Pop Culture, Reality TV, & Education

When I think of pop culture a vision of Andy Warhol’s soup cans immediately pop into my head. Pop culture pervades society influencing purchases and perceptions. According to Annie Murphy Paul, we are capable of listening and learning before we are born (retrieved from Ted Talks on June 11, 2012). From this can we gather that we learn about pop culture through the television programs, commercials, and music that we hear in utero? Pop culture is omnipresent from early on, as marketers continually invent new ways to present advertising that can infiltrate every aspect of our American life. In this article, I reflect on the meaning of pop culture, the role that it plays in education, and how reality television holds a certain kind of fascination for me that is both intriguing and disdaining like a good train wreck that compels me to watch when I should turn away. A quick analysis of reality television shines a light on the production, textual, audience, and historical aspects of this pop culture genre.

What is pop culture? Pop culture is contemporary life that includes all current aspects of our society from food and fashion to music and media to technology and texts. Pop culture is a reflection of the way we live as a people of the times. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, pop culture is “commercial culture based on popular taste” (retrieved from Oxford Dictionaries on June 11, 2012). Wikipedia describes pop culture as “the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images, and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_culture on June 11, 2012).

What is the role of pop culture in education? Pop culture can play a particularly important role in education by bringing relevance and real-life authenticity to course content, which may otherwise be an abstract topic for many learners. In this way, pop culture can support a student-centric constructivist approach to learning by incorporating andragogical principles into traditional pedagogy. I think it is as essential for educators to be familiar with pop culture as current events because pop culture provides a context for knowledge acquisition in the form of a constant social narrative. The lens of pop culture filters a student’s perception of course content. Experiences of pop culture influence how students perceive, compare, and apply new information to the real world. One benefit of incorporating pop culture into course activities is that teachers can guide students’ understanding of how to think critically about aspects of pop culture in order to develop an independent mind and not be inculcated with commercialism. This, in turn, can teach students about digital and media literacy as well as how to become intelligent consumers. Additionally, pop culture can be used as a ”hook” to motivate and engage learners through specific genres that interest them such as film, music, sports, fashion, comics, or television.

What are the production, textual, audience, and historical analyses of reality television as a pop culture genre? Reality television is fascinating whether it portrays life-changing transformations on Biggest Loser, a rising star on American Idol, or lifestyles of the rich and famous on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. There is something for everyone in reality programs such as Dancing with the Stars, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Celebrity Apprentice, and Bachelorette. More and more networks are joining the cause with reality television programs about Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Cake Bosses, and the Next Top Model. The production, textual, audience, and historical analyses that follow illuminate reality television as a pop culture genre.

Production Analysis. After an analysis of the networks, owners, and producers of the most popular reality television programs, it becomes clear that a few large corporations own most of them. Walt Disney Company owns the ABC network, which distributes Dancing with the Stars and Bachelorette. Comcast and General Electric own NBC Universal, which distributes The Biggest Loser and Celebrity Apprentice via the NBC network, Keeping up with the Kardashians via E! Online, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills via the Bravo network. CBS owns the CBS network, which distributes The Amazing Race and Survivor. News Corporation owns Fox, which distributes American Idol. The top producers of these programs include Simon Fuller (Dancing with the Stars and American Idol), Mike Fleiss (Bachelorette), Ryan Seacrest (Keeping Up with the Kardashians), Jerry Bruckheimer (The Amazing Race), and Mark Burnett (Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice). The scope of this quick analysis limits the depth of this production analysis. However, based on this limited information, it could be claimed that the programs “reflect the class values of the producers…[and] this limits media content, marginalizing the viewpoints of individuals and groups not part of the mostly white, mostly male, mostly upper-middle to upper class folks who control the production” (retrieved from culturalpolitics.net on June 11, 2012).

When considering the intentions of the owners and producers of reality television, the answer that immediately comes to mind is likely that of profit. When watching various shows, the primary audience of the program is quite clear based on the types of commercials. For example, during American Idol most commercials target young women and girls. Thus, the identification of the primary audience is clear. What is the main function of reality television? Is it to be a vehicle for consumerism? Are there true opportunities for creative expression? In performance contest programs such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars (DWTS), or America’s Got Talent, the winner of the program often displays superb creative expression and reaps benefits of monetary awards and public recognition. As producers create new programs that reach wider audiences, reality television has the potential to represent greater diversity. This capability to reach wide audiences through seemingly limitless topics is one of the great strengths of this type of pop culture genre. Reality television can provide something for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality. American culture remains heavily influenced by puritan values in regards to censorship as reflected in many genres of popular culture.

Textual Analysis. Reality television programs represent traditional and familiar narratives in our society such as that of the underdog, rags to riches, finding true love, the commoner princess, and overcoming adversity. The explicit messages that these programs carry to viewers varies by subject matter, but can include images and ideas of motivation such as (1) anything is possible, (2) with luck and fortitude, anyone can prevail, and (3) you too can be a star. These messages represent the American dream and the ideology of the American people. As the television programs connect to core American beliefs, television commercials subtly shape the viewers subconscious in tacit ways by sending subliminal messages that consumerism is a pathway to the American dream. Marketers use these and other types of psychoanalytical approaches to sell products that align with the viewer demographics of reality television programs.

Audience Analysis. The audience for reality television is wide and varied which is one reason it continues to be one of the most popular types of television programming today. Each type of program uses a unique strategy to pull in viewers. For example, reality television programs that involve celebrities such as Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice attract a wider audience because they not only attract fans of the show, but also fans of the celebrities. To illustrate this point, we look to the phenomenon of the winning football player on DWTS. Many football players have won the mirror ball trophy on DWTS. Football stars have a large fan base that supports the star during the portion of the contest that relies on viewer voting.

While American Idol has a clear primary audience demographic, many people tune into the show. One of the possible reasons is because the show appeals to the music preferences of a wide audience. The top ten performers on American Idol typically specialize in different genres of music that appeal to different audiences such as country, gospel, reggae, or pop. As a popular show, it provides a common topic of conversation at the water cooler, in the checkout lane, or on fan sites. While society shares in the common texts of reality television, the different social groups that view the programs will likely construct different meanings.

Historical Analysis. While reality television is a relatively new phenomenon, commercialism, celebrity popularity, and game shows are not new to the general viewing audience. A reality television production is different from other types of programs such as dramas, comedy shows, or talk shows. Beginning with Survivor as one of the first popular reality programs in America, the formula for success has not changed significantly. While there are clearly more programs now in a genre that seems to be perpetually growing with new possible topics such as Cake Boss, Next Top Model, and Pawn Stars. In the context of production, quantity seems to reign over quality. In regards to textual messages, there appears to be significant overlap in the cultural narrative among various reality television programs. Finally, with a focus on the audience, the larger quantity of programs seems to provide a smorgasbord of choices for a wider range of audiences. In this way, reality television is a pervasive part of pop culture and influences American life. Does reality television portray real-life or does real-life mimic reality television?

In summary, it is essential for students to develop digital and media literacy in order to become intelligent consumers. By incorporating pop culture into the curriculum, educators can ensure that students are learning about content in a way that is relevant and authentic. This aspect of pop culture can facilitate critical thinking and support motivation. Reality television is pervasive in our pop culture society through stories that appeal to almost every audience demographic. The continued growth of reality television programs over the past several years signifies that it is likely here to stay rather than a passing fad. As the genre matures, it will likely continue to become more inclusive and appeal to a wider audience as new programs represent different topics and aspects of our society.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Tomato Soup (1968)

Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Warhol-Campbell_Soup-1-screenprin…. Note: It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of works of art for critical commentary qualifies as fair use under US copyright law.

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