Game shows seem to be the predecessors of today's reality television shows. Game shows portrayed real people in man-made situations. People enjoyed cheering for those that they enjoy watching, and booing for those who they do not like. Game shows allowed us to see our neighbors - and celebrities - and enjoy their real personalities. So, how did the game show morph into today's reality television? And why do Americans love this medium so much?
Pyschology Today explains this phenomenon in the article "Why America Loves Reality TV". This article describes that many reality television lovers want to achieve status in the world - they enjoy the finer things in life. Reality television may let people feel as if they are part of this world - they can watch people fall in love on television, eat decadent meals, and most of all, become famous. This kind of tv allows people to almost 'touch' the idea of automatic fame. One day you can be a nobody, and the next day you're a household name. (Prime example: Snooki from Jersey Shore.)
Reality television allows us to be voyeuristic, in a legal way, of course. We take a glimpse into the lives of others. We know that reality shows only show half-truths or half-stories, but we allow ourselves to believe what we see. We also get to love or hate real people, which feels totally different than adoring or despising a fictional television character. No one is writing a script for these people or deciding their future - even in somewhat scripted shows, people do have free will as to what they do and say.
People also love to hate people. Take Heidi and Spencer from The Hills, for example. Or Danielle Staub from The Real Housewives of New Jersey. If you truly knew these people, you probably would either like them or hate them, but not love to hate them. There's something to be said for knowing, but not encountering, reality television stars, and sharing your feelings with those around you.
Reality television also allows us to live out some of our wishes through someone else. Maybe you've always wanted to date a millionaire or eat worms on Fear Factor, but you can't. By watching others face these challenges, you get the thrill and sickness through them, without ever participating in their events.
Part of the appeal of reality television may also be based in jealousy. As you watch reality tv participants, in a way, you want to be them. Not that you want to be one of the girls on 16 and Pregnant, per se, but you want to gain the fame and fortune they've gained, simply for appearing on tv. It fits in well with the "If they can do it, why can't I?" school of thought.
Another article, "Reality TV Families: an Obsession as Huge as Their Households," explains that we like to watch how other families live. Their lives seem so fascinating compared to our everyday lives. They are just normal people like us, but by having cameras following them, these people sure do become fascinating to watch.