Do Reality Shows Affect How Viewers See Real-Life Relationships?

"In The Loop" explores how Americans are dealing with the changing dating landscape in its new series "Love Life."
Posted at 8:01 PM, Oct 06, 2022

Reality TV has a long history. 

A show titled "Candid Camera," which premiered on ABC back in 1948, holds the Guinness World Record for being the first TV reality show. It was essentially a prank show that involved playing practical jokes on unsuspecting members of the public and filming their reactions.

While there wasn't much dating going on on "Candid Camera," it was the origin of the voyeurism that feeds modern America's appetite for reality content.

It wasn't until 1965 that a reality love show — ABC's "The Dating Game" — first tried to take on cupid's role. Each episode featured an eligible single looking to go on a date with one of the other contestants. The catch was that the potential partners remained out of sight while the eligible bachelor or bachelorette made decisions based solely on their anonymous interactions.

If it sounds familiar, it's because that's pretty much the same concept as Netflix's "Love Is Blind," which first aired in 2020, but without the modern twist of talking pods and the 24/7 immersion where contestants live together in a home.

In the more than half a century since "The Dating Game" premiered, reality dating shows have become a behemoth in their own right, and their continued evolution with the times shows they're probably here to stay. 

Andy Dehnart is the writer behind Reality Blurred, a blog where he chronicles and comments on the latest the reality TV genre has to offer.  

"I think dating shows tap into a number of things that make us completely addicted to them, absorbed by them, fascinated by them," Dehnart said. "I think what has really sustained dating shows overall, especially 'The Bachelor' franchise which is the big one of course, is that it's turned into this ongoing soap opera."

By bringing back popular characters viewers have been attached to, Dehnart says the dating reality TV genre is able to keep viewers hooked onto the story.

As much as they appeal to us, do they also reflect how we view love and relationships? In other words, how realistic is romance in reality TV? Dehnart said that while the shows are not literally scripted, they're not quite real either.

"There's all kinds of components to reality TV shows, and every single one of those components introduces a possibility of artificiality and of lack of reality," Dehnart said. "That starts with the concept for the show and 'how realistic is this format?' Then when you cast people, are you casting people who are representative of average viewers or people in the region which are producing this show? Or, are you looking for super attractive people, people who are extremely outgoing and type-A? When you're on set and filming everything from the way someone acts in front of the camera to the way the cameras film them can affect how we see people."

Dehnart also said pre-production plans and post-production editing can play a big role in what we see as representations of love and relationships on reality TV.

When you think about the big money behind the scenes, that pre-production and editing effort makes sense. Reality TV is a money-making industry, and some of the most viewed dating shows pull in millions of viewers. Take for example the latest seasons of ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," which pulled in an average of 3.6 and 2.8 million viewers, respectively. Viewership for streaming services is calculated differently, but Netflix said its "Love Is Blind" was viewed by 30 million member households.

But while raking in viewers and cash, for producers, it's also a genre that's influenced society's idea of love in general. The shows often feature the common romance tropes of "soul mates," "prince charming" and "love at first sight." Decisions are dramatized to an extent that kind of reflect fairytale aspirations and concepts.

While all those ideas might not be inherently bad, the problem is that reality dating shows also promote problematic behavior and concepts.

Social research suggests a link between viewing reality TV and gender stereotyping. Watching reality TV, as it turns out, has been associated with a strong adherence to a traditional masculine ideology and a greater endorsement of gendered and heterosexual roles for women.

Studies have also found evidence that sexually oriented reality TV, as many reality dating shows can be, is one factor in young people's willingness to engage in casual sex, along with the internet, social media, and their peers. That doesn't have to be a bad thing when it's ethical, safe and consensual, but these studies also note that sexual activity is seen differently for women and men. It's often viewed as empowering for the men but, on the other hand, lowers sexual agency for women.

"I think in dating shows, you get a lot of sexualization, especially of women, because again, that's something that happens in our culture and that gets mirrored and then perhaps amplified by a reality TV show," Dehnart said. "I think most importantly in casting, we don't really see most shows reflective of what America looks like for American reality TV shows. Hollywood can sell young and sexy, and therefore, you're going to see that more in a dating show."

That treatment of women and depiction of gender norms can have a real impact on young viewers especially. There hasn't been too much research into the effects of dating shows in particular, but one small Australian survey involving single people who watch reality dating shows found 54% of respondents "learn about relationships from reality TV shows about love," 48% said they "feel reassured that there are other people who are also looking for love," and just over one-third, 37%, agreed with the claim that "you can see yourself and your relationship in reality TV shows about love."

Another poll conducted by YouGov found that while 56% of Americans believe reality TV has a negative influence on society, and 58% think reality dating shows in particular are heavily scripted, 65% of Americans also indicated that they're interested in appearing on at least one of reality TV's many genres.