Lakshmi Singh June 21, 2012
Taste of triumph ... Junior Masterchef judge Anna Gare with 10-year-old contestant Evie. Photo: Supplied
"Happy clappy" sitcoms are out of favour with tweens and teens and that's a good thing, writes Lakshmi Singh.
What do reality television shows The Block, MasterChef and Australia's Got Talent have in common?
According to a TV Tonight report, in 2011, those three shows were the most popular with children under 15.
It seems that feel-good family oriented sitcoms, popular with tweens and teens of the past generation have given way to talent quest shows and experts say that this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Competency based programs showcase hard work and discipline, while graphically depicting the euphoria of success and and the bitter disappointment of failure. In contrast, popular family sitcoms of the 80s and 90s like The Cosby Show or Full House featured safe, insular worlds, in which a happy ending was assured.
Laura Kiln, internationally recognised parenting expert and owner of Laura’s Place, a practice where she offers counselling to families, cautiously endorses reality TV saying some shows expose children to a wide spectrum of issues and offer useful advice without sugar-coating difficult matters.
Kiln notes that a show like The Biggest Loser can help children develop empathy by observing the severe impact of weight problems on contestants' lives, especially in cases where the children's own families have no experience of obesity.
Where weight is an issue in a family, the show can help to bring parents and children closer together and inspire them to achieve their weight loss goals.
“Imagine a family that all want to get fit together and want to lose weight or get into exercise, well then if they all watch The Biggest Loser together, and they go 'right, we’re going to exercise together and eat sensibly together', then it becomes a whole family thing and that’s using reality TV in an incredibly positive way,” says Kiln.
She adds that the resolution focused nature of sitcoms elides psychological complexity. “Nothing can be too dramatic, because it has to be dealt with in that one session". Whereas, in shows like Masterchef, tensions ebb and flow throughout the whole series, Kiln notes.
Instead of imposing the “happy, clappy, love everybody” lessons of sitcoms on children, reality TV shows often grapple with challenges that a child may be facing in real life, she says.
“If you think about the average classroom situation, as a class, the kids have to pull together and do stuff as a class. But there will be people within those classes that don’t get on. But they have to learn that you don’t have to like him or [that even if] he annoys you, he’s got irritating habits of doing something, you’ve got to learn to get on with what you’re doing for yourself and not be drawn in.”
Another positive aspect of reality TV is its broader array of cultural representation.
Emma Ashton, Australia’s reality TV expert agrees.
“It’s got to be remembered that reality TV was probably one of the first shows on our screens that showcased diversity. What I mean by diversity is people of different ethnicities, people of different sexualities and people of different ages. When you look at Australian soaps [and popular sitcoms], they were pretty Anglo-Saxon, pretty straight, up until now,” she says.
Ashton is glad that her own daughter watches reality TV shows rather than the tepid sitcoms of the 70s and 80s, which depicted “traditional male, female role models.”
This diversity on display in reality TV shows has convinced Ashton that, if viewed with adult supervision and input, they can be a powerful tool to help children understand the “real society, the real community that we’re currently living in in Australia”.
Kiln also stresses that adult supervision is the key to making the most of reality TV's educational potential.
“Kids are like little sponges. They just absorb everything. Not always the good stuff. And that’s what happens with the TV shows, they don’t always absorb the positive messages, they are going to absorb the negative messages. That’s why that’s down to parents to try and have it as more of a family viewing [experience],” she says.
It's doubly important for parents to police the viewing habits of children under eight, as they are especially impressionable, says Kiln.
But it's not all good news. Often the subtle (or in the case of Kyle Sandilands telling Kate DeAraugo to lose the “tuck shop lady arms” on Australian Idol, not so) messages on these talent shows can lead children to believe that good looks are a greater determinant of success than talent.
In fact, an American Girl Scouts Research Institute study, which looked at the impact of reality TV shows on tween and teen girls, revealed that 38 per cent thought that a girl’s value is based on her appearance.
The hothouse atmosphere and deceptively easy path to success depicted on talent shows is another element of the genre that alarms Ashton.
“It’s only a small percentage of people that actually find fame from shows. A lot of people go back to their ordinary lives [after the show]”, she says.
Ashton, whose business Reality Ravings Consulting helps aspiring contestants craft their reality TV show applications, has seen many people quit their jobs or put their education on hold to participate in a reality TV show.
"I'd still advise kids, if you want a good career, better go get a university degree and then apply to a reality TV show. Sure, you might be one of the lucky few to get noticed from it, but 95 per cent of people don't."
It seems that kids are heeding this advice, with a recent article in The Age reporting an increase in the number of HSC and university enrollments in dance and music, all attributed to the trend of young people watching reality TV. This upswing is interpreted as a positive sign by some educators as participation in the arts encourages creative thinking - something that employers value.
The TV Tonight analysis also revealed that fly-on-the-wall documentaries like Bondi Rescue ranked highly with kids under 15.
Kiln says that some of these "real life" shows can act as an ice-breaker and prompt difficult or neglected conversations between parents and their children.
"Organ donation isn't on top of people's list of things to talk to the kids about, but if you watch the fly-on-the wall TV of life in an emergency department the subject will come up and can be discussed," she says.
Girl Scouts researcher Kimberlee Salmond also highlights reality TV's "role as a learning and motivational tool".
"For example, we know that many girls receive inspiration and comfort from reality TV and that 62 per cent of girls say that these types of shows have raised their awareness of social issues and causes.”
In an age where parents are accused of bubble–wrapping their children and coddling them too much, reality TV may not be such a bad thing after all.