The Rise of Reality TV and Its Dominance on Pop Culture

Behind Elana Levine are many the books that she has on television history, culture and media.

Mount Mary University students find that seeing family life through popular shows like “The Kardashians” and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” can be intriguing, even if it makes them seem a bit nosy.

“It’s relatable, and I enjoy watching other families struggle, even though that sounds really bad,” junior Tyhecia Stanton said. “I like the fantasy of it all. Sometimes I want to be that family.” 

Senior Zecilia Alamillo-Roman likes to compare her family situation with the families in the shows.

“They have so much going on that I think, ‘Wow, my life is so simple and easy,'” Alamillo-Roman said. “It’s a good comparison for me.”

Reality TV has an interesting and fairly recent history. Elana Levine, director of graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with research areas in television history and media convergence, describes it as an extremely influential form of media. 

“It’s probably the most significant thing that’s probably happened in the last 30 years of television,” said Levine.

“The American Family” was one of the first reality TV shows, also known as reality-soaps. “The American Family” was a documentary style show that aired in 1973 and was the first of its kind to showcase drama in real life and in a home setting.

The family from “The American Family.”

“It was a family with teens and one of the sons came out as gay, and the parents decided to get a divorce,” Levine said.

Reality shows structured around the lives of strangers living in one space had its breakthrough moment when the show “Real World” aired for the first time on MTV.

“As far as I know, there weren’t really shows like that where we could observationally watch real lives, much before the ‘Real World,’” Levine said. “Now, the ‘Real World’ is like 25 years old.” 

“The Real World” is considered the gateway to shows like “Jersey Shore,” “Bad Girls Club” and “Are You The One?.” The popularity of these shows helped revive the house drama component explored in the 1970s show “The American Family.”

“It’s pretty sensationalized (now) and can be really flashy, especially with ‘The Kardashians’ and housewives shows,” Levine said. “They play up the drama.”

Without the need for actors, screenwriters or sets, producing shows like “The Kardashians” are not only efficient but inexpensive. In this way, many families have become household names in entertainment.

“Certainly the celebrity gossip world has helped that by paying these people and putting them on their covers of magazines, extending their fame beyond their TV shows,” Levine said.

The sense of community and relation to virtual strangers adds to the popularity of these shows.

“That has translated beyond the shows and frankly, people like that have been really smart about taking that interest and connection that viewers feel and expanding it to be these huge media empires,” Levine said.

In a country where president Donald Trump gained social popularity following his debut on a reality show, there’s no denying the role reality television has had on this country.

“Who knows what reality star will be our next president?” Levine said.

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