This past week, I had the opportunity to train leaders in a progressive company on how to better understand their Millennial co-workers. During the training, one of the Gen X leaders posited that reality TV is one of the major negative influences on the Millennial generation
This got me thinking. I am a Millennial, so was I negatively influenced by my voyeuristic Real World habit as a teen? Did seeing couples running around the world chasing one million dollars on The Amazing Race influence my decision making? Did The Bachelor convince me that all a girl wants is for me to offer her a rose? (And propose to her after two months of courting?)
The media constantly covers the negative impacts of reality television on young and impressionable viewers. But I have a bold statement to make: this genre’s popularity and its impact on viewers shouldn’t hold the negative clout it has earned, because it has pushed societal norms and broken down stigmas for every generation.
Reality TV is not unique to Millennials. Prior to coining the genre “reality television,” Baby Boomers experienced a rise in “documentary television”. Arguably, the first reality TV show was one of this documentary style. In 1973, An American Family followed the Louds for 12 episodes. Oh, but it must have been those Traditionalist network head honchos depicting the model wholesome family, right? Not in the least. The Louds were a real family who, on national television, experienced divorce and a son coming out as openly gay. Lance Loud is heralded as the first openly gay ‘character’ on television. In the ’70s, being openly gay and going through a public divorce, both considered taboo, were made public. Reality television pushed the envelope and showcased change that was happening in the country reminiscent to the changes that Boomers were fighting for.
In 1992, Gen Xers watched the true story of seven strangers picked to live together when The Real World debuted on MTV. In the early years, The Real World broke ground by introducing Gen X viewers to topics such as prejudice, AIDS, abortion, sex, and substance abuse. In the third season of The Real World: San Francisco, Pedro Zamora, an HIV-positive gay male, was cast on the show. Gen Xers watched as Pedro fought his illness and his roommates who were prejudiced towards his disease and sexual orientation. In 1995, during the same San Francisco season, Pedro and his partner were filmed making the first nationally televised same-sex commitment ceremony. Again, reality television broke down stigmas and didn’t shy away from social norms.
MTV reinvented itself for the Millennial generation as Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant took center stage. These shows were met with the same shock and awe as An American Family and The Real World. In the five years since the premiere of 16 and Pregnant, there has been a 5.7% drop in teen pregnancies. Perhaps this can be attributed to MTV. Perhaps not. Either way, reality television publicly opened the conversation around another controversial topic that scripted television was too fearful to explore episode after episode.
Yes, Millennials and the generation after them, Generation Edge, have experienced an uptick of negative, mind-numbing reality television shows. But all generations have had forms of entertainment to escape the reality we call everyday life. Reality television, like it or not, is part of the fiber that makes up our media-consumed identity. The content is not always extraordinary, but this form of media has pushed our social consciousness forward in a way that censored, scripted television has not. So the next time you put on your guilty pleasure, you can pull back the curtains, roll up the shades, and watch the latest Basketball Wives episode with pride. I know I will.