I've been asked about an emergent critical split between so-called "high" reality tv (Project Runway, SYTYCD, Top Chef) and "low" reality tv (Rock of Love, The Hills, Real Housewives). Notwithstanding the fact that I don't watch any such programs as the latter, my standard response falls broadly along the competitive/documentary axis -- that the more a show tests its contestant for specific artistic/professional skills, the better it is, generally. However, I've come to think lately my standard response is a little too easy and pat; at the very least it glides over some more interesting (moral) dimensions underneath the surface of reality tv.
For starters, competition elevates reality programs for two principal reasons. First, it gives a show's contestants something to do or drive towards, so even if the producers ply them with alcohol and deprive them of sleep for the express purposes of fostering interpersonal drama, they'll eventually be distracted with trying to reach the principal goal. On the other hand, for documentary programs -- in which contestants aren't preoccupied with surviving eliminations -- they are more prone to outrageous or inane behavior, because where else is the drama going to come from? Whereas on competitive shows, competition itself can cook up drama.
Another way to approach this distinction between reality genres is to think about what each show produces, in a way. So-called high reality tv creates recognizable products -- the more specific or the more artistic, the better -- while low reality tv produces itself (though this distinction doesn't adhere strictly to the competition/non-competition divide). I'm using "product" loosely in the sense that shows like SYTYCD, Runway, Top Chef, and American Idol produce art objects (dance, fashion, food, pop music), which critics evaluate and appreciate on familiar artistic grounds. (From the perspective of the contestants, these shows amount to protracted, televised job auditions, since the prize at the end is almost always employment.) (Personally, I prefer what SYTYCD produces because compared to other shows, it's more purely artistic; Runway, for all of its talk about aesthetics and vision and such, is caught up inextricably in commerce.)
Meanwhile, the other type of show merely produces celebrity for their participants (The Hills, Jersey Shore), the self-awareness or cynicism of which only appeals to observers with a debased taste for postmodernity, which is still a niche demographic no matter what doomsayers say about the fall of culture. (Like, if that were the case, when is certain hit show America's Next Post-Modern Provocateur coming in the Fall?) (Actually, such a characterization is overly glib; The Hills, Jersey Shore, and The Real Housewives are explicitly postmodern, since they construct a world of pure surface and decadence which exists in between reality (i.e. the real, actual world) and Reality (the television genre); in this liminal space, real and Real become so enmeshed that they essentially become a simulacrum, in which the entirety of the lives of these reality celebrities is lived in the public spotlight and barely exist outside of cameras recording their movements. To be sure, it's an extension of classical celebrity (i.e. of music stars, movie stars, etc.), but with the qualifying difference that the reality stars are promoting their own Reality as opposed to an art object.)
Of course, competitive reality shows themselves can be divided by what they produce, as a large number of competitive shows don't measure artistic worth or professional skills at all but instead involve what I call social navigation and strategy, for which the exemplar (and template) is Survivor. In this type of reality program, contestants compete in a variety of challenges (usually physical or puzzle-solving) before they vote each other out of the game, a modus operandi that we English majors refer to as "transferable skills" (though "back-stabbing" is hardly something you'd put on the typical resume).
Whatever the style of reality program, however, I think that moral judgment is implicitly involved, which makes some viewers uncomfortable since we're often judging people in situations that either promote their worst qualities to come out or have creepy voyeuristic undercurrents, or both. But build the show around a contest that measures, say, dancing ability, or fashion sense, and viewer unease is then pacified and we feel we have moral license to judge. "So-and-so deserves to win, because their skills are worthy"; however, there's more than a small element of contestants appealing to us on a variety of moral grounds -- not just the pure skill being measured -- in such advocacy. In other words, these reality programs are dressed up as competitions of skill, yet they subtly invite us to pronounce upon the moral rectitude of their contestants.
Though we may try to abide by the ideals of judging specifically on the product, it's incredibly easy to conflate the the product with the person, i.e. the product is great, so we think that they must be a great person as well, or we dislike their work on the show and thus impute more deficiency to their character. In terms of product/character conflation, Project Runway is the ne plus ultra of competitive shows since it measures taste as much as anything else: in every other episode, a designer talks about their "aesthetic," while the most damning criticism that can be leveled against a designer is to have their taste level questioned. If a designer's taste fails them, they risk being eliminated.
Meanwhile, SYTYCD anticipates this conflation when its official voices constantly remind the audience that the purpose of the show is not to find America's best dancer, but its favorite dancer, in which case personality can carry a dancer farther than their talent can. In distinguishing best and favorite and opting for the latter, SYTYCD directly recognizes how audiences tend to conflate product and character and encourages them to embrace this very conflation.
Product/personality conflation plays a part in bonding audiences to morally attractive contestants -- I've said on a number of occasions that contestants whom audiences can actively and wholeheartedly root for are utterly necessary for a reality show to maintain widespread and long-lasting appeal -- precisely because viewers merge morality and worth. Audiences of competitive shows identify their favorites and invest them with moral authority until the favorites become moral heroes by virtue of their very success in an admittedly circular, nearly Calvinistic bit of reasoning. Without these moral centers that allow viewers to sympathize with, reality programs would descend into cynicism and instead of the variety of mainstream phenomena that they are, they'd be relegated to clawing for cable-sized audiences.