Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Reality TV's Interactivity

With the onset of a new reality genre, television can now be seen as an interactive environment through such things as various measures of voting and online chatting. This can be seen as a positive change with a growing trend of more and more people wanting to be able to interact with and change the shows they watch. In the simplest of definitions interactivity can be described as “involving the actions or input of a user” (Merriam-Webster). That would pretty much include about everything we use these days such as using a remote, dialing a phone, typing etc. When using the word in this paper I’m meaning it as a more restrictive term. In class we talked about Zork and how the decisions you made that affected the storyline were interactive. This is more of what I mean by saying reality TV can be interactive. Instead of taking a passive role by just simply watching the show viewers are given the opportunity to interact and make decisions that affect how the program plays out.

The trend is quite evident that more people want interactive TV with its countless displays of such already available. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive showed this result. “72% of reality TV show viewers are interested in enhanced interactive elements, as are 65% of sports viewers and 50% of drama viewers. [Overall] 66% of viewers said they would also like to interact with TV commercials” (Hefflinger). This trend can also be seen in the ratings for the interactive reality shows. Since its debut in 2002 has continually been the number one rated show in television with on average well over 20 million viewers per episode (American Idol). Other reality programs that represent various types of interactivity also do very well in the ratings department which shows viewers demand for such capabilities.

Being such a broad term, interactivity can mean a lot of things when it comes to reality TV. There are many ways one can take an active approach with the television they watch so the term needs to be more defined. The book Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched explores this same idea and defines the interactivity with reality TV in two different ways. The first being “that access to the means of media production will be thrown open to the public at large, so that ‘everyone can have their own show’–or at least a distant chance of becoming a star on one of the dozens of reality formats that have seemingly taken over the airwaves” (Andrejevic 2). By giving average people with no acting experience or any connections the ability to apply and be a star on a television show leads to the possibility of anybody being able to affect what or who’s on television. As we’ve seen from the majority of the reality shows these average people have changed the face of television by creating new types of people and things we can see on TV. The second of the author’s definitions is that interactivity in reality TV is “a change of a limited representative element of audience participation to a direct partaking in decision making processes” (Andrejevic 153). This is what I want to work with, how viewer interaction can really make a difference in what we’re watching.

The idea of television being interactive started long before reality TV and will most likely continue once the genre fades. An early account of this was in 1953 with a children’s show called Winky Dink and You where “kids in the US [could] buy a special transparent sheet to place over the screen and, using ordinary crayons, help the show's characters draw things like pathways or tools” (Dodson). Although this didn’t actually affect the show this was an early instance of where people stopped simply being passive watchers. A huge milestone occurred when for the first time someone on a telephone called in during a TV show which is thought to have been during NBC's Today Show in 1959. This simple thing has spiraled into a norm of TV where people can call into shows and give opinions. This novel interaction became a growing trend among soon to be staples of the television world.

As somewhat of a precursor to reality shows like Survivor and American Idol the game shows of the past and present demonstrate an earlier form of viewer interactivity. Contestants on the shows were average people, for some like The Price is Right all you had to do was wait in line and try to have a big personality to get on the show. Since people were only on each episode for short amounts of time viewers couldn’t get an emotional attachment to the contestants so all that was available was loud and entertaining personalities. Game shows like Family Feud also paved a way for viewer interaction by starting to “survey 100 people”. This eventually led to viewers being able to vote in answers for future questions during broadcasting of the show which is where reality shows took a hint.

The genre of Reality television doesn’t have exact limits as to what it includes. Even its precursor game shows can now be considered reality TV with Howie Mandel being nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality - Competition Program for hosting Deal or No Deal which is like any other game show. In my and most other sources opinion however would say what the average person would consider reality TV can be traced back to the premiere of The Real World in 1992 which was drastic change from the sitcoms of the time and that the game shows are different genre. For the first time you had unscripted relationships strangers broadcasted for everyone to witness. This led into numerous spinoffs of the format until a reality TV hit a peak in the early 2000’s with the creation of such shows as Survivor, Big Brother and American Idol where the format was greatly changed and there were winners and prizes involved. This is where interactivity of home viewers started to come into play.

I interviewed several of my friends to see what their opinions were on whether or not reality television could really be considered interactive. As you’ll see I got a mix of results, some which gave me ideas for this paper.

