The Credibility of Reality TV and Its Lineage with other Photographic Arts

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Recently, I was asked to comment on the credibility of reality television as compared to the credibility of street photography by artists like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Cindy Sherman. In the “Street Credibility” exhibit, curated by artist Mike Kelley, the photographs are staged, interpretations of people in their lives. Like reality TV, some of the photographs are exploitative and sensational. Thinking about reality TV and street photography lead me to explore the lineage that reality TV shares with other photographic arts. This assumption places reality TV in the company of seemingly strange bedfellows, photographic arts that merge interpretation with real lived existence, such as Italian neorealist film and 1930s US social documentaries. While other photographic arts may draw upon dramatic modes (posed subjects, casting through typage, associational editing), the central factor that affects credibility and separates reality TV from other realist-based photographic arts is “entertainment.”

In their introduction to Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette describe reality TV as “an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real” (3). Reality TV does not have the same credibility as photography or documentary film, neither as a record of lived existence nor as art. It is television, show business, entertainment. Caption on a magnet found in my used office desk: “Theater is life. Film is art. TV is furniture.” Would there be a bumper sticker with the caption: “kill your photographs” instead of “kill your television?”

The idea of credibility suggests trust and truth, both in the representation and in its interpretation. There is an assumption that the representation faithfully captures its analogue in the world and that the interpretation in the work, even if exploitative, offers valued commentary or social analysis of the subject of the work. The conventions of television entertainment trouble interpretation, reducing the social utility of reality TV when compared to its more respected progenitors that combined fact and fiction, such as street photography, 1930s social documentary and post-WWII neo-realist film.

Photographs are placed in an artistic environment, on a gallery wall or in a coffee table book, positioned for and inviting contemplation and study. In a photograph, there are many layers of intervention by the photographer: the photograph may be posed and is certainly framed; the photographer manipulates the image in the dark room. In the gallery and in books, labels near the photographs may identify the process used to print the image (chemicals and paper) and perhaps the camera that was used. Some gallery exhibits display cameras, which can be massive and heavy, with complex dials and lenses. Does this awareness of a photograph’s construction cause photography to lose credibility? The street photograph retains credibility even though (and because) the photographer selected, framed and interpreted to imbue the image with truth.

In some ways, reality TV and Italian neo-realism are two sides of the same coin. Reality TV does not spring to mind when reading the words of theorist Cesare Zavattini: “neo-realism is a way of seeing reality without prejudice, without conventions coming between it and myself — facing it without preconceptions, looking at it in an honest way — whatever reality is, not just social reality but all that there is within a man” (quoted in Bondanella, 32). Yet, reality TV shares some concerns with neo-realism.

Both prefer improvisation within a structure. Both eschew stars, with their pre-existing meanings, and use typage to generate drama through casting. Neo-realism favors non-professionals or actors who resemble real people (such as a man who shines shoes); ensemble reality TV shows try to bring together an array of personalities and/or social-cultural roles/stereotypes (see L.S. Kim, “Race and Reality … TV” in Flow). Both edit to highlight the drama of decisive moments in the story. Both invite audiences to be moved emotionally by characters (neo-realism) or personalities (reality TV). Neo-realism and reality TV both appear to be forms of what reality TV producer Mark Burnett has labeled “dramality”: drama + reality.

Yet, reality TV gravitates toward the conventions of Hollywood entertainment that neorealist theory critiqued. Neo-realism presented ordinary life and gained authenticity from locations; reality TV creates imaginary situations in locations that are produced and designed for the show’s particular reality genre (the board room, the remote island, the romance, etc.). Rather than interpret a profilmic “life on the street,” reality TV creates its own “life” and its own “street.” Neorealist stories were situated in the aftermath of World War II (a stolen bicycle ruins a man’s chances to work in Bicycle Thieves); the problems of some reality TV shows can seem superficial (the strongbox of fire sinks to the bottom of the sea when a wave capsizes the castaways’ boat on Survivor: Palau). These losses are both decisive moments for their respective stories (Antonio will spend the film searching desperately for transportation that will allow him to work; the castaways will spend upcoming episodes diving to retrieve the strongbox that will allow them to boil drinking water, to be warm, to cook food). There are parallel emotional effects on the characters and dramatic effects on the story.

However, the social utility of these situations are vastly different. The heroes of neo-realism were not heroic figures, but ordinary people dealing with life in the aftermath of World War II. The personalities of reality TV emerge from interactions generated by fabricated environments and situations. The reality is imbedded in story and suspense structures like games (who will stay the course), auditions (simulations and role-playing) and romance (who will win the heart). In neo-realism, life is complex, downbeat, unhappy and maybe tragic. Reality TV enjoys sentimentality, conflict, anxiety, unhappiness, tragedy, victory. Life in the neorealist film will go on after the film’s story has ended. Reality TV shows try for a gripping finale that can be “event television,” a live broadcast so exciting that maybe the audience will watch in real time and not fast-forward through commercials.

