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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 5, 2004

UI Professor: Shifting Attitudes On Surveillance Key To Rise Of Reality TV

Today's college students have none of the fear of "Big Brother" that marked their parents' post-McCarthy Cold War generation. In fact, their fascination with the notion of watching and being watched has fueled a dramatic shift in entertainment programming and ushered in the era of Reality Television.

Mark Andrejevic, an assistant professor of communication studies in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says a number of factors including technology and economy paved the way for the rise of reality television, but none so much as a transformation of Americans' attitudes toward surveillance. He explores these factors and more in his new book, "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched," (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.)

Andrejevic says the book grew out of his studies of interactivity in new media. As a graduate student at the University of Colorado in the mid- to late-1990s, he studied the ways in which new technology allowed viewers to move from the role of passive media consumers to active participants.

"I was interested in the ways that the promise of participation also became a means of monitoring people," he says. "All over the Internet people were providing information about themselves that could be used by marketers. Being watched became more and more economically productive."

Andrejevic believes that the interactivity of the Internet paved the way for reality TV mania. He interviewed producers of early reality programs such as MTV's The Real World who said that they initially had a hard time finding people willing to have their lives taped nearly 24 hours a day for several months. That was 1992. Now they hold auditions in college towns and thousands of young people form lines snaking for blocks just for the chance to audition.

"There are now more people applying to The Real World each year than to Harvard," Andrejevic says.

The key to that success is connected to people's increasing comfort with levels of surveillance that were once anathema in American society, Andrejevic says.

"In my book, I have attempted to think about the ways in which reality TV reconfigures public attitudes about surveillance," he says. "We're trained to make a split between private and public surveillance -- to be worried about government surveillance but not private, which is entertainment or gathering information to serve you better. We're moving into a period where that distinction starts to dissolve. Private surveillance is becoming so pervasive that it's time to start worrying about it as a form of social control."

That viewers of reality programming don't worry about surveillance or social control is testament to the power of television as a messenger, Andrejevic says.

"The cast members on these shows are constantly talking about how great the experience is, how much they have grown personally because of it," he says. "It connotes honesty -- you can't hide anything about yourself if you're on camera all day every day. It becomes a form of therapy or almost a kind of extreme sport -- how long can you withstand allowing yourself to be videotaped?"

Viewers believe in the benefits cast members describe and crave that opportunity for themselves. In this way, Andrejevic says, each program becomes a kind of advertisement for itself. Millions of college students watched The Real World and then began clamoring for the opportunity to participate. The same is true for newer programs including Survivor, American Idol, Fear Factor, and the like.

Andrejevic says he encourages his students to look beyond the characters and the surface glamour of reality television and consider the broader issues of surveillance, privacy, democracy, and technology that the shows present.

"I try to cure my students of the habit of watching reality TV uncritically," he says. "The challenge of teaching popular culture is that students are trained to separate the world of academics from the world of popular culture. They tend not to think of that part of life using theories they have learned in class. There's a tendency with students to say 'you're reading too much into it.' But TV is so powerful in conveying messages about the world precisely because people don't think it's doing that.

"There's something so vital about reality TV as a cultural form," he continues. "It's always changing, moving so fast, continuously reinventing itself. It gloms on to cultural trends. It's a good place to examine and inspect our culture."

Andrejevic can be reached in his campus office, 319-335-0550, or by email, mark-andrejevic@uiowa.edu.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011, mary-kenyon@uiowa.edu; Program: Mark Andrejevic, 319-335-0550, mark-andrejevic@uiowa.edu