Idolizing and Monetizing the Public: The Production of Celebrities and Fans, Representatives and Citizens in Reality TV

Yngvar Kjus


Reality TV has inspired ongoing scholarly analysis of how formerly passive audience members are turned into active participants or even empowered citizens, but the actual encounters between media producers and media participants have been little explored. This article presents a detailed, critical study of the new interfaces to public visibility, combining an historical perspective with the in-depth study of production practices. Beginning with the several participatory forms of reality TV already established in the earliest days of broadcasting, I trace how audience members have long been recruited according to either a celebrity model or a citizen model of participation. I then demonstrate how these models are combined in the production of American Idol to support both its preparation and its presentation of participants, and how new media (online and mobile) are mobilized to both reinforce and capitalize upon this participation. Questioning the popular and scholarly hype surrounding the audience’s “power” in reality TV, I conclude that the television industry is actually strengthening its grip on people in order to reduce costs and risks while increasing revenues in a time of uncertain financial prospects.

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