Reality Programs - A Brief Guide for Dummies

Reality show - TV programme where ordinary people, not actors by vocation, are being continuously filmed in real or spontaneous situations, with no screenplay or plot prepared.

We will analyze in this text whether the term reality fully conforms to the above definition.

Anyhow, reality shows have become an immanent phenomenon in mass media, but also in our homes, as testified by the following data provided by Google for the previous year:

rijaliti prvi po pretrazi
Source: BBC Serbia

Yes, you saw it right, reality shows managed somehow to outrun in searched terms one of the greatest Serbian actors, even the unbeatable soccer. Lest we forget the Red Star, that is something I cannot forgive...

Even the post you are reading is one of the most read ones on the blog, only because of its topic and keywords. It is true that the bounce rate is highest as well, as many unsuspecting visitors swiftly closed the page and ran away as fast as they could the moment they realized they would not get what they had expected.

There is one obvious takeaway I can infer from this - there are huge crowds out there faking when they claim they are not watching reality, neither read about it and have absolutely no clue about the participants. They are lying. But Google doesn't (at least not in this case).

Let's dig why it is so and what is going on with our lovely country (Serbia), have we really become so corrupt or should we blame it on something else...

Primordial need for catharsis

The goal of the tragedy is catharsis - a moral cleansing and the soul's ascendance above all corporeal, sensory cravings and dirt.


Although the phenomenon of reality shows is generally associated with the boom this TV format experienced in the early 21st century, these programmes had their forerunners in the distant past. Just recall Roman colosseums and gladiators, for instance. Or Greek amphitheaters and the Olympic Games. Or English theaters at Shakespeare's time.

You probably wonder why I refer to colosseums, arenas and theaters and what on earth they have to do with reality shows?

Roman colosseums staged gladiator fights. The fights whose outcome was not always known, but one thing was certain. That there will be a lot of blood, suffering and mutilations. The audience came to witness it and that is what they expected to see.

a gladiator

Why did they want to see that? Well...those were the standards back then.

They had neither TV, nor the Internet, nor the Champions League, nor reality shows. They had to sublime somewhere their negative energy and innate aggressiveness.

It suited the rulers as well, who presented gladiator shows as gifts to the people. Much better than turning into the targets of such negative energy themselves. I know what you are thinking, but wait a bit, I have still not finished...

stadioni i moderni gladijatori
modern colosseums

The ancient venues of trial and suffering have been replaced with modern sports arenas, similar in their shape and content to ancient colosseums. It's just that contemporary athletes replaced the beefy gladiators.

Yet, the essence remained the same: fights, fervent supporters, intense emotions, aggressiveness and audience rejoicing in the contestants' injuries and humiliations. The audience is left to watch the spectacle, to identify themselves with participants and to give vent to their emotions.


Theaters at Shakespeare's time used to be banned and they were considered common people's entertainment, while the acting companies would be frequently closed down and banished. Some of the actors could not enjoy the status of free citizens, they were treated as ramblers and vagabonds unless they were protected by rich mentors.

Censorship was not unusual either, since the plays frequently abounded with insinuations about the court, the church, social order, and critics were not adored back then either. 

Ordinary people tossed below the stage and cheered imaginary heroes acted upon by amateur actors in the beginning.

Some early drama forms comprised of morality plays, depicting everyday circumstances and moral dilemmas, where actors featured abstract human weaknesses and virtues or some moral categories.

That is why the stage was dominated by Vice, Greed, Virtue, Honesty, Man, Justice, etc. The audience could easily identify with such allegorical representations.

The spectators really enjoyed the show and it could hardly make a distinction between acting and reality. They vehemently cheered and shouted, reacting to conflicts, unexpected tidings, culminations.

Does it sound familiar?

Of course. It is not difficult to draw a parallel with contemporary concept of "bread and circuses", it's just that it is brought to perfection nowadays.

