LAWRENCE – Community planners trying to increase citizen participation in planning projects might want to consider “The Bachelor,” “American Idol” or “Jersey Shore” for inspiration.
New research by two University of Kansas scholars suggests that community planners could use reality TV — or certain elements of it, at least — to increase citizen participation in urban planning projects. More specifically, planners can use reality TV to create “ethical spectacles” that draw attention to planning issues while creating democratic two-way dialogues with the public.
“Community planners historically have struggled to pull people away from the TV to attend an evening meeting about a community project,” said Bonnie Johnson, assistant professor of urban planning at KU. “But new technologies mean planners don’t necessarily have to pull people away from the TV; rather, they can use TV to engage citizens. Moreover, planners who make these planning processes more like reality TV — rather than the standard town hall, C-Span-style meeting — have a better chance of increasing citizen participation.”
The research was co-authored by Johnson, along with Michael Graves, a doctoral candidate in the film and media studies department at KU. Their paper, “Keeping it Real: What Planning Can Learn from Reality TV,” appears in the summer edition of the Journal of the American Planning Association.
Johnson and Graves’ research traces the history of reality TV and breaks down the reality TV “formula,” isolating the specific elements that have made it so popular in recent years. Johnson and Graves then evaluate the Imagine KC effort — a 2009 planning initiative of the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City that included a televised town meeting— and use the reality TV formula to see what organizers could have done differently to improve the initiative’s reach and interactivity.
The researchers conclude that, while the Imagine KC initiative’s use of televised meetings was a positive step toward increasing citizen participation, planners missed opportunities for even greater participation by not incorporating elements of reality TV. Moreover, Johnson and Graves suggest ways for planners to incorporate these elements into planning projects — and to do so in an ethical way — to increase community involvement.
Breaking down the formula
Reality TV shows have been popular since the early 1990s. They come in many formats, such as the “gamedoc,” where real people interact while competing in a game (“Survivor” and “Top Chef”); the dating program (“The Bachelor”); the makeover program (“What Not to Wear”); the “docusoap,” where viewers observe people living together (“The Real World” and “Jersey Shore”); the talent contest (“American Idol”); and court programs (“Judge Judy”). Ratings successes include “American Idol,” which drew almost 25 million viewers for two straight nights in 2003, and the dating show, “Joe Millionaire,” which drew 40 million viewers. In comparison, the popular sitcom “Friends” and the popular crime drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” drew only 15 million viewers during that same time. Reality TV shows occupied four of the top five slots on the Nielsen Company’s list of the most-viewed regularly scheduled programs in 2010.
So what’s in the reality TV formula that’s made it so appealing to audiences in recent years? For starters, reality TV includes real people acting in uncontrolled, unscripted situations. Editing crafts a cohesive narrative from personal stories, people reacting in real time and expert and participant commentary. Reality TV also utilizes an observational style, which aims to promote immediacy and intimacy. This includes the creation of a “crisis structure,” a narrative pattern characterized by the presence of a dramatic event with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Reality TV also presents participants’ responses to anxiety, grief, and happy events through the device of the “video confessional,” a space where participants can share their intimate feelings with the camera and, by extension, the audience.
Perhaps the most distinct component of the reality TV formula is interactivity. Reality TV shows are uniquely interactive, with viewers voting via phone or text or online for favorites or even directing what people do on screen. For example, more than 100 million votes were cast to determine the winner in the 2009 finale of “American Idol,” and a record-setting 624 million total votes were cast over the course of the 2009 “American Idol” season.
“It’s ultimately about creating a dynamic and interactive experience for viewers,” Johnson said. “Reality television shows are the masters at this.”
On April 22, 2009, the Mid-America Regional Council and the local Kansas City public television station, KCPT, combined forces to produce a televised town meeting seeking to engage the public in the process of becoming a sustainable region. Titled “Imagine KC,” the meeting was broadcast live from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. It was a combination of a talk show with audience participation and a news magazine show, giving viewers at home the option to call in or take an online survey. The show was informed by a series of public input opportunities, and funding came from a $100,000 Federal Highway Administration grant and local in-kind and other contributions.
The televised meeting was moderated by two hosts and featured video segments on the history of the region and what a sustainable Kansas City region might look like. The videos were used to jump-start discussions among citizens gathered at the main KCPT studio and at four “satellite” locations at local community colleges. Viewers could see the discussion at the studio and hear reports from live “look-ins” at the satellites. To provide their own input, viewers could call the studio where operators were standing by with a survey, take a survey on a website or comment via online chats.
“Having the show live was intended to create the feeling that the whole region was meeting together at the same time for a discussion of the region’s future,” Johnson said.
Applying the formula to the Imagine KC initiative
According to Johnson and Graves, the Imagine KC producers did strive to use new media to encourage audience participation, and the use of pretaped segments with online and phone surveys contributed a degree of visual flair and interactivity to the production.
But for the most part, applying the reality TV formula to Imagine KC illuminates some shortcomings of the televised event. For example, while Imagine KC featured real people delivering unscripted remarks, the resulting program was essentially a broadcast of a town meeting rather than an engaging, televisual spectacle. The lack of personal stories leaves out the real-life consequences of the current state of the region.
Imagine KC’s studio audience offered differing opinions, but these conflicting viewpoints were not effectively highlighted, Johnson and Graves found. Moreover, the producers of Imagine KC did not utilize the “competitive” possibilities inherent in a program in which there are multiple groups of people present from different communities. In addition, reality TV’s narrative structure is absent from Imagine KC.
“The live show was exciting because it was live, but it did not allow the producers to edit together a cohesive story using the responses and reactions of real participants,” Johnson said. “ Many planning issues are inherently contentious – to build or not to build – and the reality TV formula turns that into a strength for catching people’s attention and engaging the public versus simply being a frustrating part of local politics.”
Additionally, Imagine KC producers could have made greater use of interactive and participatory strategies involving either the studio or television audiences. A combination of text messaging, instant messaging and social networking, as well as online and in-studio polls, would have increased audience participation and given producers instantaneous feedback. Producers of these programs should consider incorporating voting processes during the event in order to gauge responses from studio and satellite audiences in real time and compare those responses with feedback from viewers, Johnson said.
“The Imagine KC show was successful at bringing people and organizations together and connecting planners with a mass audience,” Johnson said. “But of the estimated 16,000 viewers, only 38 filled out an online survey; 73 called in during the show and completed surveys; and merely 26 of 330 community leaders returned surveys on how effective the show was. As a result, the show did not generate a great deal of two-way communication. Adding elements of reality TV could have helped in that regard.”
While reality TV offers planners strategies for creating compelling televised programming, it is not without its faults, shortcomings or ethical issues. As Johnson and Graves explain, reality TV has been called “sick TV” that brings out the worst in participants and is not intellectually meaningful. Observers have criticized reality TV for exploiting participants in an effort to catch them at their worst and most embarrassing moments. Other contentious issues include privacy, casting that reinforces stereotypes, editing that exaggerates conflicts, and lifestyle television programs telling people how they ought to parent, eat or look.
To avoid these pitfalls, urban planners need to understand reality TV genres and remember what they already know about the ethics of public involvement, Johnson and Graves said. They argue it’s entirely possible for planners to create “ethical spectacles” that utilize the most successful elements of the reality TV formula while avoiding the dark side of reality TV.
“Planners have always had a responsibility to act ethically during planning meetings and in surveys,” Johnson said. “The same is true when using the reality TV formula for public engagement. If used properly, planners can avoid reality TV’s pitfalls and develop its potential as an effective citizen participation tool and plug in to media’s developing participatory culture.”