Is This the Real Life, or It It Just Fantasy?

I wrote this for a course I took for my graduate certificate in Fall 2012.  We had to write a research paper on whatever topic we chose.  I wanted to keep myself interested, so I chose a subject I love dearly: reality TV dating shows.  

Originally submitted for JOMC 714 at UNC on November 11, 2012.

Is This the Real Life, or Is It Just Fantasy?
Love and dating on reality TV and how it influences real-life love

You probably do not put much thought into where your ideas about dating, relationships, love and marriage come from.  Sit in on any Psychology 101 lecture and you will hear the professor tell students that the images surrounding them have a bearing on what they perceive as love: their parents, things they read, television programs they watch.  There is no doubt that television has an influence on how members of society view their own ideal relationships.  Scripted shows from “I Love Lucy” to the “Cosby Show” to “Modern Family” have often shown us the perfect relationship, the perfect family and how they are constructed.  However, as viewers, we know that what we are seeing on shows like that is not real: someone wrote it, and actors are playing it out on screen for our entertainment.

Now, in the 21st century, reality TV blurs the line between what is fake on TV and what is supposed to be real.  In the era of reality TV, the viewer has real people to look at as role models in influencing behaviors and norms.  This is ever-present in the reality TV dating show where your average Joe or Jane has a chance to find love in glamorous and exciting ways.

It has long been documented that television (and the media in general) is a strong influence on constructing one’s personal beliefs and ideals.  So what does this say about dating in real life?

It may seem like a silly question, but the answer to what defines reality TV isn’t clear cut.  Everyone has a different picture pop into their head when hearing the term “reality TV.”  Some might instantly think of competitive endurance shows:  “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor.”  Some might think of competitive shows where an audience helps choose a winner:  “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars.”  Others go straight to shows that follow the lives of certain people, sometimes famous (“Keeping up with the Kardashians”) or the not (yet) famous (Real Housewives series).  To put it simply, and for the context of this article, reality TV is any show that purports itself to be unscripted, whether it be a competition or following everyday life.

According to Nielsen Ratings, in July 2012, 8.9 million viewers tuned in to ABC to watch Emily Maynard chose her mate on the season finale of the eighth season of “The Bachelorette.” She began the season with 25 suitors, and had narrowed it down to two by the final episode.  Love was thick in the air as Jef Holm got down on one knee and proposed after dating Emily for about three months.

Shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” characterize love as an inevitability, a luxury and highly romantic pursuit.  Private island picnics, helicopter rides, intimate overnight dates in luxurious suites are par for the course.  For a show that touts itself as reality, it seems like these exotic dates couldn’t be further from most people’s real life. Indeed, many people seem to go on reality TV to experience the types of things you cannot or do not normally experience in your everyday life (Syvertsen 2001).

However, a study on Trista Rehn, who starred as the first bachelorette of the series, and her subsequent marriage to the man she chose, Ryan, showed that despite the grandiose nature of the wedding itself, viewers were influenced by the idea of reproducing the fantasy portrayed in real life weddings, despite affordability (Sgroi 2006). While the amount of money spent on weddings is actually down in recent years, the number of people going into debt over their dream wedding is still high (Grossman 2012).  Research has shown that debt, in general, is a leading cause of divorce in marriage (Marshall and Skogrand 2004).  Spending a fortune before the marriage even starts may set a negative tone for the future of the relationship.  It is ironic that the likelihood of divorce is increased by being in debt, which often begins or is exacerbated with the wedding itself!

An important factor to consider is why people watch these types of reality programs to begin with.  Reality TV is often seen as escapist entertainment, as a way to step out of your own reality and into someone else’s. Escape and the feeling of excitement while watching have been cited by viewers as reasons why they tune in (Roberti 2007). In youth, it may even be the result of modeling after peers (Vandenbosch and Eggermont 2011). Learning the social norms of relationships is occasionally cited as a reason to watch (Roberti 2007) but may actually have less of an influence than you might think. In fact, it appears that the viewer who says they are watching for entertainment purposes is shown to have more attitudes influenced by these programs than previously expected (Zubriggen and Morgan 2006).  You could be watching something and say that you are not in it to get a take-away, but your behaviors and attitudes may be adjusting without you even realizing it.

So how does watching dating on reality TV manifest itself in everyday life?
It turns out, a stronger belief and faith in romance portrayed on TV, both scripted and reality, correlates to an ability to actually be less likely to stay committed in a relationship (Osborn 2012).   Perhaps the glorified romance of such programming leads to unreasonable or unattainable expectations in reality?

Stereotyping is a huge byproduct of heavy reality TV watching.  In particular, feelings that women are sex objects and men are sex-driven (Ferris et al 2007) and that love is a game (Cherry 2008, Ferris et al 2007) are strengthened with increased watching. These attitudes can play out in not only self-sabotaging ways, such as avoiding relationships and placing judgments on potential partners, but can be dangerous as well. The idea of women as sex objects may lead men to more deviant sexual behaviors or the idea that men are sex-driven may lead to women being overly skeptical of the motives of men. Not to mention, thinking of love as a game implies there is a winner … and a loser.

Perceptions of how aspects of dating are portrayed also contribute to how relationships play out in real life. Men report viewing sex as being portrayed realistically on reality TV, while women report love is portrayed realistically (Punyanunt-Carter 2006). In a heterosexual relationship, this could mean a conflict of expectations within the relationship setting. For example, with love and sex often happening fast on reality TV, a woman may be focusing on the romance portion while a man is focusing on the bedroom and they end up missing each other on different trajectories.

