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Transmedia and Reality TV

robert | September 29, 2013  ‐  1 Comment

One of the interesting paradoxes about the reality TV is that more a show is less like reality, so the better the ratings. By this I mean, less like our reality. Shows like The Real Housewives of… may be set in real places and show real people but their lifestyle and dramas are likely to be a million miles away from any reality that we’re familiar with.

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So this got me thinking about how transmedia design principals and analysis can be applied to these types of shows.

It can be said that the shows do have their own storyworlds: the characters, locations, the belief systems, the economic systems etc. are all evident in any particular show. And so that means there must be a portal or threshold between their reality and mine; between the storyworld of the show and my real life. In fact, the more distinct we can make that portal such that there is a crossing point into the world of the show, so the stronger the show is for it.

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Duck Dynasty is a good example of a show with this own storyworld full of guns, camouflage, religion, family values and dead animals. The show would have us believe that the families live in the forest living off the land and so the inner world is that bounded by the forest. When we leave the trees for urban living it feels like the characters are crossing a threshold into another land but of course the urban surroundings are part of the Duck Dynasty map just like different regions in Game of Thrones or the urban and rural areas of GTA V. But Duck Dynasty is strongest when it’s in foreign territory – visit a local play park for some half-baked product placement or to give our Christmas presents to kids at the village hall and we get closer to our world and some of the magic is lost.

Whenever a boundary can be created around the reality TV show so the program makers create a storyworld in which the audience is less likely to find contradictions which means more able to actively create belief and hence more able to immerse themselves in the world.  For example, many shows put all the characters in the same house – of course it helps with the mechanics of production and increases the likelihood of conflict – but the effect is to create a bounded world that no viewer has experienced. This creates a clear definition of in world and out of world. Even when the boundary is physically less apparent, boundaries created by wealth or celebrity or deprivation or achievement help to insulate the show from everyday experience and this create the attraction.

Drillability is often the enemy of the reality TV show because the more we drill, the more we peer behind the curtain and see that the “reality” of the show is far from the full truth. On Duck Dynasty we hardly see all the employees that must keep the company running and on X Factor we hardly hear about the researchers who listen to all the contestants long before they get to the celebrity judges. The program makers try not to remind us of these facts because they spoil the illusion – they break the reality of the reality show. Anyone that’s searched the Internet to find further details behind incidents in a show steps across an in-world and out-of-world boundary often resulting in a detrimental experience: curiosity kills the cat just like discovering your favourite gadget is made in a sweatshop or your favourite food is made from the bone & gristle of animals treaded inhumanely.

When looking to build extensions, then, why not dispense with “reality” and extend into pure fiction?

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The world of Buffalo Bill Cody gives us an interesting example of fictionalized transmedia storytelling for a real world character. So remote was the Wild West of pioneer Buffalo Bill that most people wouldn’t know the difference between a truthful account of a fight with Indians and a fictionalized one. So why bother pretending? The Buffalo Bill storyworld offers us cartoons, novels, theatre plays – in which he used to play himself – and a live travelling exhibition of staged encounters.

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Why not take Si Robertson and give him his own comic strip? Why not take Millionaire Matchmaker and make photo-love stories and romance novels? A Facebook social game for Celebrity Rehab?

By further fictionalizing the reality TV shows, it gives the property endless potential for expansion without having to ever worry about reality again.

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  • Belen Santa

    Good points! I haven’t watched this show yet, but from its website, I am not capable to say what is real and what it isn’t. Drillability? Mmmm, I don’t think it could survive that… Seems engaging though! :)

    dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/amish-mafia