Is reality TV in a decline? A look at TLC and MTV reality TV shows

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With dozens of networks showing reality TV shows, MTV and TLC stand out in terms of provocative content and high ratings. Along with other forms of media, these networks have been accused of exploiting talent, serious issues, and subcultures. How have the networks evolved over the years, in terms of presenting reality TV? Each has maintained a level of responsibility, but ultimately, TV networks are concerned with entertaining content and profit.

Shows about the Amish

Shows about the Amish culture can be used as a barometer to measure the decline of reality TV. First, there was UPN's "Amish in the City" (2004), which featured a group of young Amish exploring the city. This honest look was somewhat subdued and documentary style.

Mose Gingerich, one of the cast members of "Amish in the City," again appears on "Amish: Out of Order" (2012), now as a community leader. Gingerich assists young people who wish to leave the Amish community and join the ex-Amish community. Gingerich narrates the episodes.

"Breaking Amish" (2012) shares the premise of "Amish in the City," however the show's airing network, TLC, has been repeatedly accused of airing a staged show to maximize drama. The network's ethics are further called into question due to accused exploitation of Amish culture.

Availability of information

These accusations have arisen partially due to the availability of information on the Internet and on social media sites, such as Facebook. Non-Amish and ex-Amish have come forward discussing the details of the cast members' lives, revealing that Rebecca and Abe, who 'start dating' on the show, may be living together and have a baby, and that this happened prior to the filming of the show. (The show depicts all of the cast members 'leaving' their respective communities.)

MTV aired the first "The Real World" in 1992, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was 8 years old. If a reporter wanted to learn more information about a cast member, he or she would have only public records and statements from personal connections. There were no Facebook pages to 'stalk' or Google cached pages to obtain. As a result, viewers may question the validity of the pioneer reality TV shows.

Variation by network -- Documentary or reality TV?

As reality TV developed, it became a more entertaining form of documentary. From an educational standpoint, this is continually valuable: Viewers can learn about issues like teen pregnancy ("16 and Pregnant") or the outdoors (Animal Planet's "Corwin Quest") without putting themselves at risk.

As ratings become more competitive, networks deviate from their original intent. Whereas TLC (originally "The Learning Channel") used to run shows about cooking and home improvement, its top earners are now reality programs about beauty pageants and the unusual. Where MTV (originally "Music Television") used to air music videos, it now includes entertainment news programs and a heavy dose of reality TV.

That said, MTV is the true pioneer in reality TV; not only were they the one of the first networks to broadcast reality TV, they have more or less done so responsibly, often using this programming as a platform to encourage its young demographic audience to vote, prevent unwanted pregnancies, and to avoid drinking and driving -- such as when the "Real World: Hawaii" crew notoriously intervened in the reality TV production by physically preventing cast member Ruthie from driving a car while she was inebriated.

TLC and other networks have no excuse to do otherwise. Posting supplemental content on a network website is inexpensive (if not free, considering advocacy organizations would likely provide copy free of charge) and valuable to the show's viewers. Critics will tolerate more wild and extravagant shows if the networks temper them with expert commentary and resources. MTV, for example, still airs segments with Dr. Drew, who educates the public about substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and other issues relevant to the audience.

"Jersey Shore"

MTV's hit "Jersey Shore" has made a lot of money. Its cast members are nationally known, and while their many drunken mishaps are evident (and recorded for posterity), people who have interacted with them often report that they are positive and kind when approached.

That said, "Jersey Shore" has become the low-point reference for anything mindless and trashy, from skin-tight dresses to promiscuity.

In the way the network presents the show, it's evident that "Jersey Shore" is there for entertainment, while shows like "True Life" are intended to remain documentary-style. There is a clear delineation.

Inexpensive to produce

For networks, it's all about what makes the most money. Reality TV is extremely profitable. First-season cast members are inexpensive to hire; there are generally no expensive sets; mobile production crews are small. Additionally, these shows are pitched to the major networks from small production companies that have borne most of the original production costs. This results in maximum profit for the network.

Reality TV is not going anywhere. People continue to indulge it, and networks continue to profit from it. Additionally, it follows the information age trend in which real-life, real-time media is broadcast continually. As news reporters have become biased commentators in the wake of constant information flow and availability of personal information, reality TV has fallen in line with the integration of information, media, news, and the Internet.

Regardless of a network's motive, it's inexpensive and helpful for the network to provide supplemental resources and information about the topic of the show, or at least point viewers to resources that can help them or provide a realistic perspective on the topic at hand. This only serves to entertain, involve, and engage the audience.

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