The Impact of Reality Televsion on Viewers` Perception of Reality
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
PONTIUS, E. S. (2003). The Impact of Reality Televsion on Viewers` Perception of Reality. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Impact of Reality Televsion on Viewers` Perception of Reality
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
Television’s effect on viewers is a subject that has been extensively studied in the last twenty years and whose impact extends farther than most people realize. Many studies have focused on how television programs that appear to be “real” (such as news and daytime dramas) alter the viewers’ perception of reality (or social reality). However, recently a new fad in television has surfaced and it appears to be taking over. Reality television is overtaking the networks and polluting the viewers’ minds with distorted pictures of reality, leaving behind an even bigger effect than that of regular television. The researcher in this study sought to find the effects of reality television on the viewers’ perception of reality. Thirty subjects were used in the study and three different conditions were tested: a reality scale group; a reality television clips and scale group; and a reality television clips, application for reality show, and scale group. A significant difference was found in the scores between the reality scale group (group 1) and the clips and scale group (group 2). Those who watched the clips of shows before taking the scale rated the events in the scale much higher than those who did not view the clips. There was also a significant finding in the amount of hours of television the subjects view a week and the score of the scales. Those who watch more television scored the scale higher than those who do no watch as much television. Future research should examine the relationship between the viewers’ perception of reality and reality television programming by using different methods of testing the viewers’ reality perception to see if the effects remain constant.


The Impact of Reality Television on Viewers’ Perception of Reality

Erika S. Pontius

Missouri Western State College

Reality television is a relatively new fad in America that is sweeping the networks’ ratings and redefining programming altogether. Viewers cannot seem to get enough of the torture, embarrassment, temptation, and above all, drama of other regular, everyday people being placed in unrealistic settings and manipulated for the world to see. Where did these incredibly thriving and rapidly multiplying shows get their start? In 1973 PBS released the first reality television show: an unintentionally dramatic series called An American Family. The show featured a family, the Louds, who volunteered to let PBS film their lives for seven months. During this period of time the Louds encountered many difficulties such as the marital breakup of the parents, Bill and Pat, and their astonishment at the coming out of their son, Lance (Rowen, 2000). As the Loud family disintegrated, an amazing ten million Americana watched on with sick pleasure. Although three hundred hours of footage were shot of the family, only twelve were used for the show and the Louds later complained that the chosen footage and editing of the show gave a misrepresentation of their lives. However, the show’s drama spoke volumes and America listened with an eager ear. Years later MTV’s The Real World would become the darling of reality television and the inspiration for the average American’s fifteen minutes of fame, which continues to fuel the fire of volunteer based reality programming today. Why are networks giving such a push to reality programming? According to a recent article by Laurie Hibberd, cost has much to do with it. “Reality shows cost an average of $400,000 per hour to produce versus $2 million for a dramatic series”(Hibberd, 2002). With this vastly less expensive option and the ratings for reality programming going through the roof, every network that wants to continue doing business feels the need to market new reality shows and somehow keep America begging for more; so far this plan is working. Throughout the wide variety of all of these reality shows a common thread remains: the people starring in the shows are supposedly all regular, “real” people going through “real” situations. One has to wonder what this bombardment of “realness” must do to the viewers. How does reality programming change the viewers’ perception of social reality? Gerbner’s cultivation theory seeks to explain the connection between the programming viewers watch and their perceived reality (O’ Guinn, Shrum, 1997). “The more people watch television, and hence are exposed to these distortions of reality, the more they will come to view the real world as similar to the world portrayed on television and thus perceive a greater real-world incidence of the over-represented entities.” The cultivation theory has been supported by a number of studies although the connection is merely correlation and therefore subject to alternate explanations. Because television viewing is so common amongst Americans, it is nearly impossible to judge the impact that it has on viewers. Both the participants and experimenters are usually pre-exposed to so much television that it is hard to establish a base of comparison for an unaltered perceived reality. More often than not, the representations of social reality on television are not true to objective reality (O’Guinn, Shrum, 1997). The average American watches at least four hours of television a day (O’Guinn, Shrum, Wyer, 1998) and with the growing number of reality television shows hogging air time, it seems safe to assume that the cultivation theory would be greatly strengthened by this “reality” craze. The cultivation theory suggests the relationship between regular television viewing and the viewers’ perception of reality, but it would seem that the viewers’ perception of reality would be even more grossly altered by television viewing if the programming repeatedly inferred that the situations and people being viewed were, in fact, real. Past studies indicate that students who viewed programming that was considered to be highly unrealistic (for example, the soap opera As the World Turns) still molded students’ perceptions of reality (Grady, 1982). Those who viewed the soap opera were more likely to accommodate their perceptions of reality to include more deception and lack of trust in others when faced with hypothetical situations as opposed to weighing the situations and using critical thinking skills to discern the truth. Studies such as these are helpful in gaining understanding about perception of reality and television; however, due to the relatively new nature of reality television very little research has been done on how reality television fits into the cultivation theory. The purpose of this study is to cover the somewhat uncharted territory of reality television and find how it alters the viewers’ perceived reality. It is assumed that after viewing reality programming, participants will demonstrate a more accommodating social reality than they did before viewing the reality programming and also that those who have more motivation to make these accommodations (consideration to be involved in a reality show) will make the greatest accommodations.


