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  • Sylvie Evans

(Hyper)reality TV: the Future of Reality Television in the Social Media Age

‘Receipts! Proof! Timelines! Screenshots!’



Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq


It was the reckoning heard around the world. The recent finale of The Real

Housewives of Salt Lake City concluded with Monica Garcia being exposed by fellow

cast member Heather Gay for running the Instagram account, Reality Von Tease,

which had been harassing her fellow cast members for months on end. As Gay

confronted Garcia with the proof she had collected, an interesting question was

raised about the philosophical structure of reality television as a whole.


This excerpt underscores the intricate challenge that reality television faces in the

era of social media, where the line between viewers and stars is rapidly diminishing,

leading to the phenomenon known as ‘hyperreality’. The term was coined by French

philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, but his ideas have been expanded on by TikTok user

@anotherkimk, to address reality television. They surmise that hyperreality as it

pertains to reality television, or more specifically the Real Housewives franchise,

means that the fan culture that surrounds the show begins to bleed onto the screen,

and most importantly, that the cast members attempt to self-direct to control the

narratives that surround them on social media. Effectively, the experiences of cast

members become intertwined with the audience, blurring the boundaries between

on-screen events and real-life occurrences.


To comprehend this phenomenon, it’s crucial to recognise the two preceding layers

of reality put forth by @anotherkimk within reality television. Firstly, there’s the

‘straightforward reality’ – acknowledging that the individuals on shows like Real

Housewives are real people with some degree of friendship. This is the reality

presented through the lens of television, and some with limited media literacy might

perceive this as an accurate portrayal of real-life events, with editing merely ensuring

a coherent narrative.


The second layer is what @anotherkimk terms ‘structured reality’. Examples of this

could be a dramatic but pre-planned night out in Geordie Shore or chance

encounters on the street between the Made in Chelsea cast in Central London.

These are events where viewers can discern a level of fabrication, acknowledging

that production manoeuvres have been employed to position the cast strategically.

Despite this awareness, the drama often feels genuine, rooted in some form of the

truth, even if certain confrontations are staged.


The evolution of these forms of reality leads us to ‘hyperreality’, which can be split

into primary and secondary forms. The primary occurs when the fourth wall is broken

within the show, such as a cast member acknowledging their participation in a

television program or the visibility of cameras and security personnel. This disrupts

the suspension of belief, reminding viewers of the production behind what they’re

watching.


The secondary form extends beyond the show, encompassing the intersection

between social media and the ‘real-life’ presence of cast members. This dynamic,

fuelled by the democratising hand of social media, poses a significant threat to the

traditional structure of reality television. The once carefully controlled divide between

the audience and the stars, maintained by the producers, has crumbled. Social

media provides continuous access to the lives of reality stars, jeopardising carefully

constructed narratives and allowing cast members to present their perspectives

directly to an audience.


This secondary hyperreality not only challenges established characters and

storylines but fundamentally undermines the structure of reality television. The

historical secrecy surrounding the production process has been eroded, and the

consequences are particularly pronounced for cast members, as the distinction

between their on-screen personas and real lives becomes increasingly unclear.

This shift has been a long-anticipated reckoning. Producers and network executives

are now tasked with navigating a delicate balance for reality television, adapting

existing shows to safeguard the mental health of cast members. The route

commonly taken, to fix this problem, seems to be isolated competition shows.

Obviously, this surge of popularity in format is spurred by the reality television

juggernaut that is Love Island. Thus, given the ITV show’s immense viewership,

there has been an increase in formatted game shows as an attempt to reimagine

reality television.


These styles of shows side-step the issue of secondary hyperreality by introducing

an element of isolation with a twofold function: to shield contestants from social

media backlash, but also to stoke the fires of potential drama. However, this is not an

infallible method of protection for reality stars. Much has already been said about the

mental health crisis amongst reality stars emerging from isolated situations,

especially Love Islanders. Ultimately, it can be concluded that the isolated

competition show serves only really to alleviate the guilty conscience of production

companies, and much less their star’s protection.


Furthermore, this style of reality television show has already begun to dwindle in

popularity, seemingly as quickly as it rose to the top. Love Island is looking at

dwindling watch figures year on year — irrespective of how many versions of the

show they put out. Even ITV’s reimagining of the once untouchable Big Brother

returned to disappointing watch figures, with viewers falling dramatically from 2.6

million to 800,000 in just the first week.


So, it seems there is a rocky future for reality television as social media continues to

reign in popular culture. Most can probably agree that the days of prime Geordie

Shore or The Only Way is Essex are behind us. But what can replace it going

forward? It feels that every style of reality dating show has been exhausted and

existing casts of rebooted reality series seem uninteresting and tired.

However, with this being said, the belief that reality television will disappear also

seems unfounded. There is something remarkably human about reality television

that we all crave. The best moments in reality television are the truly unscripted

ones: the blowout fights, the heartfelt reunions, the tragic breakups. These are the

best moments because they remind us most of ourselves. They capture the most

real, unfettered parts of life and allow us to bond with the people we see on screen.

This is something that even the best scripted television shows cannot match. And

that is why, even in the face of this newfound hyperreality, reality television will

morph itself into something adaptable for our modern age: as a means to satiate our

need for human connection.

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