SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus pandemic can be broken down into four eras right now, at least from an internet meme perspective.
First, there were all those memes based on the video of 25 celebrities singing “Imagine” by John Lennon. Gal Gadot was the first to share the video, which included Kristen Wiig and Will Farrell. It was controversial for being “so bad” — and a little tone deaf.
Soon after, photos and screenshots of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” popped up. Family farms and community gatherings have been shared online as people continue to play the game, which has slowly begun to mimic real life.
And then there’s Joe Exotic — also known as the Tiger King, from Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Madness ... and Mayhem” (TV-MA) documentary — who spawned Facebook meme after Facebook meme.
And finally, there’s Big Ed — the star of TLC’s “Before The 90 Days,” (TV-14) a spinoff of “90 Day Fiance,” (TV-14) a show where couples from different parts of the world see if they can survive past 90 days — who has achieved viral fame for, well, no one really knows. But he’s skyrocketed into internet meme culture.
Those final two come from reality-based programming. And they’re only the tip of the iceberg of what’s offered. New episodes of “90 Day Fiance” air weekly. Shows like “Too Hot to Handle” (TV-MA) — a show about dating on an island — and “Love Is Blind” (TV-MA) — a show about finding the love your life without seeing them — top streaming charts on Netflix. And that’s not even counting “The Bachelor” (TV-14) or “The Bachelor: Listen to Your Heart,” (TV-14) — two network shows that continued to air during the early days of the pandemic.
Amid the terrifying real world of a pandemic, we’ve drifted back toward reality television. According to Quartz data, “American Idol” grew its audience for three weeks in a row. “Game of Games” — a reality game show hosted by Ellen DeGeneres — had more viewers in more than a year, representing a 36% jump in viewership. And the finale of “The Bachelor” was the most-watched episode of the show since 2016.
Reality TV has come a long way since its origins. Semblances of reality TV existed in the 1960s on PBS, which aired a show called “An American Family” that “offered an intimate and sensationalistic examination of a single family alongside a powerful critique of American society,” according to The Washington Post. It showed unscripted reality of an American family at the time.
Since then, reality TV has evolved. Shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (TV-14) and “The Real Housewives” (TV-14) offer glimpses into the lives of famous families. Unscripted dramas spawned competition shows — like “The Bachelor,” “Survivor,” “The Masked Singer”— as well as unique and niche programs that highlight aspects of society, like “Dance Moms” and “Catfish,” which show the lives of dance moms and people engaging with online dates, respectively.
Reality shows are succeeding during the pandemic because people want to feel normal, experts told me. Shows about dysfunctional love lives or a documentary about an exotic, criminal wildlife zoo owner blend the real with the fantastical, said Don Schechter, professor of the practice in film and media studies at Tufts University
“I think the reason that shows like ‘Tiger King’ or ‘Too Hot to Handle’ — these really junky shows on Netflix — are so popular, one of the reasons, is because there’s a reality escape. It’s a real world, but also scripted and has nothing to do with any kind of catastrophe, for the most part.”
What people have decided to watch
So much time at home has encouraged people to watch shows on streaming services to deal with stress. People are jumping between old and familiar content, too, according to a new study from Flixed, a website dedicated to help people who cut the cord with cable plans.
The new report interviewed more than 1,000 people about their stress levels and daily lives to find that sitting down to watch television and movies on streaming services helped them deal with the pressures of the real world.
The study found there is a near 50-50 split on what people prefer to watch — whether it’s new content or familiar content. People tend to embrace the shows they love while exploring new programs, too.
“It goes to show that what shows and genres are stress-relieving vary from person to person,” said
And reality TV is among those top choices. According of the Flixed study, 18.4% of people are streaming reality TV-based shows and movies during this stressful time — the ninth-highest genre on the list. That’s higher than animation, mystery, romantic comedy, fantasy, war and superhero genres.
Some genres — like science fiction and fantasy — wouldn’t have the best chance of succeeding right now because they have niche audiences, Schechter said. There are so many people watching television right now that shows with mass appeal will succeed instead, he said.
Reality television — shows like “90 Day Fiance” or “The Bachelor” — have a broad appeal, which makes them easy sells to the general public, he said.
Cultural buzz can also give realty-based programming a lift. Shows like “Love Is Blind” — a Netflix reality show where people meet by voice only and have to decide whether to get married — drum up a lot of social media conversation. From there, talk about the show snowballs. People want to talk about those shows because their friends are doing the same thing.
In-person conversations and water cooler talk are lacking right now during social distancing and lockdowns. Social media discussion over the latest Netflix show offers a path to speak about the content, said Claire Cole, the creative team for Flixed, a website dedicated to help people who cut the cord with cable plans.
“Being able to engage in online conversations on these breakout shows could be how people are staying connected,” Cole said.
People are doing their own thing
As I’ve reported before, experts suggest that viewers embrace comfort food television to ease their anxieties over the coronavirus pandemic. But, through social media, people have a chance to promote the shows they enjoy most without having to follow trends alone. People can watch whatever shows make them feel more comfortable rather than just watching the shows people are talking about.
For example, it’s unclear how a show like “Game of Thrones” would fit in the culture of the moment, according to Schechter, of Tufts University. The show is full of war, gore and tense scenes. It features rape, murder and violence. Darker themes linger throughout the show. According to Schechter, a darker show like that doesn’t fit with the moment, where people want to feel safe.
Rather, people seem to be sharing content they know is easy to watch and, more or less, is entertainment junk food. But society isn’t necessarily gathered around one particular show or experience. Well, except for maybe “Tiger King.”
“I think people are doing their own thing,” Schetcher said.
Viewers have resorted to other lighthearted shows amid the pandemic. For Schetcher, that means rewatching “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” before he falls asleep every night.
He isn’t alone. In fact, 72% of people are watching comedy right now because of the coronavirus pandemic. These are shows that will make people feel comfort during a time of unknowns, Cole said.
“For many people, the current pandemic is causing them to feel more stressed than usual and a good laugh might be the bit of stress relief they need,” she said.
Reality TV is OK, if you find the right one
But reality TV isn’t just junk food on your television screen. Programs can have important values about faith and family, if you’re looking for the right ones, according to Tim Winter, the president of the Parents Television Council.
Reality TV will sometimes lean into positive and hopeful messages. Yes, there are shows that have more negative views and episodes — like the fights and petty drama, Winter said — but there are some that look to bring positivity into our lives.
“We have seen in the past stronger portrayals or positive portrayals of faith when you have reality programming because it’s not Hollywood scripting things. It is people who respond in their own native settings.”
Many popular reality-based shows and documentaries focus on the dangerous and the outrageous, which is why a series like “Tiger King” can succeed. Murder, mayhem and direction sell, he said.
But that doesn’t mean positive shows about family — like “Duck Dynasty,” Winter said — can’t offer positive messages, too. People on “Duck Dynasty,” a show about a Louisiana faithful family working during duck hunting season, show their religious values and ideals prominently. They presented their religious beliefs and talked openly about God and their faith.
They didn’t hide who they were.
“There’s ‘Real Housewives’ and there’s ‘Jersey Shore’ and stuff, where you see the ... fighting and the backstabbing and so forth — the drama,” he said. “But you also see with reality programming, a lot more humans being good humans.