Comment: How social media is influencing reality development

Kerry-Taylor-(2)Love it or hate it, reality TV has firmly cemented its place within pop culture, becoming a firm favourite with audiences and content creators around the world – spanning all ages and demographics. In the UK, whether it’s Geordie Shore, Big Brother or Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, reality has proved to be one of the most brilliantly versatile, adaptable and resilient genres of our time, with its popularity showing no signs of abating.

It was back in the ‘noughties’ when the reality phenomenon really hit the mainstream. Through the conception of big budget formats including Pop Idol and Big Brother, we – the public – for the first time, became the small screen’s biggest stars.

Fast forward to 2013 and a slew of reality favourites now pepper today’s weekly listings, satisfying a mild curiousity for some, a guilty pleasure for many and an obsession for a whole lot more.

The genre has enduring appeal for younger audiences, who have proved fanatically loyal to TV shows cast from their own ranks and it can be argued that today’s ‘millennial’ generation is even more deeply engaged with reality than those that have come before.

This trend-setting demographic – born between 1982 and 2004 – is the first generation of digital natives, with social media so deeply embedded in many of their lives that some of them are literally ‘always on’. New connected devices enable them to immerse themselves even more deeply in their favourite shows such as MTV’s Jersey Shore (pictured), Bravo’s Real Housewives… franchise or E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

The depth of this engagement has been underlined by various research studies, including a survey of the TV-related social media habits of young viewers conducted by MTV’s parent company, Viacom International Media Networks.

This study found that more than seven out of ten young viewers were interacting with other fans via a second screen while watching their favourite shows and six out of ten had followed or ‘liked’ a TV show via social media. It also revealed that discovering a show via social media made young viewers much more likely to watch its live TV debut and to continue watching the show past its first season.


The TV industry has been quick to capitalise on this synergy. More storylines are now built into single episodes to allow multiple spin-offs via social media. Social media is now at the centre of marketing strategies, with additional content designed to generate maximum ‘talk-ability’ (and therefore ‘share-ability’) and fans are encouraged to contribute their own content as well as influence campaign elements through their social media activity.

Reality shows are among the most social on TV, with huge numbers of fans and followers. It’s therefore no surprise that the Second Sync leader board of the most tweeted about UK TV shows is often headed by a reality format, with the likes of Made in Chelsea or The Valleys outperforming higher rating soaps and sitcoms.

Statisticians are still searching for a definitive link between social media activity and TV ratings, but I refuse to believe that the record ratings that Geordie Shore has just delivered for MTV UK in its sixth season are unconnected to its large number of Twitter fans.

Of course, hunting out the latest gossip on the cast of The Only Way is Essex, isn’t the only use that millennials make of social media. VIMN’s biggest ever research study amongst this age group, The Next Normal, reaching 15,000 respondents in 24 countries, reveals how the internet has increased millennials’ awareness of the world and their interest in current affairs and societal issues.

The conscience of this generation has been shaped by the tragic events of 9/11. Their prospects have been blighted by the global economic downturn from 2008. It’s therefore no surprise that a majority of them are worried about the state of the world. Allied to their natural optimism, this concern translates into a passion for pro-social causes and a determination to make a difference.

Public broadcasters in the UK such as the BBC and Channel 4, have long justified the number of reality formats in their schedules by seeking to give what are essentially entertainment shows a sense of social purpose. Think BBC3’s Extreme OCD Club or Channel 4’s Bi-Curious Me. Commercial broadcasters, including MTV, are now taking advantage of the passion for pro-social causes identified amongst millennial audiences to commission a greater number of pro-social ‘reality’ documentary formats.

VIMN’s general entertainment catalogue at MIPCOM is headlined by two reality formats that fall firmly into the pro-social category. Catfish: The TV Show has proved to be one of MTV’s most successful formats internationally, attracting millions of young viewers and widespread critical acclaim for its insights into the impact of social media on modern dating.

We have high hopes that Generation Cryo (pictured), which follows the child of a sperm donor through the search for their biological father, should be equally well received.

After all, millennial audiences are searching for meaning in their lives, and so increasingly, they are expecting to find it in their television programming too.

 Kerry Taylor is senior vice president, Youth & Music at Viacom International Media Networks

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