It’s not hard to see why reality TV is popular with television production companies: It is cheap to make. Instead of depending on conventional writers and actors, reality shows rely more on recording and editing technology itself, which allows vast amounts of footage to be captured and pared down into satisfying, formulaic narratives. But what do these formulas consist of, and what makes them so compelling?
Reality TV has two basic genres, according to media scholar June Deery: docusoap, which primarily revolves around interpersonal relationships and lifestyles — shows like the Real Housewives and Big Brother franchises, or Duck Dynasty and the Kardashian shows — and competition, which explicitly pits participants against one another in what are typically elimination contests, using rewards and punishments to orient, motivate, and rationalize their behavior. But in certain respects, this distinction between genres is superficial. Regardless of whether participants are playing a literal game, in both reality genres they are ultimately competing against one another for attention and screen time.
That kind of attention can propel a reality-TV cast member into future career opportunities: more appearances on more shows, lucrative product endorsements, and even their own lines of products, as with the Kardashians’ media and merchandise empire or LA Ink star Kat Von D’s makeup line. Reality TV is an engine for turning attention into money not merely in the form of advertisements in and around the shows, but also across the participants’ lives, what the shows turn into platforms. This makes garnering attention the driving force behind the shows and their governing ethos — the model for how one should live and what one should want.
Our lives, too, can be conceived as platforms, and our experiences relevant only insofar as they enhance the value of our skill sets
Competitive reality TV might seem like a meritocratic alternative to the attention-grabbing instigation and ham-fisted melodrama of reality soaps. The format often exchanges screaming matches and backbiting for tests of skill and strength. These shows trade on the idea that hard work and individual talent eventually triumph, within competitions that ostensibly place all contestants on a fair, equal footing. But often the shows are less interested in celebrating merit than in re-creating an ideology of ruthless individualism in our living rooms and Twitter hashtags. These shows, by design, present individualism as an inherent part of human sociality: Manipulation, not cooperation, allows participants to effectively compete, whether in the context of winning challenges or gaining audience attention. Competition and conflict both reflect reality TV’s insistence on individuated narratives, reflecting the common wisdom this is what audiences want to see, and thus what advertisers are willing to pay for.
But why would audiences default to wanting to watch individuals pitted against each other? Such a formula may be popular because of how it conforms to our life experiences under an individualist and competitive model of capitalism. These principles become sense-making mechanisms, offering a way to understand and interpret our experience of culturally dominant narratives about the necessity of competition. As political theorist Wendy Brown argues in Undoing the Demos, our current neoliberal order is grounded in “a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms” and grounds individual subjectivity in notions of entrepreneurship. We are accordingly all market actor competing to increase the value of our human capital in the workplace, the educational system, and even the dating realm. Our lives, too, can be conceived as platforms, and our experiences relevant only insofar as they enhance the value of our skill sets for potential employers.
Individualism can only be a winning strategy in a system designed to reward it. This is as true of reality TV as it is of neoliberal society more generally. In competitive reality TV, participants must accommodate their behavior to the format’s zero-sum approach to outcomes and its contrived sense of fair play. In many shows, competitors face the same rules for challenges, are given the same materials and time constraints, and are judged according to the same standards and criteria. This suggests a level playing field, and the contestants tend to go along with this pretense. This permits viewers to overlook or bracket off the actually existing social and material hierarchies that have already conditioned competitors and shaped the advantages and disadvantages they bring to the contest. Instead, the contestants are seen through a bootstrapping ideological frame, as though individual hard work alone allows them to succeed, and not any of the advantages that adhere to belonging to a privileged social group.
On many shows, such as Survivor and The Bachelor, winners receive rewards that make subsequent challenges easier for them, and losers are likewise penalized. On the popular cooking competition show Hell’s Kitchen, each challenge is followed by a reward for the winning team, perhaps a spa day or a lavish meal aboard a yacht with host Gordon Ramsay, while the losing team is tasked with scaling fish or sorting trash, leaving them exhausted and discouraged. Privilege begets privilege.
