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Max Dawson, Northwestern’s reality TV professor

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Generally written off as a guilty pleasure to enjoy with a hearty dose of sarcasm, reality TV may be maligned, but it’s far from the fleeting trend many thought it would be a decade ago. And as evident by the University of Chicago’s Jersey Shore Academic Conference, reality TV has picked up a bit of steam in higher ed, even if there is a little tongue-in-cheek involved. And this spring, Northwestern professor Max Dawson is set to teach a course, “The Tribe Has Spoken,” which will explore the impact reality television has had on society since the inaugural season of Survivor.

Given our shameless love for all things reality, The A.V. Club talked with Dawson about the stigmas surrounding the format and its effect on the television industry as well as American culture at large.


The A.V. Club: Where did the idea for this course come from?

Max Dawson: Each year I teach a class on the contemporary U.S. television industry that focuses on the ways that new technology and things like regulatory reform and corporate consolidations have transformed the industry and the programs it produces. This year, I’ve decided to shift the focus to reality TV and specifically one reality TV show as a case study to think about the different ways television has changed over the last two decades. And if we want to think about that, there’s a lot of different angles we can take, but one of those is looking at a programming format that didn’t really exist, or didn’t have the same profile and impact that it has had previously, and that’s reality TV. And what better example to use to study reality TV than Survivor, which was really the show that put reality TV on the map. It made [reality] a prime time contender, not just a sort of flukish freak-show that networks like Fox would put on in the summer, or during fringe hours to avoid wasting money on original, scripted programming.

AVC: You’re bringing in a few guest speakers, right?

MD: The one thing that I’m perhaps most excited about for the class is that there’s going to be a lot of involvement from people outside of the academy. So for instance, television critics, people that write for big-name websites, bloggers who run one of the biggest reality TV websites on the net, some former contestants of Survivor and other media experts, who are all going to come to campus and talk about reality TV and their own relationship to it, to give an insider’s take on the entire reality phenomenon. So we’re going to be trying to look at reality TV from a scholarly stand point, but we’ll also link up with more feet-on-the-pavement perspectives.


AVC: Was it hard to get participation from people in that industry? What’s the reaction been on campus?

MD: People have been really awesome about it. When I tell people that I’m doing this class the main reaction I get is just, “How can I sign up?” or, “Can you do this class online?” The response at Northwestern has been overwhelming, so we’ve had to edit the enrollment limit a couple of times to accommodate the demand, and we still have a huge waiting list. In terms of guest speakers, when I tell people we’re doing a class on this subject and that I’d like to invite them to come speak at Northwestern, they’ll just say, “Name the date.” So it’s been really exciting to see the positive response that students and people in the reality TV world have shown to this idea.

AVC: Is the class covering shows like Hoarders and Wife Swap, or is it just series where viewers get to know the characters a little better?

MD: I think we’re going to try to look at the reality TV phenomenon in all of its incarnations. That said, it would be impossible to look at each and every different variation on the format that exists. So, you know, obviously we’ll be looking at competition programs, like Survivor, Idol, and America’s Got Talent. We’ll look at celebreality programs like the Kardashians’ show and Simple Life. We’ll look at make-over programs, the lifestyle reality shows, and we’ll probably also have to take into consideration the sort of freak-show programs that put on display different sorts of anti-social or unhealthy behavior—things like Hoarders, Intervention, and Cops, that allow us to indulge in a little bit more direct forms of voyeurism than some of the other shows we’ve discussed.

AVC: Should the appeal of reality TV be credited to voyeurism, or is there more to it than that?


MD: No, I think it’s much more complicated. And part of the motivation behind the class is to force students to take seriously something that is very often just dismissed as being inexpensive, common denominator programming. You know, reality TV has a terrible reputation. I remember reading a quote not too long ago from The New Yorker that said, “Reality TV is television’s television.” So what I’m trying to suggest is that reality TV first and foremost is much more complicated than that. It’s not just what a lot of people like to think it is when they issue those blanket dismissals.

AVC: How has reality impacted the television industry at large?

