Reality TV can be an ego boost, student says in Gaines lecture

By Hayley Schletker

Katie Braun thinks humiliation is a driving force behind America’s fascination with reality television.

“Every year thousands of more talented contestants waiting in line to audition for ‘American Idol’ are passed over for competitors who will be featured in the opening rounds of the competition because the humiliation of the earlier shows draws higher ratings,” said Braun, a psychology senior. “Has ‘American Idol’ crossed the line from entertainment to humiliation?”

Braun was chosen as the speaker of the 14th annual Breathitt Lecture last night in the W.T. Young Library gallery.

Each year, the Gaines Center for the Humanities honors an undergraduate student whose work examines an aspect of the humanities. Braun, an Ashland native, was honored for her paper focusing on reality TV titled, “ ‘In a competition full of hamburgers, you’re a steak!’: American Idol and the Rise of Reality Television in the Maintenance of our Egos.”

The lectureship is named for former Kentucky governor and UK graduate Edward T. Breathitt.

Braun’s lecture took a closer look at America’s obsession with “American Idol” and other reality television shows. She discussed the origins of modern reality television, with MTV’s “The Real World,” the show that started the concept of giving viewers direct access to the lives of non-actors whose actions and reactions are unscripted.

“This is a new genre that is a combination of documentary, soap opera and game show,” Braun said.

Braun examined how competitors on these shows affect our personal egos. People like to identify with the people on the show as well as their humiliation, and viewers like to see these people fail so they can feel superior, she said.

The same identification that the viewer develops with the contestants allows them to have rooting interests and the ability to reflect in their success, Braun said.

“This can give the viewer the gratification of self-importance because they can relate to the person, or even imagine themselves in a similar situation,” she said. “When we see their talents and see them doing things we couldn’t do, we reflect in their glory.”

Sarah Willenbrink, a Russian and German junior, said she felt the lecture touched on a topic that affects most everyone’s lives with out us realizing it.

“She gave a lot of insight into a form of TV that we all know, but don’t really explore,” Willenbrink said. “Katie did a great job of breaking down its effects on us.”