The sense of participation is key, both in competition-based shows like Project Runway and programs like Dance Moms that don’t have a prize, but position players as teams in drama-filled social acrobatics. The format “invites the audience to participate, either directly (through voting) or indirectly (by imagining how they might behave in similar situations),” Papacharissi says.
Dawson suggests these shows are more closely related to sporting events than scripted dramas. In the case of Survivor, viewers get an experience similar to televised sports, Papacharissi explains: “You can root for your favorite castaway like you do for your favorite team, and vicariously experience her triumphs and setbacks from episode to episode.”
That unlikely alignment could explain why reality TV, mocked though it may be, is being watched—perhaps surreptitiously—heavily, and with consistency. “The core elements of Survivor are pretty much the same as they were when the show debuted in 2000,” Dawson says, an unusual feat for any series in the current TV climate. “It’s a pretty unexpected turn of events, that 15 years after its debut, the show that was responsible for starting the reality TV tidal wave that dramatically disrupted the status quo of the American TV industry has become a sort of year-in, year-out institution.”
—Lizzie Schiffman Tufano, writing in Pacific Standard about how reality television conquered the airwaves, and “unseated the Rachels and Monicas of the world.” The new season of Survivor, which debuted last week, is the show’s 30th.