15 Seconds Of Fame: The Future Of Reality TV Is On Our Phones
To see the future of reality TV, look down.
Believe it or not, The Truman Show is Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s favorite movie. Her husband’s, too. But Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, the lonely guy in Peter Weir’s 1998 classic who realized he’d unwittingly spent his entire life as the star of a reality show, didn’t cross her mind once while she was filming Jersey Shore, the reality show that would catapult her into a notorious form of stardom when the first season premiered on MTV in 2009.
“Once I watched [Jersey Shore] over [again], after I filmed a few seasons, I was like, Holy crap. This is my life,” Polizzi recalls on a recent call with Refinery29.
Reality TV, as we now know it, was still in its inchoate stages when Andrew Niccol wrote the script for The Truman Show, but the makings of the now-wildly popular genre had always been there. In 1992, MTV aired the first episode of The Real World, which centered around what happened when a group of strangers all lived together in one house. It was a decidedly modern spin on America’s first reality family, the Louds in PBS’ An American Family, which had premiered in 1971. This ushered in a new era of reality TV, that was soon joined by the webcam era of entertainment, which arguably began in 1996 with Jennicam.com and grew more popular with the advent of the first cell phones with built-in cameras in 2002.
In the midst of all this came The Truman Show. It warned of a world so addicted to surveillance-like entertainment that the consent of participants was not required — or even wanted. While there is no analog to The Truman Show in our actual world, what actually wound up happening can feel almost more dystopian in terms of its sheer ubiquity (and all the product placement). As network executives realized that unscripted content was far cheaper to produce than scripted — since there was no need to pay actors or writers — it soon proliferated across channels from ABC to CBS, eventually dominating streaming platforms from Netflix to Quibi.
But reality shows aren’t just being made by TV producers anymore — they’re being made by individuals, all thanks to our phones. And they’re everywhere.
“In the mid-’90s, bandwidth started to increase and people had more access to browsers — you could monetize the attention of a thousand people and make a living off of that,” Robert Kozinets, Professor of Journalism at USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, explains of the genres origins. “It was staged for reality TV to then emerge. It wasn't one or the other; they were happening sort of simultaneously. Even in television, things like Candid Camera [were about] having the authenticity of people who weren't actors, who weren’t staging things, and still having that edit and that close cut of real people doing real things. All of that was this hunger for authenticity that drives people to want to push the boundaries of what is public and what is private further and further.”
The camera’s red light is always on, and it feels like many people prefer it that way. Front-facing cameras have become de-facto documentarian tools for people to create their own low-fi content in the palm of their hand. From TV stars to influencers to your 14-year-old cousin with the new iPhone, we seem, as a society, to be opting into 24-hour entertainment as reality shows start to appear on our phones in various formats.
Think of every Instagram Story you saw during quarantine, or the most buzzed about reality show you saw this year. Reality TV shows, social media apps (namely Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch), and reality shows on social media apps are a breeding ground for future reality stars — TikTok houses are apparently fighting for their own potential gigs — as the future of reality TV appears before our eyes, and in our hands.
Like The Real World, MTV’s first foray into unscripted programming, Jersey Shore grabbed audiences with its club montages and drunken after-parties at the cast-shared house. The sense that cast members were living an unfiltered life for the cameras came through, even if a few tipsy brawls felt staged, not dissimilarly to how it felt when The Real World had premiered almost 20 years before. In fact, it was the original MTV reality show that led Polizzi to join the cast.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be on TV,” she says. “I always wanted to do a quick Real World season, then get back to my life. I never thought it was going to turn out to be anything — just have fun, get your 15 minutes and go home.” Polizzi insists Jersey Shore was different from shows featuring heavy manipulation and editing from producers, listing the Real Housewives franchise as an example. “With other shows, you just see bits and pieces, and everybody looks done up and perfect,” she said. “[On Jersey Shore] we're like getting out of bed [hungover] and dying.”
Jersey Shore premiered on MTV in December 2009, two-and-a-half years after Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County debuted in March 2006. While Bravo’s show was more docuseries in its inception, inspired by ABC juggernaut drama Desperate Housewives — “here is a series that depicts real-life 'desperate' housewives with an authentic look at their compelling day-to-day drama,” the promo read — Jersey Shore was meant to follow a summer-long party with no real agenda other than to have some fun. Still, this not-so-glamorous series still had the heavy hand of production: There were, what felt like to Polizzi, “2,000” people poking and prodding the footage before it ended up on viewers’ screens. Now, with social media, Polizzi doesn’t need producers, or excessive drama, to share her life with fans; she can do it all by herself.
While some reality stars, like Kim Kardashian West and The Bachelor’s Rachel Lindsay, occupy the influencer sphere while still filming their shows and other related appearances, Polizzi has transitioned to full-time influencer with her 13.5 million Instagram followers, and the ouroborus is complete. By just tapping through her Stories, fans can experience the equivalent of watching an episode of Snooki’s Life, all without turning on the TV. Transitioning from reality star to influencer is a smart move — one that seems standard now, especially with dating show alumni — but as more reality stars are being found and recruited off social media apps, it’s bound to become more common to see an influencer-turned-reality star rather than the other way around.
