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Blurred Boundaries: Approaches to Defining Documentaries and Reality Television

by Ethan Tussey

by Evan L. Kropp for IN MEDIA RES

In 1973, the world was introduced to the Loud Family on PBS’s An American Family. As viewers became engaged with the lives of Bill, Pat and their children, questions about the authenticity of the show arose. Was this show truly a documentation of this family’s life or was it a story created by editing, performance and the influence of production personnel? Promoted as a documentary series, the show did not include typical elements found in documentaries of the time like interviews or narration. So was An American Family a documentary or a Reality TV show?

In order to answer that question, we would need to first establish a definition for each form that distinguishes between them. But is describing the difference between the two a simple task? Let’s take the following definition from Bill Nichols as a starting point.

“Documentary speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves in stories that convey a plausible proposal about, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the documentary shapes this story into a way of seeing the…world directly rather than into a fictional allegory” 

Now re-read the above definition and substitute “reality television” for “documentary.”  Does the description work for both? The definition attempts to define its subject based on content, but as the boundaries for the differences between each form continue to blur, is this the most effective strategy? Perhaps a more effective approach would be to question the program's objective. This would provide a clearer line of demarcation. For example, some might say the objective of reality television programs is to make money. The shows seek to attract audiences so they can sell advertising time and generate revenue. Or is that too simple a definition?

Conversely, documentary filmmakers objectives seem to be more diverse. While some are motivated by profit, most documentarians would likely describe their motivations as having a desire to create a work of art, to persuade audiences on a particular political position or to tell the story of an individual or event. This results in a product that moves beyond entertainment and capitalist intent and provides a site of cultural discourse.

What do you think? As our media products change, do we need to explore new ways of defining and differentiating between them and if so, how is that best accomplished?

inMediaRes: Documentary versus Reality Television

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inMediaRes: Documentary versus Reality Television

from inMediaRes: Documentary versus Reality Television (2013)
Creator: Evan Kropp
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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