Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2003
Reality television not just fun viewing for IU students, but also a serious college course
EDITORS: Terry is available for interviews. He can be reached at 812-855-4065 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His class meets on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.
"It won't make you a Millionaire or even a Survivor, but taking this class should give you new insights into the Dog-Eat-Dog Real World of reality TV and reduce your Fear Factor as you make chit-chat with The Osbornes should they show up at your High School Reunion." - Class description for S104, "The (Sur)Real World of Reality TV"
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University freshman Christie Quattrini has more insights than many people into the making of a reality television show. Quattrini's brother was a guest at one of the biggest weddings of the summer, the reality television program Tying the Knot: The Wedding of Melissa Joan Hart.
"I watched it because I know her, but I don't know why people would be so interested in someone else's personal life to that extent," said Quattrini, an 18-year-old from Tenafly, N.J.
Even with her insights, Quattrini saw the description for a freshman-level course at Indiana University Bloomington as a good way to better understand the latest pop culture phenomenon, reality television. She is one of 22 students enrolled in the freshman seminar course, "The (Sur)Real World of Reality TV," being offered for the first time at IUB.
"In many ways, reality television may be the best example of many characteristics of television in the future," said course developer Herb Terry, IUB associate professor of telecommunications. "We've been saying for years that television was becoming more interactive -- that instead of people sitting passively and being entertained or sometimes informed, they would interact in some way. That happens with reality television.
"I have a group of students, and what I want them to do is understand their current and future world," Terry added. "Showing them the most engaging and interactive programming that exists right now gives them some insight into what television might become down the line."
In the course, offered in the College of Arts and Sciences, students are studying the international phenomenon of reality television from historical, legal, ethical, psychological, sociological and economic perspectives.
Terry said reality shows highlight globalization trends. Many of today's hit programs in the United States were adapted from successful programs in Europe and Asia, and many foreign programs have been modified to play in this country. Superstars -- dubbed Arab Idol by some -- is a Middle Eastern adaptation of American Idol, demonstrating that cultures around the world cannot be isolated in an era of international media and travel.
Many students in Terry's class simply want to know what's "real" about reality television. "I don't know if I'll stop watching," said Rachel Hirsch, a freshman from Darnestown, Md., and a fan of the program Big Brother. "I think Professor Terry is helping us to break down everything. I never realized there were so many genres in reality shows."
Among the topics the course will explore over the semester are trends and historical contexts behind current shows. "It's sometimes said that there really is very little that is new in electronic media," Terry said. "Television has been around for more than 50 years, and a really new idea is not all that common. There are predecessors for most of these shows. They are updates of old ideas in fancier and newer technological garb, with interactivity, and sometimes they reflect cultural change."
Terry points to the program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which five gay men change the appearance of a heterosexual man, as the kind of reality programming reflecting changes in society's values and norms. A married gay couple won The Amazing Race this past season, and a gay man was the winner of the first Survivor.
"The one program that doesn't have a lot of predecessors is Fear Factor. There have been other shows that show people doing stressful or extraordinary things, but making a game out of it, for money, is unique," he said.
Terry will be closely watching for a reality show that Fox may present next year to select a "people's candidate" to possibly run against President George W. Bush and the Democratic nominee in the 2004 presidential election. "This people's candidate would of course have all of the publicity value behind him with Fox television, and might win. I hope it wouldn't get to that point," he said.
Another significant aspect of reality TV is how it interacts with its audience by using other media, such as the Internet and wireless communication.
"These are television shows accompanied by Web sites and text-messaging services, also including 24-7 cameras that transmit from the Big Brother room when the TV show isn't on," he said. "We've been saying for years that the future of television would no longer be as a stand-alone medium, that it would be a medium that would somehow interact with everything else. Reality TV may be the best example running right now."
Terry's course is one of several dozen topical freshman seminars offered at IUB which help students understand how scholars frame questions, assess knowledge and propose answers in a university setting. A professor at IU Bloomington since 1974, he acknowledges that the subject matter of his course is a form of bait to draw students into learning critical thinking skills.
"On the first day of class, I asked my students if they had any idea what the difference was between what the university would call a 'humanity' and what it would call a 'social science.' They had very little understanding of what that difference is," Terry said. "By the end of this course, they will know. They will know how you can take a cultural analysis of these shows, which are largely humanistic, and talk about their influences on American culture.
"They'll also know how and why these things -- in a social scientific sense -- can be measured in terms of appeal and the size and characteristics of the audiences for them. They'll know how these programs fit into the economics of American media industries. They'll know a little bit about some of the legal problems these things create. They'll learn, for example, about what intellectual property law is."
Terry doesn't have a favorite reality program and suspects the viewing habits of his students also could be affected by the course. "I don't always watch television for fun, and I often watch a lot of really bad television," he said. "Over the years, the significant others in my life have condemned my television viewing and don't buy it when I tell them it's professional viewing.
"One of the things I told my students was that it's possible that a consequence of taking this class would be to reduce their love of these shows. Often when you know what's going on behind the scenes in anything, your appreciation of it changes."