About the Author

John Yazbek, class of 2013, is an international student from Lebanon; he is majoring in mechanical engineering.

On writing “The Reality Behind Reality TV”: “When I was told that the final writing assignment was an investigative essay, I decided to write about a topic that has intrigued me: the ‘reality behind reality television.’ I really enjoyed researching and writing this essay and learned a lot in the process.”

The Reality Behind Reality TV

by John Yazbek

I was always amazed and intrigued by reality television shows. The idea that simple, ordinary people might become TV stars fascinated me. During early childhood, I grew up watching cartoons and movies whose far-fetched scenarios seemed distant from my life. Then I discovered the vast world of Reality TV whose characters I could relate to, as opposed to the professional movie actors whose real or fictive lives seemed out of my league. However, I have started to wonder lately about how real such shows are. Do reality TV shows truly reflect the lives of their characters or are they mere illusions that disguise a profit scheme devised by media corporations? In either case, why did reality TV become so popular?

Reality television emerged in the U.S. in the late 1940s with the advent of the television age. The first reality TV show, a program called Candid Camera, featured unsuspecting people being pranked and photographed by a hidden camera. Candid Camera is considered the "granddaddy of the reality TV genre," according to Beth Rowen in her article "History of Reality TV." Nowadays, reality television can be divided into several different categories such as: elimination or game shows, makeover shows, dating programs, and talk shows. Over the years, the genre's appeal has increased dramatically, especially over the past decade, which has witnessed an explosion in the popularity of such shows. This is clearly reflected by the considerable number of reality TV shows that have become global hits, such as Survivor, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, Wife Swap, The Simple Life and Big Brother. Moreover, many reality television shows have reached the top of the charts, outranking other famous and popular TV series. Survivor became the highest rated TV series in 2001-2002 and American Idol ranked at the top for three consecutive years (2004-2007). This tremendous growth in the popularity of reality programming has lead to the founding of television channels such as Fox Reality and Zone Reality that broadcast reality television exclusively.

Few people can see themselves jumping off buildings like Spiderman but many audience members aspire to sing on "American Idol" or win thousands of dollars on "Jeopardy."

How did reality television reach this level of success? One explanation is simple economics, as Gary Levin claims. If you think about it, all you need is a video camera to put on the simplest reality show. You don't need actors, screenwriters or a professional videotaping set, which greatly reduces the costs of production and hence increases profit. Also, the 2007-2008 writers' strike led to an upsurge in reality TV's popularity since the genre does not have to depend on writers. Therefore, television producers are more likely to risk sponsoring a low-cost reality show than a high-cost series whose failure could be financially catastrophic. Moreover, this non-professional side of reality TV gives it a more human aspect to which the audience can relate. Few people can see themselves jumping off buildings like Spiderman but many audience members aspire to sing on American Idol or win thousands of dollars on Jeopardy. Even from their homes, viewers feel somehow involved in these shows. I can still remember watching my father excitedly guessing the answers to Wheel of Fortune and then jumping up in joy when he got them right.

But just how "real" is reality television? Well, many people who watch these programs may not believe they are real. In his 2006 essay, "How Reality TV Fakes It," James Poniewozik points to a TIME magazine poll that showed that only 30% of the respondents believed that these shows largely reflected reality; 25% of them thought that these programs were not real at all. The truth is that most reality shows are manipulated in one way or another. As a matter of fact, what we watch on television could never be 100% faithful to the original recordings. If it were, a normal reality series would be up to 300 hours long. Therefore, the first level of manipulation occurs as editors select only certain scenes from the raw footage and then combine and sequence them to form an episode. For instance, I don't believe that anyone would be willing to watch eight hours of Survivor contestants snoring and those contestants certainly do not want their audience watching them responding to nature's calls! Basic television editing cuts scenes deemed irrelevant.