This may not be especially fair, but it falls in line with a narrative of the rewards of hard work and the deserved punishments for failure. As Brown writes, “A democracy composed of human capital features winners and losers, not equal treatment or equal protection.” And it also tilts the scenario toward manufacturing conflict and drama, represented as the reward for watching, and by extension the reward for living in a ruthlessly competitive social world. With reality TV, a competition is fair if it is perceived as interesting. As players begin to differentiate themselves into legible characters (i.e. as they improve their human capital within the context of the show) they garner more screen time, more fans, and greater opportunities to market themselves as personalities.
To hold viewer attention, producers are willing run rampant over the idea of a level playing field. They often try to exacerbate tensions by planting certain storylines in cast members’ heads, or introducing copious amounts of alcohol to lubricate social interaction. If this fails to yield sufficient drama, scenes will be sequenced out of order or with context distorted to maximize the appearance of conflict.
With reality TV, a competition is fair if it is perceived as interesting
Thus the format of reality TV competition licenses and structures the cruelty staged for the audience’s delight. This culminates with the eliminations, but cruelty is doled out throughout the show, typically under the auspices of being blunt advice on how to deal with the “real world.” On The Apprentice, losers are ridiculed, insulted, and ultimately fired. On Shark Tank, would-be entrepreneurs are brutally scrutinized by wealthy judges, and on shows like Pop Idol and America’s Got Talent Simon Cowell brings performers to tears with brutal remarks. Chefs get Chopped and Alton Brown harasses harried cooks in Cutthroat Kitchen.
As conflict is structured as both the inevitable “reality” of economic life and the delectable drama that makes life consumable, compassion and cooperation are accordingly figured as unreasonable and unrealistic and boring. Manipulation, cutthroat morality, and contempt for weakness are represented as practical, even laudable means for attention and success; helping others is framed as a quick way to disappear. This narrative not only draws in and caters to audiences who are attracted to sadistic spectacle; it creates a pedagogy through which more and more viewers learn to enjoy conflict and humiliation as the rationale and reward for participating in contemporary capitalism.
Enter The Great British Bake Off. It is a competition with winners and losers, yet unlike other reality TV competitions, the contestants generally accommodate each other and even assist each other at times, freeing up counter space for their beignets when needed. The bakers on the show copy each other all the time, and no one seems to mind. They look around the room to see what others are doing, getting hints on proper technique from the open floor plan, with no complaints from the other competitors. In seven seasons, there has been only one serious charge of sabotage — “bingate,” when a competitor took another baker’s ice cream out of the freezer for too long, causing it to melt — but that seems likely to have been an unfortunate accident.
While reality TV judges are often merciless, Bake Off’s hosts Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are supportive, encouraging, and gentle with criticism. The show’s presenters, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, cheer the contestants on and lend a hand when needed. In the conventional “confessional” asides, contestants are without the usual snark and disdain for other competitors. They may be nervous, proud, disappointed, or even a bit jealous, but they are never mean. Rather than relying on conflict and cruelty, Bake Off entertains audiences through charm, pleasant and relatable characters whom you can’t help but root for, and baking that showcases contestants’ skill rather than their ability to stir up drama. It offers an alternative to universalizing narratives of competitive individualism grounded in economic rationality, instead making cooperation and civility not only consumable but explanatory. The show is not just pleasing to watch; it offers a gratifying model of the human experience.
Part of the show’s tonal difference may stem from its British sensibility. But this does not explain Bake Off’s popularity with American audiences. Though hard numbers are difficult to obtain because most U.S. viewers see the show through Netflix, which rarely releases viewer data, the sheer number of write-ups and the social media buzz surrounding it suggests how keen Americans are for a different kind of reality TV show. Megan Reynolds, at New York magazine’s Vulture site, called it “a much more civilized reality-television model than the American version.” And this niceness is popping up in other U.S. reality shows, like American Ninja Warrior and Ultimate Beastmaster, where participants compete against the obstacle course, and ultimately themselves, rather than the other contestants.
The supportive disposition of Bake Off, like the nastiness in conventional American reality shows, stems from its format and the incentives it structures. Bakers are not stuck in a dormitory for five weeks of filming, isolated from the world and instigated to fight with one another. According to host Sue Perkins, the producers make no attempt to create extra drama by pitting contestants against each other or harping on sob stories to make the characters more compelling. The drama is about whether someone’s cake will rise, not how one baker will badmouth another.
