The first Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program was given in 2001. Despite this recognition, popular discourse about quality programming rarely includes reality television. Here is a clip I shot in 2011 of Reality Rocks, a reality TV awards show and conference that was canceled after its first year. The ceremony included sixteen awards decided by over 100,000 fan votes. Later, the host acknowledges that "reality TV sometimes shows people at their worst and sometimes they show them at their best." Given the highly derogatory terms in which reality television is discussed, it may be hard to imagine the genre as capable of showing people at their very best. What does the one and only first annual reality TV awards show tell us about popular tastes for television?
Reality TV has some of the most diverse casts on television and yet it is often described as trash TV. Although multicultural representation does not equal liberation, I suggest that reality TV’s ill reputation is, in part, about who takes on these roles. The casts and producers are accused of “faking” interactions, while scripted television is complimented on its quality and the “realness” the actors portray. Thus, the produced performances in reality shows are valued less than in scripted television. While reality TV is indeed cheaper to produce, I argue that its lack of prestige also constructs the fans and stars as unworthy. Therefore, both the enjoyment and talent for reality TV are devalued as artificial and disposable. Race and class differences get parsed through the language of taste.
The distaste for reality marks the people and lifestyles represented as cast off entertainment for inferior publics. Arguing that reality has more stereotypical representations than “critically acclaimed” shows underscores how taste is used to manage both class and racial boundaries in the production and consumption of popular culture. Discounting reality television as simply distasteful never sees the fans or actors at their very best, but only and always at their very worst. I would say more but I think Lena Dunham’s about to win Best Director for Bad Girls Club!