Analysis: reality TV might suggest fact not fiction, but these shows are highly produced, edited and curated to tell a story

Once upon a time it was Big Brother that us hooked nationwide, watching the every move of a group of real people who, in reality, had no idea how they were coming across to the world but were nonetheless trying to win the public's heart. In 2019 reality TV show Love Island has taken its place and is currently one of the most-watched programmes in Ireland, with hundreds of thousands of loyal fans tuning in to watch the contestants "crack on," "couple up" or get "mugged off" and face elimination. It is what it is. 

It no doubt helps that one of this series’ biggest stars is Longford woman Maura Higgins, who by all accounts is single-handedly keepings things interesting. In the UK, over six million people tune in and the show is particularly popular with the lucrative 16-34 demographic. With the end of the 2019 series in sight, ITV has announced that it will air two series of the show in 2020, with the winter edition arriving early next year and set in South Africa. To use a phrase out of the Love Island playbook, it seems ITV are putting all of their eggs in one basket. 

From RTÉ TEN, Love Island 2018 contestant Eyal Booker hails Maura Higgins for empowering women.

But the reality TV format isn’t without faults. Love Island has, rightfully so, received numerous complaints and criticisms over its handling of contestants’ mental health after two former islanders took their own lives. Last year, a group of economists found that eight weeks on Love Island was likely to lead to more money over the course of your life than a degree from Oxbridge, held up by many as the perfect example of what’s wrong with reality TV and the world. 

Those who don’t "get it" stand by and hit mute as talk of the dramatic events on-screen dominate lunchtime chats and social media for several weeks, but the appeal of reality TV is undeniable. As Brendan Rooney, Assistant Professor with UCD School of Psychology and Director of the UCD Media and Entertainment Lab, explains, the reason we're drawn to reality TV is simple: we love stories. 

From RTÉ Radio 1 Drivetime, psychologist Honey Langcaster James on the psychological impact of taking part in a reality television show

"The name reality TV might suggest that it isn't fiction, but these shows are highly produced, edited and curated to tell a story," Rooney says. "Stories serve as a kind of emotional treadmill – they allow us to practice empathy and "try out" social strategies without having to experience some of the horrible events from TV or fiction," he says. These stories have the power to make us think and form opinions and learn emotional skills, which we do "both consciously and unconsciously" when we watch, he says. Most people know that reality TV isn’t entirely real, but "when wrapped up in emotion, they simply don’t think about it."

Similarly, when we see a picture on Instagram, Rooney says we don’t necessarily think about the multiple attempts to get the perfect snap. But, "at the same time, people are experts when it comes to processing social information – we’ve been doing it all our lives. People are very perceptually sensitive to natural interactions, organic responses, unpractised facial expressions and so on - portraying this in a scripted film is what makes acting very hard. Reality TV offers a combination of unscripted dialogue and the illusion of non-editing – so we see it as more real."

People who don't like reality TV cannot draw any major meaning from it

Rooney points out that some who criticise reality TV say it's either not realistic or that they feel detached from the type of values displayed by the characters on it. In other words, he says, "people who don't like it cannot draw any major meaning from it; there isn’t a lot for those people to learn from watching it. Perhaps they don’t want to think about such social interactions or perhaps they do it too much in their own lives and that isn’t what they need from television."

This opportunity to process and respond to social interactions that are - or seem - more organic, can be useful or valuable to some people as a tool for learning. So why isn’t for everyone? Well, it might come down to the extent to which you engage with entertainment for characters, narratives, identity and meaning, Rooney believes. "Much narrative entertainment is about characters and social interactions – but some shows lean into this more, while others build the interactions around events and societal challenges.

From RTÉ TEN 2fm's Doireann Garrihy presents Maura Higgins' Guide to Life - 3 simple rules for singletons

"People who love exploring relationships and friendships might like shows that emphasis the "unscripted" social interactions and small scale personal dramas, such as soap operas or reality TV; whereas others might prefer highly scripted and carefully designed narratives with event-based complexities instead of relationship-based complexities – these people might prefer things like Borgen or House of Cards," he says. 

"One important factor researchers have discussed is a viewer's "need for cognition" that is the extent to which they want to be challenged to process a complex story. Importantly, it is not to say that the relationships and shows such as Love Island are not complex, rather people are more highly skilled at processing social relationships and so they might find this easier to think about – they may watch these shows to switch off the thinking."

From RTÉ Radio 1, Drivetime's John Cooke reports from Longford on the reaction to Maura Higgins on Love Island

Reality TV shows are "absolutely not all bad," he says. "On one hand, there is a large body or work that shows that processing these stories with social interactions has been linked to development of social skills, empathy and a sensitivity to emotion. They can encourage openness and discussions about relationships and help viewers bond in their own social spaces. On the other hand, they can sometimes give a warped perspective of what is important and how to go about achieving it. 

"When consumption of these narratives outweigh everyday experiences they can begin to shift our expectations of what is "real". We need to make sure we have other outlets for our emotion, and other ways to process the world so as to remember that these shows are "products" highly designed to capitalise on our understanding of non-mediated natural interactions. If these shows start to make up the majority of what we know about interactions and relationships, then future shows need to be more extreme, more emotional, more outrageous, in order to achieve the same responses." 

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Ray D'Arcy Show, 15 years of Big Brother with Anna Nolan. 

As long as we keep in check the way the shows are binged, discussed and celebrated, Rooney says, reality TV doesn’t have to be a problem. If you’re a parent of one of the thousands of young viewers gobbling up all aspects of shows like Love Island, including the problematic ones, and you’re contemplating banning them from watching, there might actually be something to learn, Rooney believes.

"A useful tip is to watch the shows with young people, discuss them, question the motives of the TV makers, and where possible encourage kindness towards the so-called villains in the show - whoever is today’s "Nasty Nick" (Nick Bateman from the first season of Big Brother UK). Chances are that there are multiple perspectives and discussions around that can be a really good learning opportunity."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