Megan Richardson said:
“You should talk about how it’s not interactive because it’s not real anymore”
This was funny to me since as I’m writing this she’s in the other room watching The Hills right now getting mad at Spencer because of how much of douche he is even though she clearly knows it’s fake. She’s also the only other person I know besides myself who’s so completely obsessed with Big Brother that she not only votes whenever the opportunity arises but would also do anything to be on the show. When I brought up this fact she only then admitted that this voting was a way of interacting with the show.

Kendra Kasznel said:
“Of course it’s interactive. Look at things like The Hills where what people think of an episode is shown during the show.”
I didn’t actually know what she was talking about which lead me to seeing this first hand and indeed she lead me to a whole new way of interacting with TV that I wasn’t even aware of.

After hearing me talk about voting with Megan, Jessica Lindley stated:
“Yeah, but you know the voting doesn’t really matter, the producers choose who they want”

Other friends mentioned various voting as being interactive or like Megan, saying simply that it’s all fake so how could it be interactive.

As with a few of my friends a lot of people right off the bat would say that reality TV isn’t really interactive. Their arguments would mainly consist of stating its either fake or that votes don’t really count. While I have to admit that there are plenty of fake “reality” shows out there like Paris Hilton’s My New BFF and The Hills (where even the cast members admit to being cast and how they reenact scenes) that give the genre a bad rep you can’t discredit all the others because of them. It would be like saying comedies aren’t funny because some are terrible. How could one really say it’s all fake when you have a show like Big Brother where there’s a 24/7 live internet feed of the house that you can watch online, it’s as real as it gets. To say voting doesn’t actually count is another statement trying to discredit the genre with an already bad rep. Sure if there was some poll on one of the clearly fake shows I’d agree the voting could possibly be a hoax but when it comes to programs such as American Idol and Survivor where a large sum of money or contract are involved I can safely say the votes surely count. It’s not as if you can see someone counting off the votes for the President yet I’m sure everyone would believe those votes count, so why should it be any different for TV. Even though there are plenty of misleading “reality” programs, the clearly credible ones have provided an outlet for viewers to interact with their favorite shows.

Voting has become the stand out way for viewers to interact with a reality series. Instead of just simply watching a show, you can take an active role by helping to make decisions that affect what happens for the rest of the season. In shows like American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, and the first season of Big Brother viewers vote week by week to eliminate a contestant. Each week you can potentially change the fate of game and because of it there has been numerous fan sites these type of shows meant to get people to vote for certain people. The goal for Votefortheworst.com is to “encourage you to have fun with American Idol by voting for the bad and truly entertaining contestants” (Vote). People are now starting to interact with each other to have a greater effect on the show and time and time again they have been successful such as when the terrible singer Sanjaya Malakar lasted a long time on Idol and when Master P (who never actually danced) continued to stick around on Dancing with the Stars. It just goes to show that the votes really do matter and that people can make a difference in what they’re watching.

Along with being able to vote for winners viewers are also now starting to be able vote for who they want as cast members of shows. For the All-Star season of Big Brother fans had the opportunity to vote to choose eight of the 14 contestants in the upcoming season. As opposed to shows like Idol once the show started it’s the contestants that vote each other out not viewers yet in the end the winner and the other final four were all people who were chosen by America and the majority of the rest who voted in lasted a long time as well. So even though while watching viewers can’t interact, their initial decisions still played a crucial role in how the show turned out. The same type of idea was used with the last season of The Real World. People could create profiles on MTV’s website where America could vote for their favorite to be part of the cast. Greg Halstead was ultimately chosen and became an instant villain which from watching his profile videos you could tell was bound to happen. By being able to chose cast members viewers are finally able to make decisions in what they want in a contestant as opposed to what producers want.

A final way that viewers can interact with a show through voting is demonstrated through shows like Top Chef and Project Runway. When a commercial break starts polls are asked to viewers about the show or contestants. An example would be asking “Who is the best chef?” or “Who deserves to get the axe?”. Viewers then have the opportunity to text in their vote or vote online with their opinion and the results of the survey are shown right before the show returns from the commercial break. Although this doesn’t affect the outcome of the show viewers opinions are shared with each other and the world for that matter. This can also lead to producers getting a taste of what people want and who to focus on in the upcoming episodes.

