Reality TV: A Trans-National Format

I remember the first season of Australian Masterchef in 2009 – watching all these ordinary people competing for a cash prize and celebrity chef status. There’s this allure to reality television – the vicarious nature of it – you catch yourself thinking ‘that could be me!’. It was only recently I discovered that Masterchef had been around for almost 20 years by that point, just not in Australia. See, Masterchef had the ability to transcend cultural boundaries and prove successful in multiple countries, an often tricky task for scripted-style television shows. This success can be investigated and attributed to it’s format – reality television. We’ve seen a steady rise in its popularity, and there are few contributors to its success as a trans-national television format. 

The ‘Masterchef Australia’ judges

Cultural Proximity is a concept we’ve been exploring that provides insight into why and how content is successful in certain areas. In a nutshell, it defines the attraction audiences have towards content representative of their own culture – you’re more likely to watch a show in your own language, with tropes such as humour, costume styles, and gestures that you are familiar with. 

Historically, we’ve seen how media flows follow content from richer countries through to poorer countries, a process Edward Said described as ‘Cultural Imperialism”. For many years countries such as America and the United Kingdom were a dominating force with their television production. Their content was very one-way flowing, with little to no influence coming from poorer countries. We attribute this to a problem of capital for poorer countries. Basically, in societies with more money, more content can be created, which means more for audiences, which means more money for companies to put towards making new content. Very cyclical stuff. Poorer countries found it hard to compete, seeing as they simply did not have the capital to produce as frequently as others. 

The rise of reality television has introduced a new type of capital, one that even the poorer countries are abundant in – Cultural Capital. Elaborating on cultural proximity as a concept, cultural capital more specifically refers to how well we identify with traits a certain show might have – a program set in your time period in your hometown would have a large amount of capital for you as a viewer. 

Additionally, reality television is commonly a very fluid form of content as it can be reduced to a “shell” – a simple format for a show, and then exported. Creating television shows becomes much easier and cheaper this way, allowing poorer countries to start generating more content of their own. The rise in popularity of reality programs is largely due to the international sharing of these “shells”, which are easily adapted to fit into specific regions. 

These concepts: cultural proximity and cultural capital, combined with the exporting of “shells” are the main contributors to the way show format of television achieves not only local popularity, but almost seamlessly crosses borders and has become ingrained in numerous different cultures worldwide. When produced with focus on these concepts, reality TV can become much more widely received, much cheaper, and much more likely to succeed. The future of television is definitely steering away from the cultural imperialistic trends of the past, and towards a much more diversified and culturally informed future.


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