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The Reality Behind Reality TV



by John Yazbek

       I have always been amazed and intrigued by reality television shows. The idea that simple, ordinary people might become TV stars fascinated me. During my early childhood, I had grown up watching cartoons and movies whose far-fetched scenarios did not mean much to me. Then I discovered the vast world of Reality TV. They triggered in me a sense of affinity to their characters with whom I could relate as opposed to the professional movie actors whose real or acted lives were out of my league. However, I have started to wonder lately about how real such shows are. Do they truly reflect the lives of their characters or are they mere illusions that disguise a profit scheme devised by TV corporations? In either case, why did they become so popular?

      Reality television first set out in the late 1940s with the emergence of the first unscripted TV show called Candid Camera. This show, which featured people being pranked, is considered the granddaddy of reality TV, according to Beth Rowen in her article “History of Reality TV”. Nowadays, reality television can be partitioned into several different categories such as elimination or game shows, makeover shows, dating shows, talk shows etc. Over the years, reality TV’s popularity 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. For instance, Survivor, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, Wife Swap, The Simple Life and Big Brother are but a few of the many TV series that have garnered millions of viewers worldwide. Moreover, many reality TV shows have reached the top of the charts and have beaten other famous TV series to the top. Survivor was the top rated TV series in 2001-2002 and American Idol was at the top for three consecutive years 2004-2007. Also, this tremendous growth of Reality TV has lead to the founding of television channels such as Fox Reality and Zone Reality that broadcast reality television exclusively.

          How did reality television reach this state of massive popularity? It 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. This greatly reduces the cost of production and hence increases the profit. Therefore, producers are more likely to take risks sponsoring a low-cost reality TV show than a high-cost TV series whose failure can be financially catastrophic.  Moreover, this non-professional side of reality TV gives it a more human aspect to which people could relate. No one can see themselves jumping off buildings like Spiderman but a lot of people aspire to be singing on American Idol or winning thousands of dollars on Jeopardy. Even from their homes, people 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. Also, the 2007-2008 writers’ strike led to an upsurge in reality TV’s popularity since it does not depend on writers.

          At this point a very important question arises: How “real” are those popular reality TV shows? Well, most people who watch those shows do not believe they are real. In his essay “How Reality TV Fakes It”, James Poniewozik points to a recent TIME poll that showed that only 30% of the respondents believed that the shows largely reflect reality and 25% of them believed that they are not real at all. With the exception of documentaries, most of the reality TV shows that we watch are manipulated in one way or another. As a matter of fact, what we watch on TV could never be 100% faithful to the original recordings. If it were, a normal Reality TV series would be 300 hours long. Therefore, the first level of manipulation occurs with the editing as editors select certain scenes from the actual footage and then combine them to form an episode. For instance, I don’t believe that anyone would be willing to watch 8 hours of Survivor contestants snore in their sleep and those contestants certainly do not want people watching them responding to nature’s calls! This is the basic editing as irrelevant scenes are cut out.

          However, there have been many cases when editors select and arrange scenes in a particular fashion in order to manipulate the events and create a story that is different from what actually happened. “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?” Moreover, James Poniewozik showed how manipulation of scenes could drastically alter the display of events. He uses Blind Date as an example. During one episode, the producers changed the chronology of the scenes and displayed one scene, where the 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 the man was bored with his date right from the start.     

            Higher levels of manipulation occur when the main characters in supposedly unscripted series are given lines or told to act in certain ways in order to spice up the events. In those cases, the actual events that are supposed to be real and spontaneous have been altered. For instance, in his article “The New Quiz Show Scandal -- Reality Television”, Joel Stein claims “These shows purporting to be unadulterated documentaries are unreal in a more obvious way: They are secretly crafted in advance by writers.” In this article, he exposes the reality TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and how it had a 19-page outline of one of its episodes. Also, according to him, The Simple Life was not so simple either. Hilton and Richie, who were supposed to be sleeping in trailer parks for an entire season, actually checked into hotels for all but two nights! Actually, while researching for this essay, I came across countless articles accusing The Simple Life of being the farthest thing from reality and none advocating its reality aspect. Moreover, a lot of reality TV shows have screenwriters whose job is to feed the characters lines or write a general storyline so that the audience would not get bored with the show when the real sequence of events gets 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 in order to preserve the illusion of reality television.

