What do reality television audiences really think?
The University of Auckland
21 March 2013
The makeover – what do reality television audiences really think?
A new book on makeover reality television reveals that audiences are fully aware of the manipulation of candidates and viewers, and despite cynicism about the instruction and consumer plugs on the shows, remain committed to the possibilities of self-improvement.
Katherine Sender, Professor in Film TV and Media Studies at The University of Auckland, has written the first book to consider the rapid rise of makeover reality television shows from an audience perspective.
In writing The Makeover, Professor Sender conducted an audience research project on four US makeover shows: The Biggest Loser, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Starting Over, and What Not to Wear, talking with people throughout America to find out how they responded to these shows, and makeover television in general.
“Audiences are extremely savvy when it comes to reality television. They know that producers cast candidates who will perform for the cameras, and that shows are scripted to some extent, and certainly edited, for maximum drama.
“However, they also remain highly invested in the authenticity of the people they see on screen, and the feelings and experiences that go into their personal transformation. Even when they know a situation is manipulated, they still invest in the ‘reality’ of the candidates’ struggles and emotion,” says Professor Sender.
Professor Sender’s findings revealed many regular viewers were highly critical of the instruction offered in the shows, believing it unrealistic to the demands of everyday life: “The Biggest Loser advocated too extreme weight loss”, or “the clothes purchased on What Not to Wear were too expensive for ordinary people” were common complaints. Some women talked about using Queer Eye not for consumer advice, but to browbeat their husbands and sons to dress better and be more accepting of gay people.
Regular viewers tended to see shaming of wayward candidates as a good thing saying that some people need to be shown their faults in front of millions of viewers in order to be motivated to change. However they were highly critical when they thought the shows’ producers were humiliating candidates to boost audience ratings and make money, such as getting overweight people to run and jump, or showing up a candidate whose clothes demonstrated how poor he/she was.
“We are apparently less likely to enjoy laughing and pointing at ordinary people on screen than popular critics give us credit for,” says Professor Sender.
Her research included over 1800 survey responses from people who watched at least one of the four shows, interviews with regular viewers, and comparison interviews with people who hadn’t watched any of the shows. These were completed alongside textual analysis of all available seasons of the shows, and analysis of makeover television press coverage.
Professor Sender is author of the book Business, Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market (2004) and coeditor of The Politics of Reality TV: Global Perspectives (2011)