MD: If we want to know what’s going on in not only the TV industry, but in all of the American industries these days, reality TV will give us some really important insights. Things like, “How do old media companies compete in a new competitive and technological environment?” or, “How does NBC compete in a marketplace where HBO can put on the sort of challenging dramatic programming that NBC used to be known for?” Well, NBC could either try to compete with HBO at its game, or it can put on three hours of The Biggest Loser and save an extraordinary amount of money on production and licensing, and create great opportunities for product tie-ins and synergy to make up for the increasingly meager advertising revenues for the broadcast networks. So it really becomes a way of using reality TV to think about the entire political and cultural economy of television. I know that sounds kind of jargon-y and may come off like I’m overcomplicating something, but really, if you want to map out the changes that have taken place over the last decade, reality TV has had a huge impact. And if you think back on what has happened in the last 10 years or so, CBS has been at the top of the pile year after year with Fox, whereas the networks that haven’t necessarily adapted and taken advantage of the new opportunities haven’t been quite so successful.

AVC: Is reality TV  gaining more acceptance than it’s seen in the past?

MD: Well, yes and no, because obviously reality TV shows like Dancing With The Stars and American Idol have been the top-rated regular television shows for the majority of the last decade. So in terms of numbers, yes. In terms of advertisers’ willingness to sponsor reality shows, yes. That said, those stigmas still exist. People still have that residual attitude that reality TV is somehow less than, or not as worthy as a program like The Wire or The Office or Lost or 24, any of the other programs of the last decade that have been celebrated by critics, shows that are also celebrated by academics, so that’s another motivation for the class. Over the last few years, professors at other universities have been teaching classes on single TV shows, which is kind of a new development in media education. Before recently, it was unheard of for there to be a class on one TV show, and what changed that was The Wire. Suddenly in sociology departments, in urban planning, political science, and media departments, professors started teaching a class on The Wire. And even more recently there have been a couple of classes on Mad Men. And while I think that’s great and I love those shows, the number of people who watch an episode of Survivor still, in its 22nd season, dwarfs the number of people who have ever watched an episode of Mad Men or The Wire. So if we’re talking about importance of programs, we can’t limit ourselves to thinking only of the programs that we like because they are challenging or stimulating in terms of the tastes that we have as academics. We also have to think about programs that have really affected people and have touched the audience. Whether that’s Survivor or Biggest Loser or Hoarders, those are the programs that people watch. And even if people are not necessarily so bold as to admit it at a Christmas dinner or a cocktail party, if you go home and check their Tivo, nine times out of 10 you’ll find that they’ll have 15 episodes of something like Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch piling up that they’re going to sit at home one Saturday night and watch.


AVC: Do you think that reality TV does a better job displaying sex, class, and race issues than scripted television does?

MD: There’s definitely the potential to do that, but there’s also the potential for reality TV to fall back into unsavory stereotypes. And we’ve seen a lot of controversy in the past with reality TV, like Flavor of Love for instance. The thing is, though, there is that opportunity to demonstrate or to display a wider range of different types of people’s identities that we don’t traditionally see in scripted television. We can see different types of depictions of sexuality and romance and families and relationships. I have no misconceptions about why we see that, very often it is a strategy of product differentiation. You know a network like Bravo will show us different types of people and different types of lifestyles largely because it’s trying to create and maintain its brand as being different from what you can find anywhere else on the cable dial. But there are definitely positive consequences because of that. We can definitely say that reality TV has brought greater visibility to issues that might have been on the margins, if not invisible in a pre-reality-era.


AVC: Is it unreasonable for people to still consider reality TV to be a trend?

MD: I think that over 10 years into the current reality boom that I date back to that first season of Survivor, it would be extremely imprudent to dismiss what has taken place as a trend. I think more so than anything it’s time to start thinking about how all television, or all media, have been impacted by reality. So it’s not just some fringe category of strange programming anymore. Rather, scripted programs have suddenly begun to take on qualities of reality in order to compete. We see parallels with shows like Survivor and shows like Lost, not necessarily in their concept but rather in their idea of gathering together strangers on an island to create a new society and to see if they can survive with one another against the odds. For instance Jack, Kate, and Sawyer weren’t competing for a million dollars and the title of “sole survivor,” but it’s hard to imagine Lost in a world that didn’t already have Survivor. And similarly, things like YouTube and user-generated content… Twitter, facebook, social networking: What are these except extensions of reality TV? Extensions of this notion of participation that anyone in the audience could at any moment turn the camera around and become the star of the show instead of just an audience member? We’re really living in a world that I think more than most of us want to acknowledge has been transformed by reality TV, and hopefully this course will be a provocation for people in my class, and maybe for people outside of the class to think more seriously about how reality TV has changed our outlook and changed our way of making and consuming culture.