While reality television shows are highly produced, curated and at times scripted, they maintain loyal audiences by occupying a space between reality and fiction. 

The Rise of Netflix’s Tiger King 

Early in quarantine, the seven-part Netflix documentary Tiger King’ took social media by storm and reached 34.3 million viewers in the first 10 days afters its release. 

Tiger King was among the first significant cultural events that segmented the turbulence of 2020. With nowhere to go, Americans clung to the salacious series and took to social media to exchange memes and conspiracy theories on whether Baskins had anything to do with the disappearance of her ex-husband.

The show chronicles the five year saga of zookeeper, businessman, aspiring politician and country music singer Joe Exotic. His nefarious business dealings as well as his rivalry with Carole Baskins and her legion of “cool cats and kittens” led to his eventual imprisonment for animal abuse and murder-for-hire.

The Phenomenon of Tiger King: Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Carol Baskins

A rotating and ever-growing cast of characters made “Tiger King” a phenomenon. The animal sanctuaries for exotic animals are really just a backdrop for large personalities and  cut-throat competitors.

Doc Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari Zoo has a ring of young women, some of which are his lovers, that work seven days per week. Baskins has a legion of “cool cats and kittens” that feverishly support her and work at her sanctuary Big Cat Rescue without pay. Exotic, who ran his roadside G.W. Zoo, was jailed for paying a man $3,000 to travel to Florida to kill Baskins in 2017.

Unlike other reality TV shows or true crime documentaries, “Tiger King” was unpredictable. As soon as you feel in control of the show’s narrative, a staff member of Exotic’s zoo gets his arm eaten or a former employee of Antle reveals that she was coerced into breast augmentation to have a few days off from work. 

The immense popularity of “Tiger King” brings up questions of the attraction of reality television itself. What motivates people to binge hours and hours of “Love Island” or patiently wait each week for a new episode of “The Bachelor”?

Why Do We Enjoy Watching Reality TV?

The lines between authentic and fictional forms of entertainment have effectively been blurred by the constant interactions with media in our daily lives. Social media, advertisements as well as film and television have complicated our position as consumers and advertisers. 

Reality television is neither completely “real” like a newscast nor entirely “fake” like a scripted sitcom. In toeing the line between these mediums, viewers are presented with a paradoxical reality that is both authentic and fabricated. 

The prototypes of reality television, “American Idol” and “Survivor,” paved the way for the genre’s expansion. Today, there are more than 300 available options across network television and streaming platforms. 

While some balk at the reality shows that often cater to our baser instincts, reality shows are a choose-your-adventure form of entertainment. From scripted love game shows to documentary-style explorations of  fringe subcultures, reality television offers a means of vicarious travel and escapism. 

Viewers Like Discussing Reality TV on Social Media

A study from the Journal of Consumer Research found that a major component of reality TV popularity comes from the delight in speculating why cast members behave the way they do on-screen, how they would react if in the show themselves and what kind of narrative the show’s producers are trying to construct.

Social media has become the perfect medium for audiences to engage with discourse about their favorite reality TV show. Following the release of “Tiger King,” viewers took to social media to exchange memes and conspiracy theories on whether Baskins had anything to do with the disappearance of her ex-husband.

Viewers Revel in Unscripted Moments vs. Manufactured Manipulation of Reality TV

Viewers, however unconsciously, wrestle with the paradox of reality television. Those that enjoy reality TV best reconcile the contradictions baked into this kind of programming. Namely, the balance between unscripted moments vs. manufactured manipulation, attractive and wealthy people vs. “ordinary” people, and common goals with on-screen personas vs. uncommon lives or realities. 

Those that revel in these exact paradoxes and find enjoyment from the fact that these shows can be both vapid and genuine derive the most pleasure of reality TV. 

Some researchers speculate that reality shows are effectively fictional dramas given how curated and manufactured the narratives can be and are therefore appealing because they foster some feelings of empathy and compassion.

When a contestant on “American Idol” gets voted off or a competitor on “The Bachelor” doesn’t receive a rose, viewers can vicariously attach themselves to the show’s personalities as they would with any scripted show. 

Reality TV Gives People Voyeuristic Pleasure

Others suggest that it is instead a voyeuristic desire and pleasure  to watch the private and scandalous moments in other people’s lives without personal consequence. 

Viewers tend to be less concerned with the absolute truth and authenticity of their entertainment and more with the space between reality and fiction that the genre occupies. These shows also use ordinary people, or rather don’t center trained actors, and make their everyday life appear eventful and dramatic, furthering blurring the lines between the audience and the performers. 

The nature of reality television is also geared toward self-transformation and a middle-class sensibility. The premise of many of these shows presents participants, that are often middle-class or reasonably perceived as ordinary, that are presented with tasks, competitions, and manufactured obstacles they need to resolve. 

Reality TV Often Depicts Niche Lifestyles or Excessive Wealth

Audiences self-identify not with the competition, niche subculture or situations these on-screen personalities participate in but their background and status as a “regular” person. 

Others shows chronicle and dramatize the lives of individuals that occupy niche industries.

In this case, the on-screen personas either hold excessive wealth, giving viewers an insight into a largely unattainable economic tier. Think, the Kardashians or Real Housewives. These personas may also be people that are not rich but rather very popular in small circles like the personalities on “Tiger King.”

Reality TV Can be a Powerful Form of Escapism

That isn’t to say all reality TV has a net positive impact as many of shows have elements of toxicity like the rampant animal abuse in “Tiger King” and warped ideations of relationships in love game shows like “Love is Blind.” 

However, there is no shame in taking some pleasure in these fictional realities. Watching shows that hinge on human interaction, even when it is highly curated or scripted, has been a simple yet powerful form of escapism