The Power of the Confessional: Strategy and Complaining on Reality TV

What it’s like to be around Rachel Reilly 24/7

“Nobody likes a complainer”–it’s a dictum oft repeated by parents to children, coaches to athletes, bosses to employees. Perhaps in the real world, it’s a worthwhile piece of advice–but whoever said reality TV was the real world?

Why is it that notorious eye-rolling, griping contestants on competitive reality shows–like Britney Haynes of Big Brother and Courtney Yates of Survivor–so often do well? After all, though standard rules of morality don’t necessarily apply to reality shows (just as Richard Hatch, Andy Herren, Sandra Diaz-Twine, or any other person to scheme their way to a show’s grand prize), the rules of sociability still do. Survivor and Big Brother are based, in large part, on getting people to like and trust you–and nobody likes someone who moans about their misery all day or trusts someone known to talk smack behind people’s back.

Well, that is, no one likes someone who does those things in the open. People who do so in private, however, often get along quite well with their fellow contestants.

Confessionals have been a staple of reality television since the genre’s genesis. In theory, these individual sessions between contestant and producer are meant to generate commentary, sometimes humorous, other times insightful, to accompany the story being told in an episode. Over the course of reality television’s development, however, the confessional has evolved into more than just an opportunity for producers to create content to beef up an episode. For some players, like Danni Boatwright on Survivor: Guatemala, confessionals are an opportunity to listen closely to the questions asked by production and glean information about her opponents’ strategies. For others, like the denizens of the Big Brother house in recent seasons, hoping to earn an advantage in the game from a popular vote, it is a chance to sell themselves to the audience to improve their in-game prospects.

Perhaps the most under-appreciated and misunderstood use of confessionals, however, is as an opportunity to bitch. Confessionals are private; whatever trash a contestant talks about their allies or opponents doesn’t leave a session. In a game about maintaining strong relationships, why not vent in a the one moment you have away from the ears of other contestants?

On Big Brother, for instance, a show that lasts over three months, contestants are sure to lose their cool with someone at some point. It’s inevitable. The stakes are high and the people are obnoxious. If a player can learn how to manage their irritation with others, however, the negative consequences of being bothered by someone else can be avoided.

Take, for example, Britney Haynes, of Big Brother 12 and Big Brother 14. Britney is well-known, in and outside of the Big Brother community (she made the Emmys!), for her acerbic wit and side-splitting confessionals. What was the subject of these confessionals during Britney’s two stints on Big Brother? Her fellow houseguests, mainly. Britney could be quite cutting in her Diary Room sessions, poking fun at one contestant’s proclivity towards/reliance on tequila, another’s high-waisted pants, and still another’s resemblance to a circus clown.

“She holds up her bottle of tequila like she just won the half million dollar grand prize. Whoo! Tequila! Oh my God!”

And yet, outside of the Diary Room, Britney was mild-mannered. She got along well with her fellow houseguests, and was willing to put on a smile for those she didn’t like. Though she confessed she would “rather hang [herself]” than go up to fellow houseguest Rachel Reilly’s Head of Household room, she gabbed and hung out with Rachel in order to ensure she wasn’t a target for eviction. Not only did Britney get along well with her fellow houseguests, but she actually exerted a great deal of influence over the social temperature of the house. Labelled by Dan Gheesling, winner of Big Brother 10 and runner-up of Big Brother 14, a “flat out scary” player, Britney was able to get the people she talked smack about to “sit down, roll over, and fetch things” for her due to her outstanding social gameplay.

It’s unlikely that social gameplay would have been so outstanding had she’s fellow houseguests heard the things she was saying about them in the Diary Room–but there, precisely, is the point. They couldn’t hear what she was saying. Britney utilized the privacy of the Diary Room to her advantage, to contain her moments of weakness or anger to a the only environment in which they wouldn’t have a negative consequence on her game. Complaining became an asset to her social game, something that offered tangible benefits to both of her Big Brother runs.

Courtney Yates, of Survivor: China and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, cruised to the finals of her first season using much the same approach in confessionals. Courtney complained. A lot. She complained about her tribemates, about the climate, about the host, and about pretty much everything else that Survivor threw at her. She could be downright nasty, taunting another player’s distress upon finding out his sister had had a miscarriage, and openly admitted to disliking every single person she played with.

Courtney expressing her opinion of everything and everyone

And yet, Courtney was well-liked and well-trusted among her tribemates; in a challenge during which players had the opportunity to bequeath advantages to one another, Courtney received more support than anyone else. Had Todd Herzog, the winner of Survivor: China, not given the best Final Tribal Council performance in the show’s 17-year run, Courtney very likely would have walked away from her season with a million dollars. Not bad for the self-proclaimed “biggest bitch on the planet.”

