The genre of reality TV is once again on trial after a home buyer featured on HGTV’s House Hunters told her story in a blog post, asserting that the show is heavily staged and even deceptive. Fans of the series reacted with a mixture of disgust, apathy, and assurances that they knew all along but didn’t care.
Meanwhile, two larger and extremely familiar arguments emerged: All reality TV is all fake, and it doesn’t matter if it is fake.
Neither is true. Whether or not reality TV is real actually matters.
First, incorrectly claiming all reality television is fake is like writing off every memoir as a lie, or all documentaries as fiction. Sure, some memoirists have lied or stretched the truth, but to lump all of them together is absurd. Likewise, it’s ridiculous to pretend all reality TV is alike, especially when there’s a ridiculously diverse array of programming that falls under that umbrella. Some is so heavily staged that it’s bizarre that the producers are going to so much trouble to convince us it’s real. Some is so brutally honest and real it’s painful to watch.
It’s important to discuss, analyze, and consider the degrees of reality in our unscripted television, from the ridiculous to the raw, especially because that description has meaning.
Labeling a television show as “reality TV” represents a contract with the audience that the program has consequence to its real-life cast members. A network is saying to its potential viewers: This show will affect real people, whether they are people who are just like you or are fun for you to mock. Whether cast members are competing for $1 million or just being filmed in their daily lives, their experience in front of cameras has an actual impact on them.
Reality-show cast members can lose their jobs or get mobbed by morons on Twitter and Facebook. Or they can become wealthy and famous, building off of their success and popularity. What we watch of reality cast members on television can be ridiculous and trivial, or the consequences can be life or death: Two years ago, Discovery’s Deadliest Catch chronicled the death of one of its captains in an emotionally powerful and exceptionally artistic way.
The bottom line is simple: The people on our screens can be affected, and we can be affected by them. That contract, that promise of consequence and authenticity, is what causes people to tune in, to tweet about the show, and to generate ratings and advertising dollars.
As engaged and moved as we can be by the characters in Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Girls, or Parks & Recreation, we know their characters aren’t real. The actors aren’t in jeopardy. They’re people who make headlines and usually go on to other projects. They are not at risk of being killed, as are the people featured on—and people who film—Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, for example.
Those real people whose lives and experiences are taped do share one thing with actors: they have teams of people working behind the scenes to turn footage of them into something watchable. To tell true-life stories as narrative, often serialized entertainment, a significant amount of craft is involved. Just filming someone 24/7 isn’t entertainment; watch the Big Brother live feeds on Showtime for definitive proof of that.
The degree of reality is affected by that process. From concept to final edit, there are hundreds—thousands, even—of choices that have to be made that affect how closely the final product matches reality. People have to be cast, story producers have to find narratives in raw footage, time has to be compressed. Only the most compelling footage and dialogue will survive. Even the best documentary film is heavily crafted—manipulated?—with footage carefully selected and ordered to make the best story or argument possible.
The problem comes when this process changes the reality of the situation, whether that manipulation is happening in real time—producers coaching cast members, reshooting scenes over and over again—or occurs during editing. To observe the heavy hand of producers and networks at work, watch an episode of the U.K. version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares followed by an episode of the Fox adaptation, Kitchen Nightmares. Both capture a reality: Gordon Ramsay helping troubled restaurant owners, yelling at them, and fixing their problems. But on the Fox edition, Ramsay works much harder to create conflict, and so do the editors; the show’s credits note that footage may appear out of order, and that’s often used to construct reactions or moments that may never have occurred.
When viewers are lied to about what really happened when a reality-TV show was filmed, the contract is broken.
The pointlessness of the fakery is what’s really appalling. First, many networks and producers have shown that real people having genuine reactions and interactions in either real or artificial contexts can make for compelling television: A&E’s Intervention and Hoarders, CBS’ Survivor, Whale Wars, Deadliest Catch, Oxygen’s The Glee Project, Bravo’s Top Chef, Food Network’s Chopped, HBO’s 24/7, History’s Top Shot, to name just a few. All of those shows must massage reality to make their reality into TV shows, but they stay close to the truth of the experience.
HGTV implausibly defended House Hunters’ deception with a detailed and non-defensive statement that argued time constraints led producers to “go back and revisit some of the homes that the family has already seen and we capture their authentic reactions.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the egregious breach of trust that comes from producers of the series sometimes using homes that were never considered by the buyer or, worse, aren’t even for sale. HGTV’s argument makes sense: it’s hard to make a show about a home-buying decision in real-time because that process is so drawn out. Instead of using deception, House Hunters could easily take us through a buyer’s thought process after the process concludes: We bought this house, but were considering these, and here’s why.
That might be a less compelling narrative. But it also wouldn’t require ordinary people who aren’t actors to fake their reactions. And it wouldn’t have resulted in a backlash because the truth would have been both on screen and in real life. There are modifications that result in fiction, and those that do not: The fact that Survivor uses stand-ins for helicopter shots of contestants during challenges doesn’t change the outcome of the challenge filmed days earlier, it just gives us aerial perspective that wouldn’t be possible during the actual challenge (that’s why you never hear a helicopter hovering overhead).
That seems significantly different than, say, Iron Chef America’s various deceptions, such as telling its contenders three possibilities for the secret ingredient, allowing the chefs to practice long before the actual battle.
It’s been 20 years since The Real World made its debut on MTV and 12 since CBS broadcast Survivor, which turned reality television into a phenomenon. Perhaps it’s time we stop with the reactive, overly simplistic arguments people made in 1992, and start having real conversations about how our reality entertainment is constructed and what that means.