Are Reality Shows Real?
Well, yes and no. The answer turns out to be more complicated than you might think.
Reality television is a little like reality itself: difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.
However you define it, reality TV has become one of the most watched, emulated, obsessed over, and criticized entertainment genres around the world today.
“Candid Camera” to “Survivor”
Despite an elusive definition, there is general consensus that the first genuine TV reality show was “Candid Camera,” first broadcast in the late 1940s, which placed ordinary and unsuspecting people in awkward or unusual situations while hidden cameras filmed their reactions. The result was instant hilarity, followed by the show’s catchline, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”
Despite “Candid Camera’s” success, the reality genre didn’t return until the late 1980s, triggered in part by the 1988 strike of Hollywood screenwriters, which left TV producers scrambling for material to fill the airwaves.
The first of the new generation of reality shows has proven to be one of the most durable: “COPS,” filmed with police officers in U.S. cities across the country. Episodes depict officers in their police cruisers responding to emergency calls, most commonly for auto theft, drug possession, public drunkenness and domestic violence. Over the years, American viewers have learned the curious fact that, whatever the charge, a remarkable number of the men are never wearing shirts. “COPS” may also have the best theme music of any reality show with its reggae-infused number “Bad Boys,” and its refrain, “Bad boys! Bad boys! Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
“The Real World,” first broadcast in 1992 by MTV, introduced another staple of reality television: a group of young people from diverse backgrounds living together while being filmed 24 hours a day. “Real World,” and its European counterpart, “Big Brother,” also employed the “confessional,” where participants could be privately recorded as they spoke directly to the camera.
Reality television became an international phenomenon with the success of shows like “Survivor” (2000), “The Amazing Race” (2001), and “American Idol” (2002), all of which dominated the ratings and have been syndicated and replicated from the Americas to Europe and Asia.
These shows have now been joined by other reality ratings giants: “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway,” “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” “The Biggest Loser” (losing weight), and “The Apprentice.”
Although wildly different in many respects, each of these shows is essentially an elimination contest in which individual episodes climax in the departure of one of the contestants.
Documentary-style shows remain both popular and notorious. At the top of the heap currently is “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” about a Hollywood family of women who are largely famous for being famous. Another hot show is “Jersey Shore,” which follows a tribe of bronzed Italian Americans, who spend their time preening, partying and hanging out at the beach.
Another important sub-genre, with a generally higher reality quotient, depicts workers and professionals doing jobs that are dangerous—“Deadliest Catch” (king crab fishermen in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska) or “Ax Men” (loggers in the American Northwest).
Most viewers recognize that, like a sports highlight show, reality TV programs are culled from hundreds, if not thousands of hours of tape. But they may not always understand the degree to which these programs are shaped, if not staged.
The reason is simple: in the end, any reality show must tell a story.
As screenwriter J. Ryan Stradal writes, “Unscripted does not mean unwritten. The final cut ultimately is very similar in its narrative structure to scripted television. There is a beginning, middle and end, with character development, goals, conflicts and resolution.”
Reality shows are almost always much less expensive to produce than scripted shows. Not simply because they don’t require sound stages and professional actors, but because most reality-show producers are independent contractors, not TV studio employees. As for the participants, they are paid very little, if anything, while working long hours, often in isolation, to ensure that they are “keeping it real.”
Nevertheless, reality television continues to flourish as producers pitch hundreds of new ideas for shows, only a small percentage of which reach the screen.
As Andy Dehnart, editor of the blog Reality Blurred, has written, “Some reality shows are horrifying and trashy, and others are completely compelling and socially redeeming. It’s a varied genre.”
However entertaining these shows may be, most of us recognize that, when we come face to face with reality, it is usually something internal and invisible as we achieve an insight or make a decision. We are probably alone and it is very, very quiet. And there are no television cameras.
Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.blog comments powered by Disqus