Rebecca Jennings, who covers all things internet for Vox, says the transition from social media to reality TV isn’t necessarily intuitive, though. “The dream of being a reality star is present for anyone, especially people in the line of work where their job is taking photos of themselves,” she notes. “Of course [influencers] want to be on a reality show, who wouldn’t? [But] the scariest part of reality shows is that it is out of your control. The best part of being an influencer is that you can direct it yourself, and reveal what you want.” This desire to control a narrative mirrors part of Polizzi’s statement on leaving Jersey Shore: “I don’t like the person I’m being portrayed as,” she said on her podcast, It’s Happening with Snooki & Joey. “I’m not saying goodbye to reality TV,” she added. “I just need to move on from the show.”
Pocket-sized entertainment is the future of reality TV not just because networks are finding future TV stars on their Explore pages, but also because of Gen Z’s relationship with their phones. Nine out of 10 millennials own a smartphone, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, while 97% of Gen Zers have a smartphone, according to 2018 data from Snapchat. It’s something that the app has honed in on. On it, shows like Endless Summer (a docuseries about YouTuber Summer McKeen which feels like Laguna Beach meets Emma Chamberlain vlog) and the upcoming Life by the Horns (a new series following one of bull riding’s biggest stars, Ezekiel Mitchell) illustrate the new and changing demands for reality TV and access, and they’re fueled by the power of a word that comes up repeatedly in the reality programming discussion: authenticity.
“Authenticity is defined by how real a person is going to be in a camera,” Jill Dickerson, Senior Development Manager, Snap Originals, who started her career as a story editor on The Real World, explains. “Are they going to let down their guard, and allow us to be able to peel back the onion? ….If people can’t be comfortable being transparent, showing their true feelings, showing their emotions, their good days and bad days, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It just means they aren’t ready to be featured in a docuseries.”
All docuseries for Snapchat are filmed for phones — and phones only — in lieu of TVs or even laptops. Released as 5- to 7-minute episodes, the docuseries and other reality TV programming center around individuals who also have a large following on their personal Snapchat accounts. “One of the things we love most about storytelling on the platform is that we know that people have the most intimate relationship with their phones, “ Dickerson says. “You’re used to talking to the people that you love like friends and family, so we also want to give [users] the opportunity to meet people they haven't met before in a safe intimate space, and take them to different worlds.”
Dickerson says she’s often asked how you can tell a story on a phone, and as an answer she talks about her reality TV past. “I think of The Real World so often because I started there, but what we are doing is next level, because while a show like that introduces you to seven strangers, we introduce you to one or two strangers, and allow you to get to know them so much better. This is the perfect place for those kinds of stories. You get to know them as closely as you know someone that you already know, and they’re sharing their life with you.”
The consequences of blending public and private moments is something subjects of reality TV series, and social media stars, have to consider. Is it really worth it to share everything, all the time, with the world? There’s no right or wrong answer. One of the first people to push what reality entertainment could be was then-19-year-old Jennifer Ringley, who set up a webcam on her computer monitor and live-streamed her daily activities to as many as seven million people a day, starting in 1996. Viewers logged on to watch Ringley do tasks like brush her teeth and study, but she didn’t leverage the site to become an influencer, or even to turn much of a profit: Jennicam.com shuttered in 2003, and Ringley said in interviews that she made “no money” off her cam footage. Still, her webcam footage foreshadows the kind of mundane content lifestyle influencers now share, only their footage is, of course, peppered with spon-con. Would we have Snooki without Jennifer Ringly? And, would we have Summer McKeen without Snooki?
As the pandemic continues apace, phones have become essential in keeping TV production alive. Selfie videos are the new confessionals; in-app filters are the new makeup rooms. If the reality TV formula wasn’t already literally being adapted to our phone screens before, it has been forced to because of coronavirus. Plus, there’s never been a better time to be a fan: celebrities, influencers, and everyday people are ostensibly producing their own TV shows on their Instagrams, Snapchats, and TikTok accounts out of a combination of pure boredom and ease of use.
It’s not a brand-new idea to predict reality TV’s migration to actual reality, but it has never seemed more imminent than it does now. And that’s all thanks to phones that have perhaps guaranteed that 15 seconds of fame is the new 15 minutes of fame.
In its early days, reality TV was an easily mocked amusement that “serious” people talked about in hushed tones. Today, it’s an Emmy-awarded genre in its own right, and perhaps the most important and relevant form of entertainment in a world where we document and distribute every moment of our lives in high definition. But now, against the backdrop of anxiety-inducing headlines and societal upheaval, the previously low-stakes genre provides welcome relief (See: Hyori's Bed & Breakfast ), cultural commentary (see: Survivor ) and an examination into how the country got here (see: Vanderpump Rules). In 2020, there’s truly no escape from reality, whether it is playing out on our screens or outside our door.