Participants Thirty students from a northwestern Missouri college were used as participants in this study with approximately ten subjects in each condition (the reality scale group, the reality clips and scale group, and the application, clips, and scale group). These groups were determined by using pre-existing classes. Both genders were tested as well as a varying range of ages (18-23) and ethnic backgrounds. Participants were not chosen or grouped based on amount of average television viewed or by exposure to reality television specifically. Materials The materials that were used in this study consist mainly of a video clip (approximately five minutes) that contains short clips from popular reality television shows. The shows that will be included in this video display are: The Real World, (season 11 episode 12); The Family, (episode 1, preview clip), Are You Hot, (Season 1 final episode) and The Bachelor (season 3, episode 2 preview). These clips contain dramatic responses and whimsical situations that should seem unrealistic or out of the norm to the average viewer. Also the “application for reality television show” group was given an application for a made up reality television series. This fake application was constructed based on the application for Survivor and shortened for the purpose of this study. A scale judging perception of reality will contain situations that seem somewhat unrealistic but are similar to or agree with those shown in the reality show clips or from other episodes of reality television shows not chosen for the clips (see Appendix A). Procedure Three pre-existing classes were selected for this experiment, with one assigned as the control group, one as the “viewed clips” group and the third as the “application for a reality show” group. The control group was given only the reality measure scale. In the scale students were asked to rate the likelihood of certain events occurring in real life to normal people. These situations were based on similar scenarios found in popular reality television shows. The “viewed clips” group was given the same scale as the control group after viewing four clips from reality television shows. These clips were selected from popular reality television shows and lasted about one to two minutes each. The “application” group was first given a fake application for a reality television show named College Life and were told to look over the application questions to get an idea of what producers look for in applicants. The “application” group then viewed the reality show clips and completed the scale.

A one- way ANOVA was computed comparing the reality scale scores of all subjects from the three conditions. A significant difference was found among the three conditions (F(2, 27) = 3.66, p< .05). Tukey’s HSD was used to determine the nature of the differences between the conditions. This analysis revealed that subjects in Condition 1 (the control “scale only” group) scored lower (m = 52.55, sd = 14.19) than subjects who had Condition 2 (the “reality show clips and scale group”) (m = 71.60, sd = 15.54). Subjects who had Condition 3 (m = 57.11, sd = 20.30) were not significantly different from either of the two other groups.A one- way ANOVA was computed comparing the reality scale scores with the amount of hours the subjects spent watching television weekly. A significant difference was found among the four groups (group 1 = 0-3 hours per week, group 2 = 3-5 hours per week, group 3 = 5-10 hours per week, and group 4 = 10 or more hours per week) (F(3, 26) = 8.07, p< .01). Tukey’s HSD was used to determine the nature of the differences between the hour group scores. This analysis revealed that subjects in hour group 1 (0-3 hours) scored lower (m = 46.67, sd = 12.19) than those in hour group 3 (5-10 hours) (m = 69.00, sd = 14.50) and hour group 4 (10 hours or more) (m = 81. 50, sd = 15.02). There were no significant differences found between groups 1 and 2, between groups 2 and 3, or between groups 3 and 4.

