Reality programming broadcasts crime dramatizations or film footage of police and other emergency personnel at work as regular television series.
Two of the earliest and most successful reality programs, "America's Most Wanted" (AMW) and "Unsolved Mysteries" (UM), present a series of vignettes in which the participants or actors reenact actual crimes. The vignettes feature interviews with victims, their family and friends, the police, and photographs and film of suspects. Viewers are urged to telephone the police or the program with relevant information about the crimes or the suspects. The programs update previous broadcasts, e.g., with film of a captured fugitive or with information about sentencing.
AMW and UM employ an interesting hybrid television format. Like the news, these programs claim to present reality as they pursue a public service intention--capturing criminals. However, they also are prime time entertainment in the crime genre tradition of television programs such as "Dragnet," "Ironside," and "Magnum PI."
Their emotional, fast-paced stories fit current programming trends ( Blumler 1991:206-210), they have enjoyed large audiences, and, as a result, programs like AMW and UM have proliferated on television.
The law enforcement community lauds these programs, and some media scholars offer limited praise. Barber ( 1991:21) argues that, by sensitizing men and women to women's victimization, AMW contributes to a national feminine community; she calls the program a kind of "participatory democracy of law enforcement." However, she invokes Foucault, noting that, although AMW promotes a sense of community, the program facilitates widespread surveillance, and revives the spectacle of punishment ( 1991:24).
Cohen ( 1985:68), who also invokes Foucault, suggests that extant crime policies, by inviting citizen surveillance and reporting, redistribute the state's control wider and deeper into society. Amid an already pervasive fear of crime, reality programming's depictions of criminals may encourage more repressive...