Although there’s plenty of evidence that The Hills is far from reality it has provided a new way for fans to interact with the show. After the first screening of an episode the MTV website creates a group in The Hills forum where fans have the capability of talking with each other about various things they liked or didn’t like about the episode. MTV then chooses comments they find particularly intriguing or funny and displays them at the bottom of the screen when they replay the episode directly before they play a new episode the next week. An example of this is in one of the replaying episodes while Holly was telling off her sister Heidi’s boyfriend Spencer off at the bottom of the screen was displayed:

Shimmer1 wrote:
“Unlike Heidi, Holly has a back bone. She put Spencer in his place. I don't understand Heidi, I have seen her and Spencer out just the two of them no stage photo ops just the two of them and they look miserable. I am just wandering if Spencer is holding something over Heidi's head. She seems genuine when she is with Holly and the letter to Lauren seem genuine. There is something going on with the whole Speidi thing.”

These types of comments are added several times during the episode. People can also submit videos of themselves giving opinions about the show that are shown during the episode (MTV.com). During these showings they mute the actual show and the only thing you can hear is the viewer’s opinion. People’s comments are thus integrated into the actual show and affect what we as viewers are watching.

With the increase in interactivity levels in today’s reality television viewers are getting an opportunity to stop being mindless drones and start making a difference in what they watch. A staple in the genre, voting via phone, text, or online to give contestants the boot has put the control in the viewers hands and the ratings alone show that people do indeed want this power. By giving viewers the capability to choose contestants can not only affect the types of people cast on that particular show but can lead to a change I various programs since casters can get a better feel for what the average person wants. Other methods such as live polls and forum comments being displayed are just another way to show that viewer’s opinions are being heard. We’re in a time where everyone’s views matter and interactive reality TV has provided an outlet where this can be shown on an almost daily basis.

Works Cited

"American Idol." 8 December 2008. Wikipedia. 8 December 2008 .

American Idol. F.A.Q's. 25 November 2008 .

Andrejevic, Mark. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,
Inc., 2003.

Dodson, Sean. A Short History of Interactive TV. 5 April 2001. 7 December 2008 .

Hefflinger, Mark. Survey: TV Viewers Want More Interactivity. 22 January 2008. 7 December 2008 .

"Interactive." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 9 December 2008

MTV.com. The Hills - Episodes. 6 October 2008. 8 December 2008 .

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

I don't think that you introduced the topic before by arguing that interactivity is a *positive* change. That's a step in the right direction, but I'd like to have heard more. Positive for who? Why? Etc. Does it make tv more fun? More realistic? What?

Better use of statistics this time around. And much better use of research in general. I'm glad to see you adding historical context, addressing things like calling in to shows, etc.

One thing that confuses me is that you seem to consider the appearance of "ordinary people," whatever that means, on television as being inherently interactive. I don't quite get that - I think I'm missing something.

Your choice to interview your friends is interesting. It would have been fun if you'd framed this as being interactivity - them determining how you would write the essay.

I liked Megan's comment, and your response to it. I would have liked to see more on the inherent tension between reality and interactivity.

You're setting up a spectrum of "realness," with Big Brother on one end and the Hills on the other end. You're trying to hash out something about the relationship between "realness" and interactivity here; I wish I understood it better. Your implicit belief that interactivity is inherently good keeps coming back; I would have liked more of that, especially at the beginning.

I think your discussion of the higher levels of interactivity that appear with user-user interaction and cast creation was good.

"With the increase in interactivity levels in today’s reality television viewers are getting an opportunity to stop being mindless drones and start making a difference in what they watch." Ok. So it seems to be that your argument boils down to something like "with the addition of interactivity, reality tv becomes stimulating instead of stupid." I'm fine with that - in fact, I think it's interesting - but the whole paper would have been considerably more effective if you had stated that at the beginning in an appropriate context - are you arguing, for instance, that reality tv properly implemented will make us smarter, or make better choices (like CYOAs teach kids about decision making)? Or simply that it makes us less stupid than if we watched other forms of television.

Overall: This paper has improved greatly in every way; I found it genuinely interesting, and you have a number of clever ideas. Your research was effective, and your use of the interviews was a nice touch. Your argument was not as strong as it could have been, though, which greatly weakens the whole thing.