Forty-five percent of Americans watch reality TV, but reasons for watching differ dramatically across age and gender divides.
While the critics panned Big Brother I, viewers who supplemented their TV watching with online activity overwhelmingly loved the show.
Reality TV may have some staying power after all. This fall season, every major network has at least one reality series on its docket â€” from the debut of CBS's The Amazing Race to the return of ABC's The Mole and Fox's Temptation Island. And for the first time, reality programs will have the opportunity to jockey alongside sitcoms and dramas for industry kudos at the Primetime Emmy Awards later this month, since previously there were no categories that accommodated the genre. This year, voting procedures and prize categories have been revamped to make room for reality programs. CBS's Survivor has five nominations. Perhaps a win or two will allow this oft-criticized genre to shed its reputation as a fly-by-night novelty and become a legitimate contender in the ever-cluttered TV outback.
Or not. While some media experts believe reality television will alter the topography of TV Land, others are sure this season will mark the beginning of the end for the format, as over-scheduling tends to lead to overkill. Of course, the ultimate vote will be cast by the viewing public, and for now, that includes almost half of all Americans, as well as a full 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 57 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds â€” two segments most desired by advertisers.
What is it about the new crop of reality TV programs that has so many viewers riveted? What personality types are attracted to this genre? And what advertising messages and tactics are apt to resonate with these viewers? As the copycats mount, programmers and advertisers who want to connect with consumers through this television vehicle may benefit from understanding not only the demographic composition of this vast audience, but its attitudes, character traits and motivations for tuning in.
Forty-five percent of all Americans watch reality television programs. Of those, 27 percent consider themselves die-hard fans, watching as many episodes as possible, according to a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,008 people conducted exclusively for American Demographics by Edison, N.J.-based Bruskin Research. In fact, 37 percent of all Americans prefer to watch real people on television rather than scripted characters.
While much has been reported about how reality TV is reeling in teens and young adults for the networks, the programs actually attract a much wider fan base. Brian Devinny, who writes the online column, â€œThe Reality Factor,â€? on 3BigShows.com, says he receives e-mail from â€œall walks of life,â€? from housewives to lawyers, across all income and age brackets. â€œThe shows reach out to so many people on so many levels,â€? Devinny says. â€œWhen Survivor I was on, I had many retirees write in to me rooting for 72-year-old Rudy. It's not just young people tuning in.â€?
The results of the American Demographics/Bruskin survey illustrate that diversity. Of all those who watch reality television, 55 percent are ages 35 or older. In fact, even though 18- to 24-year-olds are the most likely age group to tune in, the largest portion of the reality TV audience (29 percent) is actually the 35- to 49-year-old group. And when it comes to gender divides, women are the die-hard fans, making up 64 percent of regular viewers (those who watch as many episodes as they can), while occasional viewers are slightly more male (55 percent versus 45 percent). Also noteworthy: reality TV watchers are primarily in the middle- to low-income brackets â€” 58 percent have annual incomes under $50,000 â€” and Southerners account for 39 percent of all reality TV viewers, compared with about 20 percent of residents in each of the Northeast, North Central and Western regions.
What exactly is it about reality TV that has attracted such a disparate group? According to Encino, Calif.-based E-Poll's syndicated online survey of 2,121 Americans, ages 18 to 54, the No. 1 reason people watch is the thrill of â€œguessing who will win or be eliminated from the show.â€? That thrill is the reason cited by 69 percent of all reality TV watchers, and 84 percent of regular viewers, who make a point to watch. The second and third most common reasons viewers tune in are to â€œsee people face challenging situationsâ€? and â€œimagining how I would perform in similar situations,â€? stated by 63 percent and 42 percent of all viewers, respectively.
Of course, reasons for watching reality TV differ dramatically across age and gender divides, according to E-Poll's findings. For example, 43 percent of 18- to 34-year-old viewers say they tune in because they like to see conflict break out among the contestants, compared with 29 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds. The older crowd, on the other hand, is more intrigued than younger viewers with following the contestants' strategies (41 percent versus 36 percent). Men are more than three times as likely as women to tune in to see physically attractive contestants (31 percent versus 9 percent), while women are more likely than men to tune in because they like guessing the outcomes (72 percent versus 65 percent).