The History of TV Realities

The first TV reality is linked to the early 1940s and the emergence of television. The US Candid Camera produced by Allan Funt (Candid Camera) is one of such examples. But it is still far away from what we presently consider a reality show.

prvi rijaliti program
Allan Funt (Candid Camera 1948) – the first "reality show“

It shyly went on with theMiss America Paegant Debuts, followed by the UK Seven up - a documentary where individuals were interviewed once every 7 years, monitoring their development.

For more information, this link provides an overview of how reality shows evolved through history.

timeline rijaliti programa
the development of reality shows

Reality had its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s when a grand-scale production of global franchises began, of the famous realities (Big Brother, Survivor, American Idol, Dance with the Stars, Talent)…

The show was slowly reduced to its cliche and recognizable forms. The setting is usually similar - a group of people locked in a limited space covered by cameras 24x7. Participants move in physically large but socially narrow environment, of a closed type, with no contact with the outside.

The social dynamics within the group is gradually intensified, while the contestants are being expelled one by one by spectators' or participants' votes, only to be finished by announcing the winner who gets a cash award.

The business plan of a reality show

As far as broadcasters and producers are concerned, their business plan is pretty clear. The cheapest production, amateurs ready to perform various tasks and to be humiliated in exchange for cash and a moment of fame, long airtime of programmes (sometimes as long as 6 months continuously), great marketing potential (advertisements, SMS, paid editorials in printed and electronic media) and fantastic rating seem like an awesome recipe for hefty profits.

SMS glasanje

That is why reality shows have become so popular and wide-spread. As with most TV formats, reality is imported from the States, and these programmes have seen a huge expansion across the world. However, they are best received in third world countries where the awareness of an average TV consumer, unaccustomed to this type of content, is still pretty low.

Constantly lowering the bar

For truth's sake, at issue is a global phenomenon which still doesn't wear off and constantly shifts the boundaries, even in the most developed countries.

Just note the ideas for some of the conteporary realities: The Love Island where completely naked participants "hand out" on an isolated island. DNA where fatherhood is determined upon the initiative of those who have grounds for suspicion in the fidelity of their respective others, the Kardashians, about the famous family of an Armenian starlet whose turned a celebrity owing to her home porn...

The bar is constantly lowered and there is very little room left until reality is merged with snuff genre, which will eventually bring the scenes of torture, mutilation, abuse and killing on our TV screens. Gladiators live!

Why we like to peek

The need to gossip and slander increased as human communities grew larger.

Sherry Turkle, professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT

Let's see what has been alluring people over centuries to sneak into other people's lives and misfortunes.

What kind of anxiety and curiosity turns a decent man into a consumer of the most vulgar contents.

First of all, voyeurism is probably deep-rooted in the behaviour of our ancestors who lived in caves and small communities made up of no more than scores of members.

our caveman cousin

In such circumstances, people had almost no secrets and nothing to hide. Intimacy and privacy, as we see it, had probably not existed at all.

They knew everything about each other and basic needs were accommodated in front of everybody's eyes, as in the animal world.

It is probably a relict of this time, our need to know what others are up to, as it became one of taboos in the further development of civilization. Especially when some physiological needs and instincts are concerned.

Prohibitions and social norms have been instilled over time, but curiosity remained. To peek over our neighbour's fence, into his bedroom, to overhear a part of the conversation or a quarrel.


This type of curiosity remained innate, and we should not feel ashamed when we recognize it. But we can suppress it. At least that is what we should do in a civilized society.

But, once home alone, such curiosity tingles and itches. Then, trapped in our cubicles, we read and spread gossip, slander the ones who are not present, we amuse ourselves with porn, or simply watch reality and get an all-in-one package.

Ordinary people or "I know that guy"

There's another thing - we have some ordinary guys in reality shows, rather than celebrities, who are faced with seemingly realistic situations. It is automatically easier to us to relate to such people and all their virtues and faults.

