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According to the New York Daily News, “The average American over the age of 2 spends more than 34 hours a week watching live television, plus another three to six hours watching taped programs.” Television can influence one to form perceptions, thinking, language, referential values, as well as serve as a gateway to a wider world. It has been said that AV content increases retention by 50 percent. Its wide use makes it the most influential language enhancing tool. It is easy to see that television can be very effective in the classroom, but there are many types of television shows. These may include sitcoms, cartoons, game shows, and the most recently popularized reality TV.

Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents unscripted situations and actual occurrences, and often features a previously unknown cast. The genre often highlights personal drama and conflict to a much greater extent than other unscripted television such as documentary shows. The genre of Reality TV incorporates unscripted dramas, makeover sagas, celebrity exposés, lifestyle-change shows, dating shows, talent performances and almost any kind of competition you can think of. In competition-based reality shows, there are multiple common elements that occur. These elements may include one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of immunity from elimination. The genre began in the early to mid-1990s with The Real World. It then exploded as a phenomenon in the early 2000s with the global success of the popular series Survivor and Big Brother. These shows, along with a number of others became global franchises. Reality television is said to have become “a fixture of television programming”.

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“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”

Why is it important to study Reality TV in the classroom?
By using Reality TV shows as a learning device in the classroom, students will be able to explore many different topics. Some topics that are typically thought about in relation to television may include, race, culture, and gender. But there are also some common themes that can challenge students to think and engage in a productive discussion in various subjects. Two common themes that will be used in this guide include the idea of “The American Dream” and the media’s influence on body image through Reality TV.

Reality TV : A Shortcut to the American Dream

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"Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each, according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”-James Truslow Adams

Tales of rags to riches have a history in television, but in the last decade it has created a whole new stage for young people wanting to show off their talents. Every year, tons of Americans from all over try out for talent related reality shows. By just tuning in every week, these shows have made a huge impact on the idea of The American Dream for some young people. Due to the way these shows portray life, it isn’t surprising if one may find themselves searching for fame and fortune on the road to success. In today’s society, a person can audition for a show and can either tell a sob story or make a complete fool of themselves and become famous. But is that really success? Where is the hard work that was supposed to be a part of the dream? This Clip from American Idol Season 12 promotes the American Dream:

(By using Reality TV shows like this one students can identify the urgence and importance of living the
"American Dream")
Reality TV shows where this theme occurs can be shown in the classroom to emphasize the difference in values in America. Other clips can be shown from the hit show American Idol, of contestants from all over auditioning to become America’s next big star. Students will be able to see contestants be turned down (because they don’t meet the needs of what the judges want) or even just make fools of themselves.

After watching, students should be able to see that some will do whatever to make it to fame. A discussion can be started after the clip. Some questions may include:

  • Does today’s idea of the American Dream give a sense of “false hope” to younger viewers?
  • Has fame and fortune become the ideal way of life?
  • Do you think becoming a famous star is the only way to become successful in America?
  • Why do you think some people worship this lifestyle? Is it because of the way the media subconsciously says one’s life should be in order to reach success?

Fame is not the only thing, these constants are after. They strive to achieve fortune. Reality TV also has a genre of competition shows where contestants will do anything to get money. These shows display America’s greed and urgency to “Get Rich Quick”. Contestants are forced to go out of their comfort zones to do something they have never done before. In relation to Reality TV shows The American Dream could now be defined with this quote, “I want fame and fortune and I want it now!” An example is the reality TV series, Fear Factor. 8 Most Disgusting Fear Factor Stunts

It is important to discuss America’s values and ways of living in regards to many different subjects. Subjects may include History, Social Studies, Culture Studies, etc.

