptance of sexualized aggression. We must be mindful of the types of reality TV we consume and the potential impact it can have on our perceptions and behaviors.

In conclusion, reality TV serves many purposes and can be a fun escape from reality in the worst of times. However, it’s important to balance its consumption with other forms of entertainment, in particular spending time outdoors and/or away from a screen.

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