If there’s a dark side to being a “confessional warrior,” however, it comes on shows on which players recur frequently, such as MTV’s The Challenge. Zach Nichols, an aggressively shit-talking contestant, was condemned by a number of competitors after his comments comparing his ex-girlfriend to the mentally-handicapped Lenny from Of Mice and Men aired, and he remains in poor standing with many of his castmates. Britni Thornton, whose sweet in-game demeanor masked biting comments made in confessionals, has faced similar scrutiny, which threatens her credibility and social position on the current season of The Challenge. Complaining functions better on shows like Survivor and Big Brother, where contestants are unlikely to appear more than a couple of times.

Confessionals play an undeniably important role for viewers of reality TV–they allow for exposition, provide entertainment, and give us a better idea of who these people are. But they also have their benefits for players themselves, giving them the opportunity to engage in behaviors that might not be acceptable in-game. They’re chambers of suspension for the reality TV contestant, the only place to express grievances and opinions that might work against them were their castmates to listen in. They’re an effective way to maintain and improve one’s position in a competition, and players would do well to take full advantage of them as they look for victory.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Without confessionals in Survivor, it would take out any of the strategy and make it dull to watch.

    • Yeah, it makes sense for shows where who wins or loses is determined by who’s the least popular amongst the other contestants, so the contestants need to be able to tell the audience their innermost thoughts and such. But if it’s like a cooking show or something, obviously your strategy is to make the best [insert dish] out of everyone else, right? Why do you need to explain that to the audience?

    • Agreed. So few confessionals provide any interesting information. Cooking show confessionals are always along the lines of “I’m here to win. I want to make the best cake I can make, and I want my daughter/father/mentor to be proud of me.” Though we should probably count ourselves lucky that cooking show contestants are usually at least somewhat articulate. That’s not the case for far, far too many reality show contestants.

    • Confessionals are a necessary part of a show that revolves around deceiving the other participants. Now, we could reshape the visual language of confessionals- I would not object to a Survivor episode that, say, used confessionals solely as voice-over over evocative nature photography- but we need access to private thoughts for the game to stay engaging.

    • Mildekle

      This is why I really like the Face Off confessionals. A lot of the time the contestants actually do explain what they’re doing on a creative/technical level and why. It’s really cool and makes me a) feel like I’m learning something and b) appreciate their skill, creativity, and problem solving skills. I wish more of the talent-based reality shows would do this.

  2. Reality shows are absolutely one of the most depressing things about modern culture. Even setting aside the ridiculous fighting or shitting on the carpet or whatever, at its heart it’s a medium that actively encourages people to be the biggest pieces of shit they can possibly be, and the saddest part is people don’t even give a shit! They put it on in the background and fuck around on their phone while the shittiest people in the world act like complete scumbags for the entertainment of almost-as-shitty people.

    The only reality show I can stand to watch is Masterchef Junior. At least there, people are encouraging, they’re friendly, it’s not about stabbing the next guy in the back to get ahead.

    • I find it incredibly depressing that every woman I know is hooked on The Real Housewives and even more depressing that the ones who know I hate it try to justify it as being real – “it says so in the title” – and therefore it’s better than the other stuff. I had a full blown argument with my auntie at Christmas about it and have assumed ever since that I must be adopted because I can’t be related to people so stupid. How can anybody watch reality TV and think it’s anything but entirely false?

    • If you like Masterchef Junior then you might really enjoy The Great British Bake Off. It is one of the few really good reality/competition shows because it’s focus is entirely on the skills and abilities of the contestants and judges (who are also overall extremely kind and supportive of one another) and not stupid, manufactured drama. There are a bunch of episodes on YouTube if you are interested.

  3. Antonio Loy

    What I don’t understand is the use of confessionals in scripted shows like “The Office” or “Modern Family.” Who the hell are the main characters talking to?!?

    • vanhelsing

      In The Office, they were talking to a documentary crew. I think that is the thought behind Modern Family as well… but its not really clear.

    • I don’t watch Modern Family, but yeah it’s pretty clear that in The Office they are talking to a documentary crew? Remember the whole show is a “documentary,” so they are basically riffing off the confessionals aspect of documentaries and reality television.

  4. Amyus

    You’ve obviously put a lot of work into preparing this article and for that I applaud you, although I hate to imagine how many tedious hours you had to endure, wading through the vacuous thoughts and colourful expletives spouted by the various contestants. I confess that I have never watched a single minute of any so-called ‘Reality TV’ show, but one doesn’t have to step in dog mess to know that it stinks, nevertheless I am still amazed at how people fall for this on-screen garbage. Reality it is not. Reality is that which we live everyday. These ‘shows’ are nothing more than a modern day equivalent of the Roman ‘Bread and Circuses’; lowest common denominator entertainment for the largely unthinking masses, except without the chariot races and wanton, bloody carnage. It’s interesting to note that the decadence of Rome was exemplified by the cult of the personality, explicit sexual practices, celebrities who were famous for being famous and even an obsession with chefs and cooks; all of which we’re seeing today. I think it was Marcus Aurelius who said “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane”. Throw away your TV sets, folks and start to live your real lives; escape from the ranks of the insane.

