The “Reality” of Health : Reality Television and the Public Health


Peter Christenson, Ph.D., Lewis & Clark College, and Maria Ivancin, M.B.A., American University OCTOBER 2006


viewers can choose from literally scores of reality programs on any given day. it can be used to educate as well as entertain. The purpose of this paper is to describe the nature of these shows. But in addition. second. Three basic sources of information are employed: first. The implications of these shows are also discussed. The goal. and explore some possible implications of these shows for audience awareness and knowledge. articles in the consumer and academic literature. In recent years. communicates health messages to viewers. clearly. In addition to the shows where health is the primary focus. portraying “real people” and “real health professionals” involved in plastic surgery. to the point where of “real” people on shows like American Idol. Importantly. A number of reality shows deal directly with aspects of health and medicine. and so on. Television news. In other words. or have an occasional focus on a health topic. rather. This is not presented as an exhaustive investigation ABC (cancelled) Discovery Health of the topic — indeed.” Ten years ago one could find a handful of reality programs — scheduled primarily as specials or appearing on cable networks such as MTV. it is disproportionately popular among preteens. entertainment shows — including soap operas. is to Food Network draw attention to this relatively new but important phenomenon. and seemingly spontaneous exploits and tribulations K A I S E RFA M ILY . Today. while reality TV AND THE PUBLIC HEALTH draws viewers from virtually all demographic groups. Television has long served as a source of information for viewers on health-related topics. Fear | THE “REALITY OF HEALTH: REALITY TELEVISIO ” N the Nielsen ratings. whether intentionally or not. weight loss. much The Learning Channel less its health effects. REALITY SHOWS CONSIDEREDIN THIS PAPER: Shows The Biggest Loser Cold Turkey Dr. 90210 Extreme Makeover Honey We’re Killing the Kids Miracle Workers Mystery Diagnosis Plastic Surgery: Before and After Untold Stories of the ER Weighing In Media NBC iTV (cancelled) E! reality shows routinely appear at or near the top of adolescents and young adults. dramas and even sitcoms — often include content that. The impact of television on its audience has been documented by decades of research. urgent care. interviews with academic experts and TV ABC/Style Networkindustry practitioners with important perspectives on The Learning Channel the connection between reality TV (RTV) and health. inspire as well as provide escape. Some of this impact is negative. often contains information on personal health and health care policy. many other reality shows are tangentially related to health issues. very little systematic research has Discovery Health been done on the impact of reality TV in general. smoking cessation. but social marketers have long recognized that when television contains positive messages it can also have a positive effect. a new form of television entertainment has exploded onto the scene — “reality TV. provide an overview of the messages they convey about health and medicine. direct observation and qualitative analysis of the content of a number of current and recent shows and their associated websites. and finally.The unscripted Factor and Survivor obviously hold considerable allure for millions of viewers.

3 F O U N D I ON AT .

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