The Rhetoric of Reality Television: A Narrative Analysis of the Structure of 'Illusion'

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Title: The Rhetoric of Reality Television: A Narrative Analysis of the Structure of 'Illusion'
Author: Reid, Gwendolynne Collins
Advisors: Steven B. Katz, Committee Chair
Carolyn R. Miller, Committee Member
Devin A. Orgeron, Committee Member
Abstract: In the last ten years, the reality television phenomenon has transformed the face of television in the United States. Much of the programming real estate previously occupied by traditional narratives, such as miniseries, sitcoms and movies of the week, has been replaced by reality shows. Because the term reality television is used to refer to a diverse range of programs, defining it has proven difficult for scholars and viewers alike; however, reality television is generally understood to refer to unscripted programs without professional actors filmed using a fly-on-the-wall observational style that blends the notions of public and private. This observational style and reality television's historical roots in documentary has led many scholars and critics to condemn it for its perceived lack of formal appropriateness and for how it breaks the faith with viewers by using documentary conventions for entertainment or sensational purposes. My thesis, however, takes a different position, arguing that reality television has more in common with the narrative programs it replaces than with documentary: its rhetoric is a narrative rhetoric. Whereas documentary most often uses argument as a primary mode within which narration may figure, reality programs operate within a primarily narrative mode. Indeed, through a variety of means, including editing and show design (as opposed to scripting), reality programs use narrative structures to tell dramatic stories about (or using) real people. After surveying over eighty reality shows, I defined four categories of narratives consistently told through reality programs: le panoptique, les jeux, la reconstitution historique, and la mátamorphose. I then selected four corresponding programs for narrative analysis: Real World, The Bachelor, Colonial House, and I Want a Famous Face. Based on the premise put forward by several scholars such as Walter Fisher and Donald Polkinghorne that narrative is "the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful" and indeed may be the means by which we order and comprehend all of our experience (Polkinghorne 1), my thesis proposes that the success of the reality television phenomenon may be due to the narrative structures that order and construct its reality. In order to better understand the stories reality programs tell and the rhetorical situation reality television operates within, my thesis analyzes the selected reality shows using the method of narrative analysis suggested by Fisher's paradigm of narrative rationality. Fisher suggests that audiences accept or reject narratives based on whether they meet or fail the tests of narrative coherence (structural, material and characterological) and narrative fidelity, and that successful narratives are rhetorical in the sense that they becomes guides "to thought and action in the world" (90). Though reality television may be historically rooted in a set of economic exigencies and technological opportunities networks experienced in the late eighties and nineties, my narrative analysis suggests that the programs are also coherent according to Fisher's criteria and are likely to resonate in terms of values with their audiences, at least partially accounting for the phenomenon's continued success. I conclude, however, that we may also need to add Jean Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality to our critical vocabulary in order to situate and understand reality television as itself part of a larger progression of what we call 'reality' that includes blogs, video games, chat rooms and virtual communities.
Date: 2005-08-10
Degree: MA
Discipline: English

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