Implications of reality television dating shows are seen strongly in adolescents.  Girls in particular have their attitudes shaped by watching love on reality TV. Talk of sex among peers increases in girls who watch these types of programs, and their perception level of the experience of peer boys also elevates (Vandenbosch and Eggermont 2011). Tack on peer pressure and hormones and this could lead straight to an increase in sexual behaviors that they may not have been considering or ready to participate in yet.

One phenomena not fully explored is the connection viewers feel between themselves and the reality star. In one study, participants would talk about reality stars as if they were talking about a friend, and mentioned going so far as to connect with that person on social media (Cherry 2008). Does this mean that the viewer may be looking for love … with the person on television who is looking for love?

An interesting point to consider is the success (or rather, lack of success) rate of couples that come from the “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” series. Of the 16 seasons of “The Bachelor,” 14 couples broke up within one year and none have resulted in marriage. Of eight “Bachelorette” couples, four ended within a year, two ended within two years, one is still engaged and one is married. The congenial feeling viewers have towards characters on these programs may cause the viewers to actually feel the break up with couple, which in turn could play out negatively in their own relationship.

There is, however, evidence that does show little correlation between television watching and the construction of ideals of love. A study of single women showed that other factors–in particular, age and how long she’s been single–are stronger in defining their social identity (Cheever 2010). This does not account for how the woman comes up with the ideas of when the right age is to be settled down or how long is too long to be single.

Since 1990, both the marriage and divorce rate in the United States has gone down (U.S. Census of Population and Housing 2012). Whether or not reality television, or any television at all, has any role in this particular change in society is unknown.  However, it is important to note this change as it signifies a change in cultural norms regarding marriage in the United States, which may have roots in the portrayal of love on television.

Gender roles may also play an important role in the outcome of reality dating shows. No couple out of 16 seasons has persevered from “The Bachelor,” while two out of eight survived “The Bachelorette,” resulting in one marriage so far.  Relationships stemming from “The Bachelorette” also tend to last longer. This begs the question: when women are in the driver’s seat position of these shows, is it coincidence that their successes are higher, or is there something else going on?

Furthermore, studies about dating on reality TV focus primarily on relationships between a woman and a man. This may be due to the lack of dating programs that feature gay contestants. It would be interesting to study the impressions of gay viewers on heterosexual dating programs to see if it has any influence on their relationships in real life.

When reality TV began to become more prevalent, it was seen as an alternative to scripted or news television. Ordinary people have an opportunity to step into a world they may never get to otherwise experience (Syvertsen 2001).  It makes sense, then, that viewers would relate to people in those positions and possibly see them as peers and role models for their dating behaviors.

The question becomes, then, as more people enter reality dating television and bring the norms they have learned from programs before, does the connection between dating in real life and dating on television become cyclical? Or, are they two linear and somewhat parallel paths? My guess is it is somewhere in between. We tune in nightly, mainly with the purpose of being entertained and maybe escaping our own reality, but it turns out that when we turn off the pressure of trying to “get something” out of television, we may turn on something else that allows us to soak up the things we see without even realizing it (Zubriggen and Morgan 2006).  And whether we like it or not, our desires and dreams of the fantasy of love and the perfect marriage have roots in reality TV (Sgroi 2006).

Love has always had encouragement from pop culture, and with the continuous growth in both the number and popularity of reality TV programs, perceptions of love will continue to be influenced by dating television.


Cheever, Nancy Ann. 2010. “The Cultivation of Social Identity In Single Women: The Role of Single Female Characterizations and Marriage and Romantic Relationship Portrayals on Television”. PhD diss., Fielding Graduate University.
Cherry, Kristin L. 2008. “Reality TV and Interpersonal Relationship Perceptions.” PhD diss. University of Missouri – Columbia.
Ferris, Amber L., Sandi W. Smith, Bradley S. Greenberg and Stacy L. Smith. 2007. “The Content of Reality Dating Shows and Viewer Perceptions of Dating”. Journal of Communication 57, no. 3: 490–510.
Grossman, Cathy L. 2012. “Average Couple Spends $26,989 On Wedding; Many Break Budget.” USA Today. August 10, 2012.
Marshall, James P., and Linda Skogrand. 2004. ”Newlywed Debt: The Anti-Dowry.” The Forum 9, no. 1.
Osborn, Jeremy L. 2012. “When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment.” Mass Communication and Society 15., no.5: 739-757.
Punyanunt-Carter, Narissra Maria. 2006. “Love on Television: Reality Perception Differences Between Men and Women.” North American Journal Of Psychology 8, no. 2: 269-276.
Roberti, Jonathan W. 2007. “Demographic Characteristics and Motives of Individuals Viewing Reality Dating Shows.” Communication Review 10, no. 2: 117- 134.
Sgroi, Renee. 2006. “Consuming the Reality TV Wedding.” Ethnologies 28, no. 2: 113.
Syvertsen, Trine. 2001. “Ordinary People In Extraordinary Circumstances: A Study of Participants In Television Dating Games.” Media, Culture & Society 23, no.3:319-337.
U.S. Census of Population and Housing. 2012. “Births, Deaths, Marriages, & Divorces: Marriages and Divorces.” Washington, D.C.
Vandenbosch, Laura, and Steven Eggermont. 2011. “Temptation Island, the Bachelor, Joe Millionaire: A Prospective Cohort Study On the Role of Romantically Themed Reality Television In Adolescents’ Sexual Development.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55, no.4:563-580.
Zurbriggen, Eileen L., and Elizabeth M. Morgan. 2006. “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?  Reality Dating Television Programs, Attitudes towards Sex, and Sexual Behaviors.” Sex Roles 54, no. 1-2:1-17.



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