  5. Desirae

    Unscripted reality shows were once regarded as television’s panacea!

  6. I prefer to just read books and leave the television in the “off” state.

  7. Suzy Lynn

    I take heart that at least some of the contestants are not so awful in real life. A lot of them probably pretty big narcissists, but they are probably better-behaved narcissists when they’re not on camera in a genre that encourages people to be awful and with producers who tell them to be even more dramatic.

  8. That makes me think of how singing competition shows use contestant bio-segments to encourage viewers to have emotional stakes in said contestants. It creates a complex in which you feel guilty for not supporting [this person who has a sad story] even if they do not deserve to advance on merit.

    I am a big believer in empathy, but in that context, it is nakedly exploitative and manipulative.

    • I also wonder how the competition feels when they hear the others’ sob story. “Oh shit, that guy’s kid has cancer. I’m probably gonna lose to him.”

    • This is especially ridiculous on The Voice because, at least as far as we know, the coaches don’t hear any of that before they make the decision as to who to pick. They are going on voice alone, so really, what difference does the contestants back story make? Perhaps that story helped the producer select them originally, but beyond that, it serves no purpose.

    • It does if you want viewers to make a mental connection and remember certain people, thus watching and later voting for them. Oh and downloading their songs for Not Free on iTunes! To be clear, I can’t watch The Voice without making fun of this premise (I like to make up fake intros like “In third grade, I tripped in front of the class and was so embarrassed. I’ve been waiting my whole life for a chance at redemption”)

  9. Something surprising happens: cut to contestant, “and then that happened, and I was like WHAAAAT”

    I feel like that’s the majority of these.

  10. Kimberlie

    I confess to watching a couple of seasons of The Bachelor/Bachelorette a few years back and regret the time I spent with it. I love “Dancing with the Stars” and enjoy mindless shows on the Food Network. What I don’t get are the so-called “reality shows” like the Kardashian’s, Honey BooBoo, and all of the Real Housewives shows. Why does anyone care about these people? What do they find so fascinating? It just infuriates me that these people have become so rich and famous for doing nothing other than flaunting themselves? And, no, I’ve never watched any of these shows. However, I’ve seen some of the “stars” on talk shows and I can hardly stand them there. There are so many people out there with real talent. The Kardashians? Not so much!

  11. I never understood the so called ‘educated’ and ‘highly professional’people in my office who watch these “shows” and then set about discussing them – in minute detail – and not just around the water cooler – they would have lengthy conversations about the various ‘characters’ during so called ‘work hours’. They all thought I was strange because I didn’t view these programs and asked me what I did for ‘entertainment’ – they were somewhat taken aback when I told them I read books instead of watching TV.

  12. Good article. The contestants aim is to be likeable.

  13. Lara Jarrett

    Even worse is this gimmick in scripted shows, like Modern Family or Parks & Recreation. WHO ARE THEY TALKING TO??? Why has someone been interviewing them for 10 years? At least The Office had the documentary angle.

    • Modern Family’s pilot set it up as a documentary, but they’ve scarcely mentioned it since. I don’t remember if they even paid it lip service on P&R.

    • It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter on the Office. You could cut out the handful of perfunctory references to the documentary and the show would still be 100% functional.

  14. Slaidey

    It would be interesting to see the correlation between reality tv confessionals and the rise of vloggers. When I was a kid, these shows were popular among my peers, and I wonder how greatly the genre influenced different generations in accepting vlogs as part of the norm.

  15. TheBlackCurse

    Interesting thoughts.

  16. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    Interesting to add to this is the dimension of shows that have “finales” after the main body of the program is screened, such as ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Project Runway’ where contestants are able to watch the bulk of the show themselves before returning to the program.
    I think an interesting part of this discussion that needs further analysis is the audience response, because if it did not raise the viewing figures then the confessional would not continue, so what in particular resonates best with the actual viewer?

  17. I am a huge fan of both the shows Big Brother, and Survivor. However, the confessionals in Big Brother have been on a downward spiral for a very long time. For the past few seasons it seems like the confessionals are severely scripted. This goes against the whole point of the show because the show Is based on raw emotions. I hope that the developers of BB read your article and understand the greatest of the diary room!

  18. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good perspective. The few times I’ve managed to watch one of these shows with this article as a background I might see them differently.

  19. Joseph Cernik

    Sort and sweet. I enjoyed your essay.

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