How is Reality TV Shaping Our Culture and Children, Marriage and Relationships?

Written by Rebecca Bennett

The game has changed. Reality TV is king. As researched by New York Times journalist, Bill Carter, On broadcast television, 15 of the top 20 highest-rated programs among that younger adult group were reality or unscripted shows,” [1]. It has not only generated a new culture, but a new generation. Reality TV came at us so fast ever since MTV’s Real World in 1992 [2] that we didn’t take much time to question how it is shaping our culture and our children. What are the consequences of accepting this new reality?

Reality TV has succeeded in increasing ratings across the board over the past two decades for several reasons, one of them being it satisfies niche programming to a greater extent than traditional shows. Consequently, more content and advertisements reach a larger and more relevant target market. The reason the target market has increased is because more people are watching TV now than ever before. As of 2010, there were 115.9 million TV households in the US, which is up by 13.7 million or about 12% since a decade ago [3].  Since reality TV is relatively easier and cheaper to produce, an unprecedented number of shows are being made and therefore audiences are more likely to find a show they’ll like to watch. With so much to choose from, it is not surprising that the number of TV viewing hours has increased from 4 hours a day in 1991 to 4.4 hours in 2011 [4]. Accordingly, TV viewing has consumed a greater part of our cultural pie.

Since the advent of reality TV, dating shows inferring fake marriages such as Ryan Seacrest’s “Mama’s Boys,” “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” have become some of the most popular programming watched. Shows such as these disseminate the subliminal message in young single minds that competitive dating is the new approach to finding a life partner. It also portrays that it’s ok to win at all costs, capitalize on cruelty, humiliate, snoop, bully, thrive on putdowns and glorify greed, as investigated by Andrew Malekoff, a widely published author and licensed social worker who works in child and family guidance. Contestants compete for a bachelor/bachelorette not on compatible qualities, but on who can win in the span of about 2 months. Most relationships don’t culminate in marriage until after a year minimum. If the contestant takes that same mindset going into a marriage, constant competitiveness, cruelty, humiliation, snooping, putdowns and greed will undermine it, whereas compromise and “tying” with your partner should be the methods for building a real marriage with longevity. In a marriage there are no other contestant’s competing for your spouse to effect your relationship decisions. Since the 2000 debut of reality TV dating shows, almost every single marriage from them has resulted in divorce, with the exception of Trista and Ryan Sutter from “The Bachelorette” [5]. One successful marriage in over a decade of reality TV significantly surpasses the national average divorce rate. We are making marriage into a game instead of a serious commitment.

Consequently, young people might feel the need to rush to get married because they are going to see it as a competition, a rush to get the richest, cutest, guy or girl available without taking the time to evaluate compatibility, therefore increasing the divorce rate even more so, as if it weren’t high enough already, ranking #5 in the world as of 2010 [6]. Additionally, since most of the reality dating shows are male driven, meaning they are the final decision makers on who wins, women’s flaws are magnified and our looks are over emphasized, negatively effecting the minds of young girls watching all over the world.

On the contrary, one might argue that dating shows are beneficial to our younger dating generations because they do teach them how to evaluate a relationship and compare compatibility factors. However, none of the contestants so far have been relationship experts with PhD’s and when push comes to shove, the ultimate driving factor rising above everything else is still winning. Others might argue that it’s just entertainment. That is true, violent video games such as “Halo,” and porn are also considered entertainment, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have negatives effects on our society as well.

After all is said and done, are these the kind of values we want to instill in our culture and children? Is this what we want the future definition of marriage to be? Since these dating shows are so popular, taking them off the air is an illogical option for the networks profiting off of them. An alternative option is to create the same types of shows, but with a different twist. For example, we could create shows about couples who are on the brink of divorce or breaking up who compete against other couples to try and work things out. There could even be a relationship therapist who every couple has to see and can impart free and real advice to the public that is useful. Then, obviously which ever couple sticks it out to the end, wins. This would provide greater value to the younger dating generations on the true meaning of marriage, what it involves, how to compromise and work things out, and  to see what works and what doesn’t without going through that pain and hardship themselves. Moreover, young people would probably wait longer to get married and hopefully lead to longer lasting marriages.

Changing the current direction of dating shows can be a win-win for networks and audiences and even be done without cost to the networks. The audience can relate just as well, if not better to real couples already dating or in relationships, which is a huge success factor in any TV program. Not only will networks be creating better value-driven content for the public, but they will also be more likely to bring in higher ratings because of the stronger “relating factor.” I honestly cannot relate too well to a bunch of fake girls competing over some guy that isn’t even that cute. I certainly did not catch my husband of five years that way. Problems are inherent in a relationship and will always be there, and I can always relate to that. Reality survives fakeness by a large margin. Our culture needs substance and our children deserve to know the truth and to be brought up with good values. So let’s get real with our “reality” dating shows!



[1] Carter, Bill. Tired of Reality TV, but Still Tuning In. September 2010.

[2] History of Reality TV. 2011.

[3] Nielson Wire. Number of U.S. TV Households Climbs by One Million for 2010-11 TV Season. August 2010.

[4] TV Viewing Figures Reach All Time High. 2010.

[5] TWoP Staff. Top 10 reality TV Couples Hall of Fame. February 2008.

[6] Huffpost Divorce. Highest Divorce Rates In The World December 2010.

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