In a post at The Frontal Cortex on television’s ability to stave off loneliness, Jonah Lehrer writes:
I imagine we’re even more likely to form attachments to characters on reality TV shows, since the characters are purportedly “real.”
It’s a minor point in his post, but prompted a lengthy comment from me, which I repost here, slightly edited:
Against what was then a common thread in media studies, I’d argue that the real allure of reality TV is not voyeurism, as the old guard of the discipline would have had it, but parasocial relationships [which, as Lehrer notes, are “the kind of one sided pseudo-relationships we develop over time with people or characters we might see on TV or in the movies”].
The problem with the voyeurism account is that it doesn’t require narrative to function; it can work even without sound (as in hidden camera footage on all the shows that feature a bunch of housemates).
However, every “docusoap” from The Real World forward has focused on narrative and conflict above all, with moments of voyeuristic appeal merely intruding before commercial breaks, or appearing only in order to heighten narrative tension. (“I can’t believe those two hooked up!”)
The parasocial model, though, does require narrative to function. We don’t get to know people without understanding how they make choices in tough situations; any writer of fiction or screenplay would tell you as much. So, the ways that reality shows construct narratives serve to heighten our knowledge of and attachment to certain “characters” or personae.
(And the narratives are heavily constructed, as indicated by industry terms like “frankenbiting”—faking sound bites out of a hodge-podge of shorter phrases.)
In short, from a paper I wrote addressing the topic:
Social actors in the shows are not (or not primarily) objects of a distant, pathological gaze emanating from the viewer, but instead are involved in a perceived friendship bond, one which on an experiential level contains moderated versions of the highs and lows of normal, two-sided social relationships.