Tools at Hand: Defining Ourselves Through Reality Shows
Reality television has a relatively long history, but there is a mutual understanding among media researchers that the sudden explosion of reality shows began at the turn of the millennium, when Big Brother became a popular format around the world. Nowadays, TV schedules contain a range of variations on the genre, namely competition-based, docu-like, makeover/intervention or hidden-camera shows. They all feature participants „being themselves” as they encounter extraordinary situations. According to Pecora (2002), reality shows are also largely unscripted, but heavily edited programmes, focused on group dynamics. The aim of this PhD project is to research audience practices, interpretations and opinions on these modern-day reality shows in order to find out how people use them in their lives. Although the study suggests that viewers can use the experience of watching reality shows for various purposes (entertainment, relaxation, socialising etc.), the thesis focuses on how people evaluate and (re)define their identity, value system, attitudes, ideologies and strategies in life, through contemplating and communicating about the shows they choose to watch. The approach also implies that defining ourselves is a general need –on micro (individual), meso (group) and macro (national/ global) levels – and the genre’s/subgenre’s special characteristics make them suitable tools for this process. The theoretical background of this project is performative media theory (Dayan & Katz, 1992; Csigó, 2005), which has its roots in uses and gratifications (Blumler & Katz, 1974) and selective perception theory (Klapper, 1960). Performative media theory suggests that there is a constant conversation between the viewers and the media, and people use the discourses offered by the media to define their identity, playing an active and creative role in the process. Television programmes can only be noticed and remembered if the viewers recognise them as narratives of their own lives, and if an emotional bond is formed. The main methods used in this study are qualitative: single and mini-group interviews with (light and heavy) viewers of different types of reality shows, and the analysis of online discussions. It is expected that viewers communicate differently in these situations, and we are looking forward to assessing how these differences relate to the process of selfdefinition. During the interviews viewers are asked to watch certain reality TV shows and comment on them/discuss them. These discourses will then be analysed, as they may be the key to the question of how reality shows are used by the audience.