Do the conventions of entertainment inevitably cause a loss of credibility and truth in interpretation? In his history of 1930s social documentary, Chuck Wolfe writes, “documentary cinema was valued for its capacity to render dramatic the social trauma of unemployment, labor violence, and the erosion of the American farmland and to offer explanations for these disturbances and disasters” (353). Drama was important to the effort of documentary makers to reach and communicate with audiences. Although they combined drama and reality, 1930s social documentaries and neorealist films did not reach large audiences and were not commercially successful. However, their techniques were picked up by Hollywood and merged with story, stars and entertainment (such as the post-war semi-documentary and film noir). In her analysis of reality-documentary hybrids, Susan Murray explores how reality TV shares aesthetic conventions (such as the hand-held camera) with “high-minded, and if not fully educational, then at least informative” observational documentaries (43). She concludes “the distinctions we make between forms of nonfictional television are … largely contained in the evaluative connotations that insist on separating information from entertainment, liberalism from sensationalism, and public service from commercialism” (54). In this continuum of hybrid photographic arts, the connotations of entertainment-sensationalism-commercialism separate reality TV from 1930s documentary and neo-realism.

To return to the working definition of credibility above, the world that reality TV presents is fabricated (therefore not an analogue). One can understand and take pleasure in the structures of games, auditions and romance and still find reality TV to be a credible (that is, accurate yet entertaining) record of what happened. Reality TV’s interpretation of events may not summon contemplation of lived existence or social analysis. Instead, it goes for emotional identification with the people on the screen and social interactions with other audience members in blogs, websites and around the water cooler. Thus, television can be life, art and also …… furniture.

An earlier draft of this essay explored the necessity of work for Antonio and Bruno v. Nicole and Paris. Henry Jenkins IV pointed out the parallels between losing the bicycle and losing the fire.

Please feel free to comment.


  • I think that this article brings to light some important questions about the role of “entertainment” in shaping media criticism. Haralovich compares reality TV to street photography, and despite the fact that both offer (highly) mediated and constructed images, one is castigated as the lowest of low art, the other is praised as a credible art form. She argues that the difference is the entertainment factor, and I wholly agree; the “entertainment” of entertainment is something that has consistently thrown media critics for a loop since, well, the first time someone was entertained by media. One of the most difficult thing for critics and media scholars (myself included) to tie down and really explore is the diverse pleasures people take in certain media texts, especially TV, which is why I think it’s so tempting to throw it into a low art category, ignore it, then go analyze The Seventh Seal ad nauseum… I think this article, and indeed so many of the Flow columns that have tackled the issue of reality TV, are important steps; but reality TV criticism has the “luxury” of tethering itself to other media forms as a starting off point–the documentary, photography, neo-realism etc. What I really can’t wait for is for someone to try to tackle why I love One Tree Hill…

  • Keeping it real

    To add to the list of similarities between street photography/neo-realist cinema and reality TV: Both make false claims to be “real” to further (and simultaneously efface) an ideological agenda. In fact, street photographers/neo-realist film-maker’s claim to be showing us what’s “real” and “authentic” seem just as if not more strident than the claims of reality TV producers. We should ask: Is there any point where the “reality” in “reality TV” becomes an empty signifier imposed by critics and producers, not taken literally by anyone?

    Its not as if the subject matter of street photography/neo-realist cinema is a completely random sample of reality. Subjects are selected and depicted in a way that encourages a certain political outlook, not as the “truth” or “gritty reality” that many artists try to pass it off as. It might be more accurate to call it “counter spectacle”, an attempt to make up for the inadequacies of mainstream depictions that only seems “ordinary” or “authentic” when contrasted to a contrived entertainment-oriented environment. Perhaps b/c of this, neo-realist/street photography only has credibility those who are predisposed to its ideology.

  • Pingback: FlowTV | Elevating Servants, Elevating American Families

  • Charlie Clarke

    Really Art

    I find it entertaining that reality television causes such violent reactions in some people. Rarely can I talk to a friend within a group about a recent episode of “The Simple Life” without another member of that group calling us “idiots” and saying that they “hate that show because it’s so stupid and fake.” I must say thank you to the author of this article for displaying a fair discussion of reality television, so few critics and their “arm-chair quarterback” counterparts are willing to even discuss reality television without the immediate assumption that it is “stupid”. As Kristen stated in the comments, this is an important step in the analysis of television as art. It’s funny how we DO write off television as a lowly (if even that) art form even though it’s a huge part of our everyday lives. Is it not art just because we see it everyday? Do people stop and consider that the newspaper articles they read are original creative works? We are surrounded by art and yet we fail to realize it. Art doesn’t have to be Picasso or Monet. Art is human creation and television is one of the greatest of the 20th century.

  • Pingback: Ondeachei Blog » Ondeachei The Credibility of Reality TV and Its Lineage with other …

  • Super, bonne article, j’ai appris quelque chose. J’ai vraiment apprecié de lire cette article. Bravo !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *