Public and Popular: British and Swedish Audience Trends in Factual and Reality Television

The research in this article examines audience responses to a range of factual and reality genres. It takes as a starting point that television audiences do not experience news or documentary or reality TV in isolation but as part of a range of factual and reality programmes. Factual and reality programming includes a broad understanding of non-fictional programming on broadcast television, satellite, cable and digital television. The breakdown of factual and reality programming into specific genres includes news, current affairs, documentary, and reality programmes, with further sub genres applied within each of these categories. This article critically examines genre evaluation. The quantitative research in this article is based on two national representative surveys conducted in Britain and Sweden. In both Britain and Sweden, programme makers have moved towards a reliance on popular factual genres. In Britain this is across all channels, and in Sweden this is mainly concentrated on commercial channels. Whilst there is still a commitment to news, there is an increasing use of hybrid genres in an attempt to popularise factual output. The impact of this changing generic environment on audiences is that in both countries viewers have reacted by drawing a line between traditional and contemporary factual genres. It is precisely because of the redrawing of the factual map that viewers rely on traditional ways of evaluating genres as public and informative, or popular and entertaining. The data provides evidence that contributes to existing debate on television genre, public service broadcasting, and media literacy skills. The central argument in this article is that genre evaluation is connected with wider socio-cultural discourses on public service broadcasting and popular culture, and that these are common social and cultural values that are shared by national audiences in two Northern European countries.