Reality TV shows are not the most popular programs on TV (in the December 2, 2002 Nielsen ratings there is only one such show–Survivor, ranked eighth–in the top ten). But these programs arouse in their fans a particularly intense loyalty that makes them enthusiastic proselytizers. On a number of occasions when visiting friends or relatives of the thirty-something generation I have been shown tapes of entire series, presented as worthy of an interest no longer bestowed on fictions. For these people, television is about immediacy and spontaneity of narrative content, and reality TV is the exemplary form of television.

The cultural roots of Reality TV go back to the Romantic era and the emergent “realist” novel, which tells us, rather than the classical stories we already know, truths we dread, and are predictably fascinated, to learn. Cinema, the product of realist desire as much as of technological progress, began as a means of documenting the life-world, and although it soon evolved into a mode of fictional narrative that rivaled and surpassed the realist novel, cinema has never abandoned its documentary function. Television, immediately transmissible as film is not, has maintained a more uneasy balance between documentation and fiction; the mini-series, which takes advantage of the TV audience’s domestic regularity, is arguably its only original contribution–and a dubious one at that–to narrative form.

As a mechanical mode of reproduction, cinema already lends itself to the narrativization of everyday reality in modes such as cinéma vérité. But Reality TV is possible only on television, less as a technology than as a social institution; only on television can a narrative be strung out over several months, with episodes built around contestants in a staged but existentially real environment. Reality TV refuses to choose between chaotic spontaneity and aprioristic planning; it is both a contest focused on its outcome and a narrative sequence whose content it encourages its spectators to assimilate and recirculate in conversations with other spectators.

Télévision vérité has its lesser modes. There are websites that allow one to follow for a fee the movements of nubile young women, whose complicity in the operation, like that of the spectacularly indifferent coquette, is the source of its perverse attraction. But the exclusively sexual orientation of such forms of communication is the sign of their lack of public significance; in a word, they are forms of pornography. At an only slightly more respectable level, we encounter the low public mode made (in)famous by Jerry Springer: bringing people on stage to act out “life situations” in the public eye. These shows play on the tension between the viewer’s sense of superiority (“thank God I’m not like that”) and his frustrated anonymity (“that’s the kind of thing that gets you on TV!”). The vulgarity and/or naiveté of the audience for these shows is set just above the vulgarity and/or naiveté of those who participate in them. This is “popular” culture in the premodern sense of the term; we will find no yuppies here.

Very different are the high-profile programs we designate as Reality TV. Although there are competitions focused exclusively on objective achievement, either in a lengthy project (e.g., Frontier House, where three families were set down in the Montana wilderness and given several months to construct a homestead in which they could survive the winter), or in an extended “amateur hour” performance (e.g., American Idol), I will limit myself here to the Survivor format: a group of selected contestants are faced with “survival” challenges in an exotic location, while at the same time being obliged to expel members at regular intervals over a series of weeks until only two are left, at which point a vote of the former participants decides the victor. Thus what is ostensibly a struggle between the human community and nature is continually refocused as a competition among humans. This procedure would never have been conceived if it were not modeled on the key dynamic for establishing and reinforcing communal solidarity: sacrificial expulsion. Each week, the Survivor community reconstitutes itself by expelling the most marginal of its members, only to find that the task must once again be repeated. The ultimate winner’s dominance is less that of a Hobbesian monarch than of the Melanesian “big-man” who acquires ritually-based prestige by providing the most benefits to the others while offending them least.

Within this framework, we observe a variety of human behaviors, all provoked directly or indirectly by the organizers, from collectively and individually meeting natural and artificial challenges to complaining about each other’s personalities to intriguing with other participants to determine the next expulsee. As we watch the show an hour at a time, we know that the participants are living months-long in this environment. The narrative content, although staged for the camera, is qualitatively different from fiction: it is truly a selection from life–a life fully aware of the artificiality of its environment. The soap opera fan’s concern for the fate of her favorite character depends on her hypostatizing the narrative subject that controls this fate into a local divinity; the Survivor fan’s concerns are for real people whose motivations are contiguous to his own.

Most active participants in the workforce prefer to talk about sports events rather than soap opera episodes. The genius of Reality TV is to detach the spontaneity of the sports arena from the ritualized rigor of sport itself. Although the reality-show participants occasionally engage in game-like competitions, these never dominate the show’s overall narrative, but are summed up in the manner of newscasts of sports events. The real “game” is the show as a whole, with its ultimate goal of choosing the winner. Reality shows and sports events substitute for the transcendental relation between author and characters that defines fiction a shared framework in which the participants voluntarily assume the structure of the tragic agon; instead of the author’s killing off his characters, the characters take this responsibility on themselves. The esthetic oscillation characteristic of fiction between identifying with the characters’ desires and sharing the authorial subject’s perspective, to which we “sacrifice” our identification with the characters, is dampened by the fact that the latter are dependent on their “author” only for the external premises and parameters of their activity; instead of a supreme subject who negates the desires in which we participate, there is only an external set of rules that mandate victory and defeat, but not the parties who will experience them.

Athletes, bound by the rules of competition, are formally indifferent to their spectators; it is this sublime indifference, in which strength and skill are deployed and only thereby displayed, that makes sport truly a public function. The same is not true for reality shows.  By converting the arena of the athletic event into a life mode, the reality show renounces its unambiguous status as spectacle; the open-ended nature of the participants’ existential commitment makes our relationship with them unavoidably voyeuristic. This is not the crude voyeurism of shows that display the “private lives” of personages such as Anna-Nicole Smith or Ozzy Osbourne, whose very spectacularity is offered as an alibi for our prurient interest. But even under the more austere conditions of Survivor, we subject ourselves to the paradox of watching something not ontologically designated as watchable, of participating in the obscene.

The trade-off of the Survivor-watcher is between this obscenity and the asymmetry of the traditional esthetic relationship, in which we submit to the authorial subject’s cultural wisdom, as demonstrated in the visual media by the power to mobilize institutional and technological expertise. Not the least valid explanation of the continuing decline of the novel relative to film is that the filmmaker can demonstrate far more explicitly than the novelist his access to cultural capital. This same institutional structure is behind programs like Survivor, but it no longer acts to empower a central subject; the godlike television studio spends millions of dollars to send ordinary individuals to exotic climes to construct “their own” sacrificial narrative for the benefit of the spectator.

Here I return to the demography of the Reality TV audience: loyalty to these shows is particularly great among persons who are neither too young nor too old to be disaffected from the market system, and whose identification with it as a source of opportunity is more urgent than their need to witness cultural guarantees of its dominance. Reality shows appeal most to those who can imagine themselves as participating in them. The triumph of the obscene over the esthetic is welcome to the members of this post-millennial, “performatist” generation, who have learned from postmodernism to deconstruct preexisting hierarchical structures but who are also willing to take on the responsibility of constructing their own.