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Feature

Laurie Ouellette

Laurie Ouellette

Finding hidden lessons in reality TV

U professor Laurie Ouellette examines the current phenomenon

By Danny LaChance

From eNews, March 22, 2007

Forty years ago, says communication studies associate professor Laurie Ouellette, television executives saw the first incarnation of reality television as duds--frumpy, low-budget public television broadcasts that taught viewers how to paint or cook.

"The prevailing consensus within the industry was that nonfiction programming wasn't profitable and should be kept to a minimum," she says.

Now, on every night of the week, network executives rake in millions of dollars from nonfiction programs that depict actual people struggling with everything from unhygienic roommates to obese bodies to the ire of Donald Trump.

What happened?

At first glance, Ouellette says, it looks as if the genre gave itself one of its own extreme makeovers. Nearly 40 years ago, Julia Child dished out dessert recipes to viewers who watched with notebooks. Now, reality shows are filled with explosive confrontations between hip twenty-somethings and fierce competitions for jobs, money, or romantic partners. For viewers, Ouellette says, what once felt akin to taking vitamins is now like eating a candy bar.

"Then, when you'd tune into PBS, you got the idea that you were no longer watching television for pleasure; you were being taught something," explains Ouellette, who joined the department last fall. "Now, people assume that because contemporary reality television has all of the elements of popular culture it's just about entertainment."

While today's reality programming may have lots of added sugar, Ouellette says it's still packed with vitamins. The shows, she argues, have become powerful and subtle teachers of life skills and self-management techniques. Today's viewers may not be copying down recipes for cr?me caramel from Julia Child, but they are getting recipes for success and happiness from shows like "American Idol," "Extreme Makeover" and "The Bachelor."

Recipes for self-reliance

Those recipes for success have larger cultural implications, says Ouellette, noting that they have helped engineer a shift away from big government on the national political landscape. Programs that teach self-improvement techniques or demonstrate the power of the individual to transform himself or herself from a nobody to an American Idol, she explains, reflect skepticism about the power of the government to effect positive change in people's lives.

Well-being, in other words, becomes a matter of consumer choice and self-enterprise rather than a sense of social security guaranteed by the government.

"Makeover programs cultivate the idea that we all need to work on ourselves relentlessly to achieve happiness and success in these times," Ouellette says. "This is especially relevant at a time when reformers are promoting personal responsibility as an alternative to social programs."

Ultimately, she says, these programs teach viewers that personal willpower and easily digested folk wisdom, not government intervention, are what people need to secure a good future for themselves.

This idea has become the basis for Ouellette's next book, Better Living through TV: Television and the Government of Everyday Life, which she is writing with James Hay, an associate professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois.

Despite concerns she may have about the political implications of reality television programming, Ouellette is not out to replace these programs' conception of the good life with one of her own. She simply wants viewers to become more media literate, tuned in to the economic, political, and cultural context in which reality television has emerged.

"If you think about it, most people don't absorb their culture through fine arts, poetry, or opera," she says. "They get it from television and film. My hope is that the book will encourage us to have a more complicated and aware relationship to the media that are such a big part of our everyday lives."

Edited from an article in Communication, the magazine of the Department of Communication Studies.


Ouellette's most recent book is Viewers Like You? How Public TV Failed the People (Columbia University Press, 2002)