The research on reality television is a relatively untouched subject and therefore it is difficult to find past studies to model after or use for support. Most existing research on the topic of perception of reality pertaining to television viewing is focused on news, violence, or daytime dramas and therefore this study was one of the first of its kind. The relevance of such a study lies in the fact that reality programming dominates most television networks, therefore most of the students who reported watching five or more hours of television a week are overwhelmingly viewing reality programming. This study found that those who were directly exposed to reality television clips prior to taking the situational reality scale scored much higher than those who did not view the clips. However, those who received an application for a reality television show, viewed the clips, and then completed the scales had scores that were not significantly different to those who only received the scale without viewing the clips. A possible reason for this opposite effect is that the subjects who were given the application and viewed the clips were too suspecting of the scale and purposely ranked the events lower. The purpose of the study was most likely too obvious to this group and that is the reason for the lower scores. Perhaps a more natural method for testing this effect would be helpful for future research. Also a significant finding was displayed between the number of hours of television subjects watched weekly and how high they scored on the reality scale. Those who viewed five or more hours of television a week had significantly higher scores than those who watched from zero to three hours a week. Those who watched three to five hours a week were significantly different from those who watched ten or more but from those who watched five to ten hours. The findings of this study do support the prior research done on Gerbner’s cultivation theory and also suggests that the effects of reality television should have an even greater effect than regular television programming. Future research on this topic should seek to define the messages (negative and positive) that reality television is sending to its viewers and establish in a firmer way the immediate and lasting effects it has on the viewers construction and perception of reality.

On a scale of 1 to 10 please rank the likelihood of the following events occurring to normal people in real life situations, with 1 being extremely unlikely that the event would occur and 10 being extremely likely. Please circle the appropriate number below each question.

1. Two college students meet at a party and experience love at first sight1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

2. Two female roommates who are friends gossip behind each others’ backs 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

3. A young man wins a large sum of money and will not share it with his family1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

4. A woman accepts the fact that the man she loves is seeing other women and continues to pursue him.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

5. A man’s handsome appearance earns him celebrity status1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

6. A young woman sees her favorite band in concert and ends up kissing the lead singer1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

7. A man kisses ten different women all on the same day1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

8. An unknown singer scores overnight success and receives a huge record deal 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

9. A homosexual male “comes out” in a public way before informing his parents1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

10. A young woman bawls and feels completely inadequate when a man she has just met does not seem interested 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10Personal Information

Age __

Sex: (please circle) Male Female

Approximate average hours of television watched per week (please circle the best answer) 0-3 hours 3-5 hours 5-10 hours 10 or more hours

Grady, Barbara K. (1982). What is TV’s “reality” doing to students’ perception of the real world? Etc., 39, 151-158.Hibberd, Laurie. (2002, July 14). The Death of Sitcoms, TV Dramas? Retrieved March 3, 2003.’Guinn, Thomas C. & Shrum, L. J. (1997). The role of television in the construction of consumer reality. Journal of Consumer Research, 23, 278-294.O’Guinn, Thomas C., Shrum, L. J., & Wyer, Robert S. Jr. (1998). The effects of television consumption on social perceptions: The use of priming procedures to investigate psychological process. Journal of Consumer Research, 24, 447-459.Rowen, Beth. (2000, July 21). History of Reality TV. Retrieved March 3, 2003.

Submitted 4/22/2003 10:57:55 PM
Last Edited 4/24/2003 10:33:16 AM
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