Before becoming a contestant on The Mole and an alternate for Big Brother I, Wendi Wendt, 30, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was a fan of Survivor, and she continues to be an avid viewer of the reality TV genre. â€œIt's in my blood now,â€? she says. Her current fave is Fear Factor. â€œI enjoy seeing real people getting the chance to do extraordinary things, and how they evolve as people,â€? she says. And while Wendt has heard the accusations that the producers of Survivor and other reality shows allegedly manipulate outcomes, she's not bothered. Speaking from experience, she notes: â€œHow the players feel is real. You can see their true emotions, their frustrations, their joy. That's real enough for me. If some of the smaller details aren't so real, so be it.â€?
But other fans fear that producers of the programs are starting to tread too far off the path of â€œrealâ€? intentions. In so doing, they may start to lose a core group of viewers, says Mary Beam, a 38-year-old reality TV fan from Cleveland, Texas, who founded the Web site, RealityTVFans.com. â€œSome of the shows have started to cast only beautiful Hollywood types, who are just in it to become actresses, or overly obnoxious people who are obviously playing a role,â€? she says. In fact, of 18- to 54-year-olds who don't watch reality programs, 38 percent say it is because â€œthe contestants are just trying to get famous,â€? according to E-Poll. Says Beam: â€œThe viewers want to see people who look or act like we do. If we wanted fake, we'd be watching sitcoms.â€? In fact, E-Poll also found that 81 percent of viewers who stopped watching a reality program after sampling a show did so because they found the show to be â€œtoo scripted or not real enough.â€?
No group is more adamant about keeping reality TV real than the 18- to 24-year-old crowd, 44 percent of whom say they prefer to watch real people to scripted characters, according to the American Demographics/Bruskin survey. In fact, 27 percent of America's youth says that reality television is better than what's currently offered on the networks during prime time, compared with 15 percent of the total population who say the same.
â€œThese kids grew up with cable television, where unscripted, documentary-style shows have always been a staple,â€? says Ed Martin, programming editor at Myers Reports, which provides research for and about the media industry. â€œThis is what TV is to them,â€? he adds, noting that MTV's The Real World started making inroads with the genre 10 years ago. The popularity of this format with youth also has a lot to do with their growing up in a democratized society, where the Internet, Web cams and other technologies give the average Joe the ability to personalize his entertainment, notes Andy Dehnart, a 23-year-old self-described â€œreality TV addict.â€? â€œIn today's world, anyone can create a Web site, like I did,â€? says Dehnart, who founded RealityBlurred.com, a site that covers reality show news. â€œWeb logs are huge. Memoirs have taken off. As a culture, we've become so much more interested in real people.â€?
Jason Thompson, 20, from League City, Texas, who watches â€œevery reality show I can find,â€? says he likes shows that allow him to get to know the contestants. After the first Big Brother aired last summer, Thompson felt at ease sending e-mails to contestant Britney Petros and offered to design a Web page for her fans. Thompson and Petros ended up talking on the phone for half an hour, and while he didn't get the job to design her site, the two have become friends and trade e-mails, he says. Thompson adds that he, too, would like to be famous someday, and reality shows give him hope that he could be. â€œBecause the contestants are regular people just like me, it makes me feel like I could be one of them,â€? Thompson says.
This fascination with instant celebrity, focused on everyday people who find fame overnight, has been fueled by reality TV. But advertisers, especially those targeting youth, have been slow to catch on, says Irma Zandl, president of The Zandl Group, a market research firm in New York that caters to the under-30 segment. She cites a recent series of Levi's ads as an example of a missed opportunity. Each ad highlighted a teenager on a karaoke stage, singing horribly. â€œIf [Levi's executives] had instead [recruited] young people who could really sing, and used the campaign to find the next â€˜N Sync, everyone would have been buzzing about it,â€? says Zandl. She advises marketers to cash in on the reality TV-driven desire for fame and attention by creating messages that promise the possibility of overnight success. She suggests that companies incorporate Star Search-like competitions in their campaigns, or offer other contests with TV-related prizes, such as walk-on parts or backstage passes to a television show.
Another way to reach reality TV viewers is by tapping in to their adventurous personalities and active lifestyles. According to the American Demographics/Bruskin survey, 40 percent of reality television viewers consider themselves adventurous, and 86 percent lead active lives, compared with 31 percent and 79 percent of non-reality watchers, respectively. Barbara Hammack, 38, from Houston, has no desire to be famous, but every desire to add some spice to her life. â€œPeople who watch reality TV, like myself, have some deep desire to go on some great adventure, but maybe they just never had the opportunity or resources to do it themselves,â€? she says. Hammack, who works in the oil and gas industry, describes herself as a â€œregular job, average-income kind of gal.â€? She says she always wished she had gone into a more adventurous field, such as archaeology. Hammack is itching to be a contestant on a reality show and has already tried out for The Mole, Big Brother 2 and Survivor 4. She says she's surprised at how few reality TV viewers she meets who actually want to participate in the shows. This observation is supported by our survey, which found that for many reality TV fans, their adventurous streak is purely a vicarious one: 57 percent say they are actually cautious by nature.
Reebok, by outfitting the feet of Survivor participants, masterfully tapped in to the adventurous spirit of reality fans. And since then, other advertisers followed, with mixed success. Pontiac, the top advertiser for Survivor II, according to Competitive Media Reporting, shelled out $7.2 million to advertise its outdoorsy Aztek truck/camper during the program, both in commercial spots and as a coveted prize during one episode of the show. Jason Thompson, the reality enthusiast from Texas, says that the car manufacturer made a smart move. â€œBefore seeing it in the program, I didn't really know too much about the car,â€? he says. However, he adds, some products work better than others. Regarding the abundance of product placement on Survivor II by Mountain Dew soda and Dorito's tortilla chips, Thompson says: â€œI've always hated Mountain Dew. I'm not going to run out and buy it now because it was on Survivor.â€? Dehnart, of RealityBlurred.com, says that advertisers should also be worried about potential backlash from product placement strategy. â€œWhen it starts to interfere with the show, a lot of fans resent it,â€? he says.
In addition to rethinking commercial messages and appropriate product placements on the programs, advertisers developing new strategies for this audience may also want to pay attention to what's happening online. According to E-Poll, a full 70 percent of avid fans, ages 18 to 54, visit Web sites related to the reality shows they prefer, as do a third (32 percent) of occasional viewers. Twenty-six percent of all reality TV viewers read or post messages online regarding the genre, and 22 percent play Internet games that are based on the shows.
This interactivity is not strictly a phenomenon for the younger viewers: while 34 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds visit Web sites related to reality shows, so do 27 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds. At RealityTVFans.com, the average age range of message board visitors is 35 to 55, and they are primarily women, says webmaster Mary Beam.
Wendy Veazey, a 38-year-old mother of two from Metairie, La., finds plenty of other fans in her age group chatting it up on reality TV message boards and as her opponents on fantasy Survivor games. Talking with others in real time, guessing strategies and analyzing the possible outcomes brings a whole new component to the shows, says Veazey. â€œThe Internet completes the whole experience.â€? Last year, during the first Big Brother series, for example, Veazey, who works from home, kept Internet feeds running all day, so she could eavesdrop on the contestants, whom she came to think of as â€œfriends.â€? In fact, while the critics panned Big Brother I, and the TV ratings didn't hold a candle to Survivor, the viewers who supplemented their TV watching with online participation overwhelmingly loved the show, says Beam of RealityTVFans.com. â€œThere's a whole subculture on the Net that a lot of people don't know about.â€?
Ed Martin of the Myers Reports anticipates that real-time interactivity will be the next evolution of reality TV, and some networks are already taking steps toward that end. This fall, the WB network will debut a new program called Lost in the USA, that will allow viewers to interact with the contestants, online and by phone, giving them the power to tip off participants to their opponents' strategies. And then there's ABC's much anticipated The Runner, which makes its debut in January, and will actually turn viewers into contestants. One man (or woman) will attempt to cross the country without being identified by viewers. If successful, the runner wins $1 million. If unsuccessful, the identifier(s) can claim all or part of the prize. ABC will provide clues online and during the televised show.
To reach the next generation of television viewers, advertisers will have to get more creative about combining efforts across both TV and the Internet, says Ira Matathia, global director of business development for advertising conglomerate Euro RSCG Worldwide. Reality TV has created a whole new range of challenges for advertisers, he says, adding, â€œWe are going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to reach people in the coming years.â€?
But first, let's face the fall.
Of the 18- to 54-year-olds who avoid reality television shows, 60 percent say they can always find something better to watch.
|REASONS FOR NOT WATCHING REALITY TV||TOTAL||MEN||WOMEN||18-34||35-54|
|Can always find something better to watch||60%||60%||61%||56%||63%|
|Too trashy or low-class||55%||57%||53%||56%||55%|
|Don't like the human values/traits they present||49%||49%||49%||47%||50%|
|Don't care about the contestants||44%||53%||35%||52%||39%|
|Contestants are just trying to get famous||38%||38%||38%||43%||35%|
|I can't identify with the contestants||35%||31%||40%||34%||36%|
|They are faked or rigged||35%||36%||33%||43%||28%|
|Too voyeuristic/don't like spying on people||33%||31%||36%||28%||37%|
|Contestant strategy is weak or overblown||24%||27%||22%||26%||22%|
|Contestants are not appealing/attractive||12%||16%||7%||12%||11%|
|Note: Multiple answers allowed.||Source: E-Poll|
Of the 18- to 54-year-old reality TV viewers, only 19 percent cite the physical attractiveness of the contestants as a main reason they watch the programs. But 31 percent of men say that it is, in fact, those beautiful bods that keep them tuned in.
