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Reality Competition Shows: Why We Can't Get Enough Of Them

Kathy Zerbib |
November 4, 2012 | 7:48 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Demi Lovato is a celebrity judge on “The X Factor” (FOX).
Demi Lovato is a celebrity judge on “The X Factor” (FOX).

Let’s face it, America is hooked on talent-hungry competition shows. 

Every week, we work our schedules around “Dancing with the Stars” on ABC, “American Idol” on FOX, “The Voice” on NBC, and everything in between. But why? What is it about these shows that keep us so entertained, season after season?

And, judging by consistently high viewing audiences, they certainly do keep us entertained, even after so many years of the same format. Though “The Voice” is relatively new, “Dancing with the Stars” is on season 15 and “American Idol” is seeking auditions for season 12. 

All three shows, along with “America’s Got Talent” on NBC and “So You Think You Can Dance,” follow similar formats – starting auditions determined by judges, followed by live performances scored by the general public – yet remain appealing to America. Perhaps this can best be explained by a deeper look into what makes up a reality competition show.

The shows begin with a few weeks of auditions, featuring hopeful contestants from all around the nation and even from other parts of the world. The audition period is particularly entertaining when the audience gets some comic relief from obviously untalented acts (there are quite a few on “America’s Got Talent”). 

This preliminary look into the season’s candidates is also when the shows’ producers toss in some tear-jerking emotional appeals, AKA sob stories, from contestants who “overcame the greatest of obstacles” to make it to the show’s stage. This would be tragic family losses or unemployment struggles, etc. America absolutely loves sob stories, especially when it is coupled with people who actually can sing or dance really well.  Another popular emotional appeal is a reference to the age-old American Dream - that one contestant that traveled all the way to the United States to achieve her dream of singing on stage. By cheering them on and encouraging their talent by voting them through, the viewing audience is participating in fulfilling a precious American Dream, and that is an amazing feeling.

Beyond the pathos of these shows, it is really all about entertainment. Though the contestants themselves may not be the most hilarious characters, the judges and the dynamic between all of the celebrity faces add to the captivity of the reality competitions. Take, for instance, Howard Stern, Howie Mandell, and Nick Cannon’s combined goofiness on “America’s Got Talent.” Or Adam Levine’s intensity on “The Voice.” Or even Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, and Britney Spears’ already overwhelming fame on “The X Factor” on FOX. 

Every show has their own version of the Bad Guy, or the harsh critic that is strict on what they expect from a contestant. On “The X Factor” and “American Idol,” it was Simon Cowell (though the video above indicates otherwise!). On “America’s Got Talent,” it was Pierce Morgan. On “Dancing with the Stars,” it was Len Goodman. These men know exactly what talent is and they are not afraid to throw down heavy criticism when an individual is not up to par. Despite their harshness, the viewing audience both frowns upon their lack of sympathy yet tends to side with these critics because of their underlying truth. They help make the shows what they are and are determined to uncover the proper talents.

In the end, the triumph felt by the last contestant standing is a beautiful experience to watch. That final moment when your favorite contestant’s name is called as the winner is a moment of celebration for every supporter, because the viewers feel as if they contributed to this success by voting to keep the candidate in the competition. Though there is some empathy felt for those who did not make it to the end, the audience focuses on the rewards the winner will receive and follow their career into the future. Sometimes, even the ones who did not win are given a chance after the show to launch their careers. This is why Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, David Archuleta, Fantasia, and many others from “American Idol” fame continue to be relevant in the aftermath of the competition. Britain's original "X-Factor" has quite an impressive list of runners-up too, with the likes of Cher Lloyd, Leona Lewis, and One Direction.

Reality competition shows, despite their monotone format and number, thus remain entirely entertaining to America. We are a nation that appreciates talent and enjoys cheering on the victories of others, specifically when we helped create them. These shows are here to stay, and we are here to watch them. 

Reach Staff Reporter Kathy Zerbib here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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