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Providence loves reality TV

By
Friday, February 4, 2005

Being a reality TV viewer may say more about you than you think. Most likely it means you have a taste for schadenfreude – taking pleasure in misfortunes of others. Less obviously, it may mean you like Chinese food. And, perhaps most curiously, it may suggest that you live in Providence.

Providence is the national leader in reality television viewing, with 30 percent of viewers watching reality TV compared to the national average of 23 percent, according to marketing consultants at Scarborough Research.

Providence, along with Raleigh, N.C., is the top market for reality-talent shows, with 14 percent of consumers watching “American Idol” and similar shows, compared to the national average of nine percent. Providence also leads, along with Cincinnati, in the reality-adventure genre, with 21 percent of viewers tuning in to shows such as “Survivor,” compared to the national average of 15 percent, according to the Scarborough results.

The results of the study tell advertisers how different local markets use television, Cheryl Greenblatt, senior vice president of broadcast television for Scarborough, told the online magazine MediaPost.

According to Scarborough’s research, “half of (reality television) consumers have been to a Chinese/Asian restaurant, and one-third ate at a Mexican restaurant during the past month.”

Scarborough also found that reality TV watchers were more likely than other consumers to buy a new car and to switch their cell phone carrier in the next year.

It is important, however, that one “approach these results with a grain of salt,” said Modern Culture and Media Associate Professor Lynne Joyrich.

Joyrich, who has taught a class on reality television, said though she doesn’t doubt statistical correlations between reality television viewing and consumption, one has to be skeptical of market research. Such research, she said, raises “chicken and egg problems.” For example, it is difficult to determine if viewers buy certain items because they watch certain shows, or if they watch certain shows because of their pre-existing tastes.

Furthermore, “market research pretends to be a neutral science,” she said, “but it’s also a commodity.” Many studies only examine desirable demographic groups, bringing studies’ scientific neutrality into question.

As for Brown students, many confess to a love of reality television, but less so to their consumer profile.

Brandon English ’06 – who does not, in fact, plan to lease a new car this year – said he watches about four to five hours of reality television each week.

And while reality TV gets a bad rap, English, an MCM concentrator and producer of the Brown TV reality show “You’re F*cked,” says he’s not ashamed. “I am a very proud viewer,” he said. “‘Cause it’s amazing!”

English, who thinks “Paradise Hotel” is the “greatest show ever to have existed,” watches reality TV because “fiction has become too predictable.”

Joyrich said she thinks viewers enjoy reality television for the “illusion of immediacy and familiarity” it provides, as well as the opportunity it gives them to determine fact and fiction. “Viewers are sophisticated and know that it’s not reality,” she said. “It’s like a game in a way that viewers can play.”

As for what makes Providence residents so drawn to reality TV, Joyrich said she could only speculate. Joyrich, a self-proclaimed “Rhode Island and Providence lover,” described Providence as a city “very embracing of oddballs in the best possible way. … I guess I have to see it in relation to that – an appreciation for quirky human qualities.”

Victor Ning ’07, another reality TV fan, had his own interpretation: “I don’t know, I guess people just have more free time on their hands?”

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