Reality TV: the academic perspective

Sarah Ralph, 26, is doing an MA in audience and reception studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth

This course, in which we explore audiences for different kinds of media and cultural practices, is the only one of its kind in the world. An audience can be an audience for anything, whether a football match or a TV show. If it's a TV audience then people watch in a domestic setting, but although you watch at home, you are also aware that you are part of a community. If you're watching Coronation Street, then you know there are millions of other people watching it at the same time so you are part of a social and economic institution.

The course is not just about audience; it's also about reception. Reception studies means looking at how things around a film or a TV programme - such as reviews and posters - shape an audience's perception of that programme.

Reality TV comes up a lot. TV audiences are no longer cultural dupes, just watching things and letting them wash over them; they are becoming involved. Yes, I watched Big Brother, though I don't like to admit it. My excuse is that I was watching Big Brother from an academic perspective, but actually I moaned and shouted at it.

I've been doing theatre studies since A-level, and I've been a performer myself, but I never really thought about audience until I did my BA in film and television Studies at Aberystwyth. I initially chose to do theatre studies but then I did a TV module and loved it. The modules were practical, we did video production and screen writing, but the main thing was the theoretical side, the analysis.

I did my dissertation on the audience for the first The Lord of the Rings film, looking at how people understood the film based on whether they had read the book or not. Then I took a break, went to Tenerife and ended up working at PowerFM, the main radio station, as a newsreader, administrative assistant, and doing voice over work on advertisements for local bistros and estate agents. Working on radio means you are very aware of audience.

I returned to Aberystwyth to do the MA and I was really lucky to get funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which covers tuition fees and a grant. Some people still think this is a Mickey Mouse subject, that we sit around all day watching films. That makes me quite defensive; I don't even watch that much TV any more. The course is less about the text anyway and more about the audience, it is the reception of the film or TV programme not the programme itself. It's very concerned with sociology; we study theories of audience and reception, audience research methods and approaches, and evaluate existing audience research.