Miki Rijaliti
a beekeeper from Kupinovo, frequent inmate of Serbian realities

Plots may seem spontaneous and realistic, but it is just an illusion. Perhaps it used to be like that in the beginning. And then the production realized that it must improve the show's rating.

Now we have meticulously directed plots, where "actors" are well paid to play by the script, while the spectator remains convinced that everything takes place spontaneously. Instead, everything is pre-prepared in detail, from the plot and conflicts, mating and coupling, to expelling and pronouncing winners. A parade of exhibitionism may kick off.

Reality culture

The contents of reality shows are watched live, but they can be consummated on a catch-up basis in the era of digital TV, by replaying clips or recordings on youtube, or by reading newspaper articles and media coverage.

By perpetuating reality content, a sort of reality culture is created, which starts permeating other walks of life as well. While commuting to work or during their office hours, people are recounting the previous day's events, not their own, but those of reality stars.

Print and electronic media are trying to get an upper hand in launching prosaic headlines and recounting incidents from reality dens. The context is predominantly negative and derisive, but the show must go on, and even bad publicity is better than silence, it is a well-known fact. We discussed it in more details in the post about fake news.

The creators of such contents are deliberately trying to shock you, to make the mankind, your country, your surroundings appear repulsive and disgusting...They rejoice while you criticize the programmes that make you stay late at night and sport some terrible eye sacks at work in the morning.

They are in ecstasy while you are sending SMS with the proposals which prick to expel this week. As you buy cheap tabloids, 25 dinars each, featuring pornographic front pages. Or while you click provocative headlines on their portals which tickle your imagination too much. That way, you enable them and their families and probably their future offsprings to lead a comfortable care-free lives.

Vent for personal frustrations

Let's get back to the beginning of this post for an instant. Enjoying other people's misfortune and humiliation does remind us of Roman colosseums, gladiator fights, blood and victims. Adrenaline is sought out, excitement, action. A sacrifice is offered to the gods of darkness, the darkness in human hearts.

In a way, it is also a vent for personal frustrations. By watching a humiliating behaviour of reality show participants, we are somehow setting up a benchmark. We assert our own values, often insecure about the same, contrasting them to vulgar and primitive behaviour of reality inmates.

Besides, in that manner we mitigate our own problems. We deplete the sense of our own responsibility for undesired things in our lives.

,,I am not that bad considering all these idiots".

It is interesting to see serious, elderly people, voluptuously consuming reality programmes. Sometimes these are our parents, neighbours, grandparents... They watch and disbelieve. They are pissed and shocked, but still they watch.

žrtva rijalitija
A doctor's recommendation to one of reality "victims" /highlighted - prohibited watching of reality programmes/

And what about the actors? Well, the actors are like gladiators, for one-time use only. However, as it often happens, at least in Serbian realities, the same characters haunt realities on various TVs, for several seasons. One would almost believe that they are rarely set free in open air.

It makes watching these contents easier, since people are familiar with their characters, and the production skillfully uses it, and serves the audience with what they normally expect.

As if they put a lion and an antelope in the same cage in a zoo. People would no doubt shoulder their way up to see what would happen. To see something they already know.

lav i antilopa
appalled with natural and expected

Cleansing of soul and ravaging the brain

We all started resembling some of the reality show actors. I feel something like Jim Carrey in Truman's Show. I wish to get out, but then I get scared that an altered reality is waiting out there.

Truman rijaliti
Truman's Show

This feeling is probably created by the insight that we are not agents of our destinies, that we are just puppets in a power play between some stakeholders who pull strings and play with our lives.

As if our hands were tied and we helplessly observe our lives from the distance, displaced from our own perspective.

Overwhelmed with aesthetic toxins and amoral trash.

It may be the reason why such an apathy reigns, people are left without faith in free will and their own influence.

Do not let them make you believe that! You still have the remote control in your hands.

Switch off your TV! Lock the channels where realities are aired! Put your brain to work!