Reacting to reality TV: the aﬀective economy of an “extended social/public realm”
The endless mutation of reality television, the numerous sub-genres and variation in formats, has led some commentators to suggest that the term is no longer useful as a generic category,1 whilst on the other hand Nick Couldry argues for maintaining the term because of its suggestiveness about the myth of the mediated center: “presenting itself as the privileged ‘frame’ through which we access the reality that matters to us as social beings.”2 This diﬀerence of opinion represents a broader tension in our scholarship around whether television’s textual-aesthetic or social-relational character should provide us with the dominant frame of reference. Taking our lead from Richard Johnson’s observation that the textual/ social split in cultural research is inherently “phoney,”3 this chapter addresses the social character of reality television as it meets its audience. We argue that the immediacy oﬀered by the form draws out what matters to us in ways that intervene in the politics of social distinction. But we insist that it is best not to understand that relationship between television and identity via a text/reader dynamic in which audiences are interpellated and made subject to the text’s dominant meaning system: a model which has ultimately reiﬁed and rendered static the categories of “text” and “reader.”4 Rather, we discuss the experiential aspects of being involved in reality television and explore how identity is evoked in the dynamic responses of our audiences. By addressing what matters to audiences in this way we begin to unpack how reality television intervenes in the aﬀective economies of the UK’s current socio-political realm.