          For instance, let us consider “professional” wrestling such as WWE or RAW. I have yet to find a reasonable person who believes that the wrestling matches or the feuds between wrestlers are actually real.  Most of the wrestling moves are often fatal or in most cases could lead to serious injuries. However, wrestlers seem to have a “special” immunity against injury. They can fall from 50 feet or get knocked in the face with a chair and still be able to recover in less than a week. Many critics have accused wrestlers of rehearsing their moves beforehand and memorizing their lines for the show. Therefore, the only reality here is that they are professional actors not wrestlers.  

          All this manipulation could be really intimidating to the people who watch these shows. The main reason reality TV shows have gained such massive popularity is that they are real. It seems as if we, at the receiving end, are being lied to and fooled by those who are at the producing end. They are selling us counterfeit merchandise. Yet, even though most people know that those shows are not entirely real, their ratings have not changed and they are still ranking top on the charts. Does this mean that we are stupid or that we do not care about being manipulated? NO! It means that we care more about entertainment and having a fun time watching semi-real shows than we do about content.

          Why does this manipulation of supposedly real shows occur? The most important and driving factor for this manipulation is the green factor. Producers and sponsors are willing to go to extremes to get as many viewers as they can and hence increase their monetary revenue. Also, the normal sequence of events is sometimes too mundane and uninteresting that the producers manipulate them so that the viewers would not get bored and switch the channel. Moreover, this altering of events is often used for security reasons. Hence, producers could avoid having people suffer from any serious injury while still maintaining the “reality” aspect of the shows by manipulating the events.  

            Now, what happens when reality TV shows get too real? On the fourth of September 2006, Steve Irwin, while recording his documentary Ocean’s Deadliest, was stung to death by a stingray. This is a severe case of reality TV gone really badly. Also, The Wrap published an article in which it listed the names of 11 reality TV characters who committed suicide after being on those shows. For example, Paula Goodspeed had idolized American Idol’s Paula Abdul all her life. Then, she got the chance to meet her face to face while auditioning for American Idol. However, her childhood dreams were bitterly crushed in front of millions of viewers. Sadly, she wasn’t able to bear the humiliation and committed suicide in front of Abdul’s house. Also, many people’s lives were ruined after being on those shows because too much of their lives was revealed; they were no longer able to confront all the other people that recognized them.    

               Reality TV shows appear to fall on a continuous spectrum of reality, which ranges 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. I even used to fantasize 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 create the illusion of being real so that they will attract more audience and make more profit. 



Works Cited:                                

Booth, William. “Reality Is Only An Illusion, Writers Say.” The Washington Post. Washington Post, 10 Aug. 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-   dyn/articles/A53032-2004Aug9.html>.

Levin, Gary. “Simple Economics: More Reality TV.” Usatoday.com. USA Today. 09 May 2007.  Web. 2 Nov. 2009.< http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2007-05-07-reality-TV_N.htm?csp=34>.

Poniewozik, James. “How Reality TV Fakes It.” Time. CNN, 29 Jan. 2006. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. < http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1154194-1,00.html>.

"Reality television." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 27 Oct 2009, 17:09 UTC. 3 Nov 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Reality_television&oldid=322367762>.

Rowen, Beth."Reality TV Takes Hold." Infoplease.
© 2000–2007 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease.
02 Nov. 2009 <http://www.infoplease.com/spot/realitytv1.html>.

Stein, Joel. “The New Quiz Show Scandal -- Reality Television.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 05 Dec 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. < http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/05/opinion/op-stein5?pg=2>

Ventre, Michael. “Just how real are reality TV shows?” Msnbc.msn.com. MSN. 14 April 2009. Web. 2 Nov.2009. < http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30092600>