Whose Reality Is On TV?

There seems to be a consensus in polite society that “everyone” hates reality television, which, given the clear ratings to the contrary, is obviously just another variation on that old saw “I only watch PBS.”  This line of thinking seems to be driven by men: male critics, bloggers, cocktail party bores, husbands and boyfriends who truly do hate the reality television that their jobs, spouses and girlfriends inflict on them.

Most guys I know would rather watch 12 hours of C-SPAN than 10 minutes of any show with “housewives” or “Kardashian” in its title.  Indeed, women represent more than 80% of the audience for “The Real Housewives of Miami” and 75% for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” (All viewing stats I mention come from Nielsen.)

When men think of the genre of reality TV, they think of shows that appeal to women: shows with chefs, designers, fashion experts, dysfunctional and bizarre families, pregnant teens, and drunk guidos and guidettes.  Even the big-name, semi-respectable network shows skew towards women.  Only 37% of the “American Idol” audience is male, for example, and “Dancing With the Stars” is even more unbalanced, with just 28% of the audience male.



This should be no surprise. What is there in any of these shows that would appeal to men?  These programs thrive on public expressions of emotion, psychological conflict and overt manipulation.  Consider “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” where the cast compete to be the last person standing after every else has been voted off.  The contestants are acknowledged to be playing a game, but it’s not a game that any man would recognize.  Does the fastest, strongest, smartest, or most useful person win? No.  The winner is someone who has, through guile, treachery or personal charisma manipulated the rest of the cast to vote everyone else off.  Men’s games have clear rules, but there are no rules on these shows.

Even on the talent competition shows, the most talented performer doesn’t necessarily win.  The trick is to have enough talent to get by, show enough deference to the judges to make it to the final rounds, and then endear yourself to the audience (but not be so confident or entitled to turn off the voters).  Of course manipulation is nothing new to men.  They’ve always gotten ahead in the real world by sucking up to bosses and co-workers while manipulating the people who work for them. But the male psyche would rather believe that they advance on merit alone and that’s the kind of TV they like.


Of course there has always been reality television for men. It was called sports.  But sports is competition based on hard rules.  You either make the touchdown or you don’t – no one votes on style points or gives you a better score if the refs and umps like you. In that regard, it’s interesting that at the Olympics, the sports preferred by men are either games with clear rules (basketball, hockey, etc.) or racing and jumping events, while women favor events decided subjectively by judges based on style and appearance (figure skating, gymnastics, etc.)

Although men don’t really want to admit it, they do like to watch some reality TV shows. These can be programs that explore working-class men performing difficult and dangerous jobs (a show like “Deadliest Catch,” which portrays commercial fishing in Alaska, has an audience that’s 60% male.)  Or shows about pawn shops, storage lockers and sharks.  In other words, shows about physical tangible things appeal to men.

But for my money, the perfect reality show for men, especially fathers and sons, is “Mythbusters,” a program that is about nothing less than the scientific method. Every episode seeks to debunk or prove a common assumption (e.g., that a rest-room hand dryer is better than a paper towel) using a series of real-world experiments. It helps that the show frequently deploys explosions and crashes in its quest for scientific truth.  Not surprisingly, the audience for the series is two-thirds male.

After the publication of “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus”  20 years ago, some psychologists argued that the book overemphasized the differences between men and women.  But if you look at the empirical facts (a very male thing to do) the ratings show that men are actually from Pluto, and women are from Mercury.  And you can’t chalk this up to societal pressures.

In the past 40 years, men have taken a beating from women writers and psychologists for being too aloof, uncommunicative and out of touch with their feelings.  But if the logical outcome of an estrogen-dominated world is “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” “The Bachelor,” “Teen Mom” or “The Real Housewives of Miami,” it’s time for men to stand up and reassert the traditional male virtues of stoicism, independence and fortitude.  May “Mythbusters” run forever!

2 comments about "Whose Reality Is On TV?".
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  1. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, August 13, 2013 at 8:10 p.m.

    When you refer to "men" I assume you mean straight men, because if you're around gay men, whether out at Fire Island, gay bars, gyms, cocktail parties or wedding receptions, you'll hear plenty of breathless and impassioned chatter about most of the shows you mentioned. It would be an instructive market break if Nielsen could just figure how to get its respondents to acknowledge their sexual orientation. About 10 years ago I was part of a Nielsen task force exploring this very issue but nothing came of it.

  2. Taylor Wray from Kantar Retail, August 14, 2013 at 9:04 a.m.

    Provocative, well-written piece. The realm of reality TV has become vast, and it does seem the programming on the biggest, most mainstream shows now skews heavily toward women. I doubt there was such a dramatic gender split in the viewership of earlier reality programs like "The Real World" and "Road Rules," although the audience for those was probably younger overall. And of course, the viewership of "Cops" - one of the longest-running and purest "reality" shows on TV - is probably 80-90% male.

    All reality shows, sports included, thrive on moments of high drama, but men might prefer to watch different kinds of drama (less interpersonal, more competitive) than women.

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