|REASONS FOR WATCHING REALITY TV||TOTAL||WATCH
|Guessing who will win or be eliminated||69%||84%||60%||65%||72%||67%||71%|
|Seeing real people face challenging situations||63%||81%||53%||60%||65%||61%||65%|
|Imagining how I would act in similar situations||42%||51%||37%||43%||41%||42%||42%|
|Following contestants' strategies||38%||54%||29%||39%||37%||36%||41%|
|Fights among contestants||37%||49%||30%||39%||35%||43%||29%|
|Making fun of contestants||28%||31%||26%||32%||24%||32%||21%|
|Nothing better to watch||25%||11%||32%||26%||24%||26%||23%|
|Physically attractive contestants||19%||25%||16%||31%||9%||23%||14%|
|Romance/relationships among contestants||18%||23%||15%||16%||21%||22%||13%|
|Note: Multiple answers allowed.||Source: E-Poll|
IF YOU BUILD IT
Those who never watch reality television programs may be enticed with the right plotline: a quarter (26 percent) say they'd be interested in viewing a show that had contestants breaking world records, and 21 percent would like to see a show that challenged contestants to find their way out of a remote location.
|PERCENT WHO WOULD HAVE INTEREST
IN WATCHING THE FOLLOWING TYPES
OF REALITY TV PLOTS:
|Racing across the country||40%||57%||46%||20%||45%||34%||42%||37%|
|Finding way out of a romote location||56%||86%||69%||21%||58%||54%||62%||50%|
|Getting the girl/guy||23%||37%||28%||8%||25%||22%||30%||15%|
|Breaking a world record||44%||52%||54%||26%||48%||41%||44%||45%|
|Getting a job||20%||26%||23%||13%||21%||19%||21%||19%|
|Truth or dare||64%||73%||58%||18%||48%||48%||55%||40%|
|Note: Multiple answers allowed.||Source: E-Poll|
Temptation Island tops the Nielsen ratings for teens and young adults.
|NIELSEN RATINGS FOR REALITY PROGRAMS AIRED DURING THE
2000-2001 SEASON, BY AGE GROUP*:
|Temptation Island (FOX)||9.1||10.6||12.0||8.0||3.0||7.0||6.5|
|Survivor I (CBS)||7.4||9.2||12.1||12.7||12.6||13.3||11.2|
|Boot Camp (FOX)||7.3||5.9||6.6||5.1||2.1||4.0||4.4|
|Survivor II (CBS)||7.0||6.6||12.3||13.7||12.5||13.5||11.5|
|The Mole (ABC)||3.9||4.0||5.7||5.4||5.4||5.9||4.5|
|Fear Factor (NBC)||3.8||4.4||5.4||5.3||4.5||5.1||4.7|
|Spy TV (NBC)||2.9||4.4||5.8||5.1||3.4||4.9||4.0|
|Chains of Love (UPN)||1.4||0.9||1.2||1.0||0.5||0.9||0.8|
|Big Brother I (CBS)||N/A||N/A||3.8||4.2||4.7||5.0||3.3|
|*A rating represents the estimated percentage of people in each age group watching the named show during the 2000-2001 season. For example, Temptation Island received a 9.1 rating among 12- to 17-year-olds, meaning that 9.1 percent of teens tuned in to that program.|
|Source: Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, 10/2/2000-9/30/2001, by The Media Edge|
When it comes to reality TV's online community, age doesn't seem to be a factor. Nineteen percent of 18- to 34-year-olds have read or posted messages online about reality TV shows, as have 16 percent of the 35- to 54-year-old crowd.
|Visit Web sites related to reality TV shows||31%||70%||32%||3%||29%||32%||34%||27%|
|Play online games based on reality TV shows||16%||35%||16%||2%||16%||16%||17%||14%|
|Read or post online messages about reality TV shows||18%||41%||18%||2%||18%||17%||19%||16%|
|Read articles about reality TV shows||47%||84%||53%||13%||43%||50%||49%||44%|
|Watch interviews with reality TV show contestants||46%||91%||54%||7%||41%||52%||50%||43%|
|Note: Multiple answers allowed.||Source: E-Poll|