However, there also have been many cases in which reality TV editors select and arrange scenes in a particular fashion to manipulate the narrative. "The editors have grown to become the new storytellers, altering sequences and the course of events and contextual elements to weave together a story that's radically different from what went down," critic and entertainment columnist Ray Richmond says. "And as more than one person has pointed out, is it possible for people on 'Survivor' to starve to death when there's a junk-food-laden craft services table just outside of camera range?" (Richmond) Moreover, James Poniewozik showed how manipulation of scenes could drastically alter the significance of events. He uses Blind Date as an example. During one episode, the producers changed the chronology of events and displayed one scene, where a man was yawning and looking around waiting for his date to return from the restroom at the beginning of the date. This way it seemed as if this man had been bored with his date right from the start.     

... some reality shows employ screenwriters whose job is to feed the characters dialogue or create a general storyline in hopes that the audience will not tire of the show when the real sequence of events seems too boring.

Higher levels of manipulation occur in reality programming when the main characters in supposedly unscripted series are given lines or told to act in certain ways to spice up the narrative. In his article, "The New Quiz Show Scandal -- Reality Television," Joel Stein claims that "These shows purporting to be unadulterated documentaries are unreal in a more obvious way: They are secretly crafted in advance by writers." Stein exposes the reality TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy for having a 19-page outline of one episode. Also, according to him, The Simple Life was not so simple, either. The main characters, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, supposedly sleeping in camps and trailer parks to experience "the simple life" for an entire season, actually checked into hotels for all but two nights! While researching for this essay, I came across countless articles accusing The Simple Life of being the farthest thing from reality. Moreover, some reality shows employ screenwriters whose job is to feed the characters dialogue or create a general storyline in hopes that the audience will not tire of the show when the real sequence of events seems too boring. According to William Booth in his article "Reality is Just an Illusion," those writers are called "story editors" or "segment producers" but not "writers" to preserve the illusion of unscripted reality television.

All this manipulation could be shocking to those viewers who believe these shows to be real. It seems as if we viewers are being lied to and fooled by producers and directors who are selling us counterfeit merchandise. Yet, even though many people know that those shows are not entirely real, these programs' ratings remain high. Does this mean that we are stupid or that we do not care about being manipulated? More likely, it means that we care more about entertainment and having a fun time watching semi-real shows than we do about reality content.

Why does this manipulation of supposedly real shows occur? The most important and driving factor for this manipulation is the green. Producers and sponsors are often willing to go to extremes to attract as many viewers as possible and hence increase revenue. Also, the normal sequence of events in a reality show may seem too mundane to viewers so producers manipulate "reality" for higher ratings. Moreover, this altering of events sometimes occurs for safety reasons. Hence, producers avoid having participants suffer serious injuries while still maintaining the "reality" aspect of the shows by manipulating events. 

 Reality TV shows appear to fall on a continuous spectrum, ranging from "this is exactly what happened" to "Who are you kidding? This cannot be real!" I had always been a big fan of reality television because it had the element of reality that made those shows so exciting and interesting. I used to watch shows like Survivor and American Idol religiously, and even fantasized about participating one day in Survivor and winning the grand prize. However, I was very disappointed when I learned that the reality behind reality TV was that they were not so real. Most of those shows only create the illusion of reality so that they will attract a larger audience and make higher profits. 

Works Cited                                 

Booth, William. "Reality Is Only An Illusion, Writers Say." The Washington Post. Washington Post, 10 Aug. 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2009.

Levin, Gary. "Simple Economics: More Reality TV." Usatoday.com. USA Today. 09 May 2007.  Web. 2 Nov. 2009.

Poniewozik, James. "How Reality TV Fakes It." Time. CNN, 29 Jan. 2006. Web. 2 Nov. 2009.

Rowen, Beth."The History of Reality TV." Infoplease.
© 2000-2007 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease.
02 Nov. 2009.

Stein, Joel. "The New Quiz Show Scandal -- Reality Television." Los Angeles Times, 05 Dec 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2009.

Ventre, Michael. "Just how real are reality TV shows?" Msnbc.msn.com. MSN. 14 April 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2009.