Opinion

Reality TV, like The Block, is the best behavioural change tool we have

Reality TV is looked down upon, and that annoys Thinkerbell's Adam Ferrier. Because shows like The Block, or Masterchef, are the best tools for behavioural change that we have.

Reality TV is the best behavioural change tool Australia has. Think of the impact The Block has had on renovations, how Masterchef helped Australia ‘plate up’, or how Bondi Rescue made Bondi the country’s most over-subscribed surf lifesaving club. Reality TV can move Australians into action like nothing else. It’s enjoyable to watch, but it also creates change.

Tonight we’ll witness the 15th Block auction. For more than a decade, the show has attracted more than a million viewers on many nights. However, that’s just the beginning of the impact. Consider too that around 50,000 couples apply to be on the show; that’s 100,000-people applying, or one in 10 viewers who have gone to considerable effort to get onto the show.

The Block will go to auction this weekend

Then there’s The Block spin offs, The Block shop, The Block sponsorships, on it goes. Andrew Harvey, economist at the HIA, quantified the financial impact of The Block on the renovation industry in 2011: “In quarters in which The Block is aired, there is, on average, a $251m boost to quarterly renovations investment two quarters (or six months) following the airing.”

So, over 15 years, that’s a multi-billion-dollar boost to just the renovation industry. Incredible, right?

Reality TV is so good at changing the behaviour at a mass scale for several reasons. It creates strong social norms, and a mindset of: ‘It’s on telly, therefore it must be popular’. You can educate people as the show progresses; each challenge is a little instructional video. Emotion always works – we engage with real people trying to win and see losers implode too.

It’s also interactive, meaning there are many ways to get people to invest in the series (for example, The Block applications). And then there’s the idea of time. The format runs for a few months, giving you a chance to change behaviour and build habits.

I loved the ‘Up’ series – which has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964 (one episode every seven years) – watched every episode of Big Brother’s first season, and still immerse myself in the occasional reality TV world. We’re at a point where even cops, ambos, the defence force, airlines and hospitals have reality shows documenting what goes on behind the scenes, and I think we’ll see governments and not-for-profits use reality TV more and more to create social change.

For all the reasons why reality TV is both fun and powerful, I always ensure we have a representative from reality TV at the Marketing Sciences Ideas Xchange (MSIX) conference.

Previously, we’ve had the producers of Man Up and The Block speak, Craig Reucassel from War on Waste, and several others. All give amazing insight into how they got their various shows up, and how they use these platforms to change behaviour.

This year, we were going to have the creators of the wonderful Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds. However, they declined, saying “…the show is more a beautiful observational documentary than it is a reality TV show”. Each to their own. We all have a right to name and label the things that we create.

However, I can’t help but feel there is a vibe in this response that is looking down on reality TV. This annoys me. Reality TV is both enjoyable to watch, and incredibly effective at creating change.

And if anyone has a good suggestion for who to pick up the reality TV mantle at MSIX in 2020, please leave it below.

Adam Ferrier is founder and chief thinker at Thinkerbell and curator of MSIX.

MSIX returns to Sydney in February next year, with earlybird tickets on sale now.

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