To start a discussion, have students identify their idea of a "Perfect Life"
Define in your own words "The American Dream"
Have students then watch this clip:

After showing the clip, ask students their imput. Does this change their ideas about a perfect lifestyle?
Have a discussion, then compare common themes between American Idol and The Great Gatsby in relation to " The American Dream"

Reality TV: Beauty is in the Eye of the TV Screen?
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It has become obvious that beauty is highly emphasized in mainstream media in today’s society. Every day we see “idealized images of women”, what media portrays the “perfect woman” to look like. For example, in American culture, the media has a habit of portraying the “ideal” woman as thinner than her real life counterparts. “Makeover shows may be dangerous to viewer’s body image, as cosmetic surgery and extreme dieting are portrayed as a normal, everyday method of achieving and ideal physical form that will in turn, bring them wealth, success, and an ideal mate” (McClanahan,2007; Streitmatter.2004)

Although some viewers might think that Reality TV would include more realistic representations of female bodies, this is not true. Students should be able to grasp this concept by watching a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model. There are many requirements to be a participant on this show. There are height, weight, and even age requirements to even be considered. The contestants chosen to participate in the show include a number of girls with the “idealized body type”. What is this telling our girls who are watching?

One of the judges from America’s Next Top Model, Janice Dickenson left the show and started her own reality show in 2006. The reality show filmed Janice as she proceeded to get her modeling agency off the ground. She blew through 500 contestants to find her 5 finalists. This show is a perfect example of how poorly body image is perceived. In an interview with Janice Dickinson she said,” I’m trying to get my models to lose weight; in fact I wish they would come down with some anorexia.” She then goes on to say, “Models are not supposed to eat. In fact I’m not going to eat for the rest of the day because we had this conversation” Click Here for full articleThe main question to ask is, how does this effect students?

How does this effect students?
Like previously mentioned, children and teens are brought up in a society that praises beauty. The media in general has a habit of emphasizing the factor that we should look a certain way. These images have a large impact on us which may go unnoticed. Reality TV is only one example of where it happens. It is important to study these issues in class so that our students can clearly recognize them and not fall into the media’s trap. Keeping a positive body image is very important. But as you can see our students are being told otherwise. By watching these real life shows, students will clearly be able to identify the issues with body image. Unlike a regular television shows, Reality TV can focus on what is really happening in America without a plot or script, real life people with real life issues.

Have students identify stereotypes and expectations burried in shows like America's Next Top Model.

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An activity may include having two photographs from a contestant from Americas Next Top Model. The first being a natural photo with no makeup or Photoshop and the other with it. Students shall analyze, and compare and contrast the photo.

For a fun activity, see if students can take the NO FILTER challenge. Students will be told to upload pictures to their Instagram without any filters. For the caption they must write what their best feature is and why. This activity will keep students involved as well as promote self-confidence and natural beauty.

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Work Cited
Beck, D., Hellmueller, L. C., & Aeschbacher, N. (2012). Factual Entertainment and Reality TV.Communication Research Trends, 31(2), 4-27.

Egbert, N., & Belcher, J. D. (2012). Reality Bites: An Investigation of the Genre of Reality Television and Its Relationship to Viewers’ Body Image. Mass Communication & Society, 15(3), 407-431. doi:10.1080/15205436.2011.583545

Hinkley, D. (2012, September 19). Americans spend 34 hours a week watching tv, according to nielsen numbers . Daily news. Retrieved from

Holmes, S., & Jermyn, D. (2004). Introduction: Understanding reality TV. In S. Holmes & D. Jermyn (eds.), Understanding reality television (pp. 1-32). London and New York: Routledge.

McClanahan, A. M. (2007). ‘‘Must marry TV’’: The role of the heterosexual imaginary in The Bachelor. In M.-L. Galician & D. L.

Merskin (Eds.), Critical thinking about sex, love, and romance in the mass media (pp. 303–318). Mahwah, NJ:Erlbaum.

Murray, S. (2009). “I think we need a new name for it”: The meeting of documentary and reality TV. In S. Murray & L. Ouellette (eds.), Reality TV: Remaking television culture (pp. 65-81). 2nd ed., New York and London: New York University Press.

Myers, P. N., & Biocca, F. A. (1992). The elastic body image: The effects of television advertising and programming on body image distortions in young women. Journal of Communication, 42, 108–133.

Streitmatter, R. (2004). Sex sells! The media’s journey from repression to obsession. Cambridge, MA: Westview.