Reality TV

By Daniel Newman | March 7th, 2014

How do all those cameras and microphones end up in just the right spot?

I admit it. I watch reality television.

But then, I’ve always had a thing for fiction.

Despite its name, nothing is real about reality TV. Even the first, groundbreaking show, MTV’s The Real World, wasn’t really real. Back in 1992, the channel began a televised revolution by showing a group of ordinary people living together in an exotic location.

That was the theory. The actuality is that they weren’t ordinary at all. They were pre-selected for their attractiveness and, more importantly, for the likelihood that their personalities would clash in dramatic fashion.


You think I’m being overly cynical? The tradition continues today. For an upcoming show called Food School, MTV asks potential contestants, “What kind of people do you usually get along with, and what types get under your skin?”

If it is the guilty allure of voyeurism that piques viewers’ interest, it is the manufactured drama that keeps us watching.

Most other reality shows use the same formula – they create friction between the subjects and then step back for the fireworks. We don’t watch reality TV to see reality; we get enough of that at home. We watch it to see people behaving in exotic, inexplicable ways.

From what seems now like humble beginnings (though The Real World, incredibly, is still on the air), reality TV has developed into a huge industry. To feed our apparently insatiable appetite, the shows have had to become increasingly unreal.


One major subset of the genre, talent shows, still shows glimmers of being genuine. Real people are actually up there singing or dancing (or cooking or designing clothes), sort of like an updated version of Ted Mack & The Original Amateur Hour, though the stakes are now higher.

But more series are like the ubiquitous Housewives shows, which thrive by depicting women (who aren’t even all housewives) dressing badly and behaving worse. The stars of these shows are clearly playing to the camera, fabricating arguments and fights that no real people would have. The rest of their allotted weekly hours are spent in endless discussions about their relationships. No real people spend all their time obsessively analyzing their friendships like that … other than teenage girls.

The theory behind cinema verité is that the people being filmed eventually forget the cameras are there. That is not a concern for reality TV. The people being filmed are always aware they are being filmed, they live for it, they thrive on it. This is their time in the sun, this is the validation of their self-worth.

Air time is limited, and the subjects know they have to battle each other to get the most of it. Nothing is more likely to be televised than bad behavior so they act out as much as they can. It is not as if they have a sense of shame; if they did they wouldn’t be on reality TV. And they certainly wouldn’t have starred in Jersey Shore.


The reality shows I watch most often try hard to appear real, but it is easy to see through the façade once you notice the formula. And this is a truism of reality TV: If it has a formula, it isn’t real.

On the real estate shows, the buyers always look at three homes before deciding on the one we know they have already bought. On the restaurant/bar rescue shows, everything gets finished just as the allotted time runs out. (Why is there always a time limit? Because it adds drama.) The duck dudes clearly rehearse what they are going to say to the camera. And one of the storage shows has even been sued because of the way the show’s producers allegedly plant valuable or interesting items in the otherwise worthless storage units.

You mean someone really didn’t leave a Rolex watch in a locker of cheap furniture and old clothes? (The network, to be fair, denies the charges.)

To get a better idea of which reality shows are unreal, pay close attention to the production. Notice where the camera is – did the cameraman know in advance where to be during a surprise revelation? Do we see the same scene from reverse angles without showing the other camera? That would mean it was filmed more than once. And whenever anyone walks into a scene already wearing a microphone, his appearance was not unexpected no matter how surprised everyone else acts.

The long-reigning queens and kings of reality TV, of course, are the Kardashians, in all their various permIutations. Ask yourself this:

Is anything about that family real?

Daniel Neman, food editor of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, is a former movie reviewer for The Richmond News Leader and the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a regular BOOMER contributor. 

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