Skip main navigation

What is reality television?

How can we define 'reality television'? Consider some mainstream definitions, adapt them based on your own viewing, or develop your own definition.
A woman talks on the phone while getting her hair and make-up done
© University of York

There are multiple and contested definitions of reality television. That is to say, not everyone agrees on its characteristics. However, some mainstream definitions of reality television include:

  • “Programmes that focus on non-fictional subject matter, primarily with the aim of providing entertainment rather than information; this style of programme regarded as a television genre” (Oxford English Dictionary)

  • “A type of television programming which aims to show how ordinary people behave in everyday life, or in situations, often created by the programme makers, which are intended to represent everyday life” (Collins English Dictionary).

Sometimes, reality television programmes share features with other genres such as quiz shows. For example, they might involve competing with others to win a prize. Where a life-changing cash prize is not explicitly a feature of the programmes, other potential incentives attract a wide range of participants. These may include fame, training and skills acquisition.

For a different interpretation of reality television, you could read some newspaper or magazine articles which are rather more sceptical about its value such as this one in the Guardian or The New Yorker.

These articles should enable you to list other common factors in reality television, such as the presence of ‘celebrities’ or ‘experts’, or direct-to-camera address from participants (think of video diary segments, made famous through the ‘diary room’ in Big Brother, for example).

Have a go at listing some more ubiquitous features in the discussion below.

© University of York
This article is from the free online

Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now