The producers of Bake Off make no attempt to pit contestants against each other or harp on sob stories to make the characters more compelling. The drama is about whether someone’s cake will rise
During the first season of Bake Off, Perkins reports that when producers tried to manufacture drama on the show, leaving several contestants in tears, she and Mel walked off set. “A good Bake Off for me is just about cakes and nice people,” Perkins said, “and that’s a successful show.” Similarly, American Ninja Warrior’s drama hinges on whether an athlete successfully completes the course, and the show’s hosts cheer on rather than ridicule the competitors as they struggle to defeat the obstacles. During training, competitors are allies who work together to become the best ninja warrior they can be. Individual personalities and interpersonal beefs don’t drive the show’s narrative. In fact, these shows hardly have narratives at all, if narrative is understood strictly in terms of individualization. The character-centered “plots” of so many other reality shows simply doesn’t fit the model of nice reality TV.
Reality TV purports to reveal the truth about human nature “when people stop being polite, and start getting real.” But who controls the “means of production” within a show — the producers or the competitors — has a significant impact on its structure and atmosphere, and how real politeness may seem to viewers. Material restrictions and artificial scarcities created by the producers stoke vendettas and resource scrambles among competitors to fuel the shows’ storylines. These are like Black Friday stampede stories, in which trendy consumer products are depicted as worth scheming, fighting, and hurting people for, and standing up for your family involves punching other parents out on Christmas Eve.
Depicting a shortage-ridden world rationalizes zero-sum competition and exploitation as necessary responses. It naturalizes selfishness as survival. This is not merely indoctrination; the narrative fits easily with ideological constructions we’ve already absorbed and we are already living with, in response to the economic inequalities capitalism already sustains.
Bake Off rests on a different premise: Contestants use any ingredients and materials they want, whether it’s home-brewed bubblegum extract, garden-fresh rhubarb, or specialty equipment made in their garage. This differs from shows like Cutthroat Kitchen, where cooks compete for every single resource available, from the ingredients to the cooking utensils. The show’s rules are lax, left to broad interpretation by the bakers. Winning yields no material reward, only recognition of success. Those bakers who stumble are offered advice that’s not overshadowed by derision.
This helps produce alternative narratives: that we can test our skills under difficult circumstances without demonizing our peers, we can work together when the situation calls for it, and we can hug it out when one of our compatriots has to say goodbye. Being eliminated on Bake Off is not a shameful, cold event. It is a bear-hugging love fest full of compliments and well-wishes. Competitors are happy for the weekly “Star Baker” and sympathetic to those who miss the mark on a challenge. Bake Off shows us a different way to understand what is “real” about human nature: We like a good competition, but we flourish in cooperative and positive environments.
This mirrors a side of everyday life that is less conducive to dramatic narrative but nonetheless fundamental to everyday experience. Go outside after a snow storm, and you’ll see people eager to help each other. Sure, some people will steal your freshly cleared parking spot while you’re at work, or offer to help you shovel only to ask for $10 for their services, but comradery is the norm.
It doesn’t take catastrophe to bring this out of people. We hold the door open for others; we help someone pick up their dropped groceries; we pitch in when a friend has to move. And Bake Off competitors help search for spoons when their fellow bakers are having a meltdown, unable find utensils in the last five minutes of the challenge. After all, who wants to succeed simply because another competitor didn’t have time to top their cake with blueberry and lemon jam?
Perhaps reality TV is becoming kinder in general, as Megan Garber argues, with shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dancing With the Stars increasingly choosing “supportiveness over sadism.” In an environment of political and interpersonal hostility, this is a trend we desperately need. We should not expect too much from Bake Off, or any particular show, but the tendency to cooperate can be amplified or suppressed through popular media. These shows point to how what is widely understood as “entertaining” can be structured differently, and how a better, more cooperative society can learn to find vicarious pleasure not in back stabbing, hostility, and exploitation without consequences, but in sharing, cooperation, and mutual respect.