University of Tasmania
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Reality television and the change in the character of discourse

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posted on 2024-05-14, 05:42 authored by Rocavert, CM
Reality television is a complex phenomenon which spans a long history. Shows featuring participants from everyday life such as Cash and Carry (1947), Candid Camera (1948), An American Family (1973), and The Real World (1992) are precursors to major twenty-first century franchises. A growing multidisciplinary field of scholarly analysis of the genre‚ÄövÑv¥s impact on society, culture, and politics emerged at the turn of the century, with the arrival of ratings hits Survivor (2000-present), Big Brother (2000-present), and American Idol (2002-present). Reality television‚ÄövÑv¥s hybridity, the extent to which shows are real, and understanding heterogenous forms of viewer engagement are key areas of research. Scholarly positions on the value of reality television vary. Many studies reveal reality shows to be vehicles for social mobility for viewers and contestants on shows, offering new insights into social and moral issues for audiences and scholars more broadly. Other studies take issue with the genre‚ÄövÑv¥s tendencies toward fakery, tabloidization, and instrumentalization of neoliberal ideology. My thesis engages with both of these perspectives, and also draws on phenomenological and hermeneutic philosophy, to provide a new account of the performances, dramatic structures, and politics of reality television. Focusing on key themes of tyranny and creativity, I analyze productions by Mark Burnett, Mike Fleiss, and others as part of a broader culture of scripted performance and popular media. Through detailed explication of the social practices, subjectivities, and forms of knowledge constitution in reality television reception and participation, I argue that the genre exemplifies a change in the character of discourse in America. The change in discourse is evident in the way shows have recast power relations between television producers, public personalities, and audiences; created new platforms for social engagement and performance; influenced cultural conversations around gender, race, and privacy; and exhibited unprecedented levels of humiliation and distress. This thesis is organized into three parts and comprises five published chapters. Theoretical discussions in Part One on the history of television and post-truth incorporate Hannah Arendt‚ÄövÑv¥s political philosophy to offer a comparative analysis of reality television and scripted, fictional works. This part sets up a framework for critiquing authoritarian power relations, hyper-emotional, surveilled performativity, and the distinctively authentic, often brazen, lexicon of reality television. In Part Two I engage with research on creativity and talent to show how reality television is reflective of wider cultural and political shifts toward democratization and neoliberalism. In discussions of arts bias and historical and contemporary conceptualizations of talent, I explore the tension between the tradition of exalting artistic works and artists, and acknowledgement and appreciation of newer forms of creativity. These include technological, everyday, productive, and economic creativity, and other fields of innovation that mark our world today. In this section I also examine the impact of digital technology on performance and the workforce, and show how participation in reality shows is linked to ideals such as ascension to the ‚ÄövÑv¿creative class‚ÄövÑvp (Florida). Part Three extends the argument of the thesis through detailed consideration of the genre‚ÄövÑv¥s structural dynamism, its paradoxical faithfulness to truth and reality, and ‚ÄövÑv¿deep range of creativity, community and engagement through popular culture‚ÄövÑvp (Edwards 39). Thinking of viewers as active agents in a transmedia environment, my final two case studies explore US versions of Mike Fleiss‚ÄövÑv¥s The Bachelor (2002-present) and Mark Burnett‚ÄövÑv¥s The Apprentice (2004-2015). Here I find new connections between scripted conventions and reality television, aided by Jane Feuer‚ÄövÑv¥s framework of layered identification and other scholarly work on affective play, irony, savvy skepticism, and fantasy, among other readings. As the above outline indicates, the thesis deliberately explores contrasting views of the ideologies of reality television, and the politics of fan engagement and show participation. It integrates accounts of performance, creativity, and talent to widen the scope of reality television research. The theoretical and political work of this thesis culminates in new knowledge and understanding of reality television shows as discursive, transmedia texts. The ambition of this study is to demonstrate specific shows‚ÄövÑv¥ tyranny and creativity, and reveal how they inform conceptions of identity, suffering, fantasy, and belonging in the twenty-first century.



School of Humanities

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