The Enhanced Reality of Reality TV
Reality TV is constantly derided as low brow and fake, criticized for cheating its audience and exploiting its contestants. Yet it’s also praised for its addictive drama and its entertainment, sometimes by the very people who mock it. So what is it about this enhanced reality that attracts millions of viewers across the globe?
To answer that question let us start by considering what exactly is reality TV? Reality TV follows people either in their own lives or a competition setting ‘primarily with the aim of providing entertainment rather than information.’ 1 But its focus on entertainment in terms of intense emotion, interesting characters and constant confrontation means that drama is often heightened. Contestants often call out producers for manipulating the situation and editors for not showing exactly what happened. This might be because they don’t like how they’ve come across. However, it raises a point that we, the audience, are very aware of. How much of it is real: some of it, most of it or nothing at all?
By now, after almost twenty years of watching reality TV, we know it’s manipulated to some extent but I would argue that we go too far in criticizing the enhanced reality of reality TV. Those saying it’s completely fake are right only in a few instances. Most of the time reality TV combines the real, i.e. what happens naturally, with constructed elements. This can be contestants exaggerating their behavior in order to be featured, producer intervention to amplify the way contestants behave or natural moments that have been edited. In essence, it goes back to the idea that the purpose of reality TV is to entertain rather than inform. The way it works, that it gives viewers the entertainment and drama that we look for, is through enhancing and heightening reality.
The format of nearly every reality TV show is to set up a staged environment, a constructed space, which people enter. They can be celebrities or ordinary people. They show how people interact with each other but the situations created are more extreme than anything in real life.
Competition based reality shows are constructed to be more intense than any natural situation. Contestants fight for incredibly high stakes: an enormous amount of money or a dream career. For the most part, they are kept away from the real world with nothing else to do or think about apart from their current reality. This heightens their emotions and responses. What’s more, in many shows they’re in a constant state of jeopardy as someone is eliminated every week. America’s Next Top Model is a job interview unlike anything in real life. Contestants competing for a modeling contract live in the same house, are judged in front of each other and face weekly eliminations. Tensions and intense feelings are bound to escalate much faster than in any normal situation.
One form of reality TV is competition shows. Another is docusoaps which ‘chronicle the purportedly real lives of an interconnected group of people, often in a melodramatic way’. 2 Initially they appear more natural than competition based reality TV because we are following people in their own environment rather than an environment that is constructed solely for the show. But docusoaps are as highly produced as competition shows. Participants don’t have mundane office jobs and are either celebrities, rich, or have unusual or exciting jobs that put them in extreme situations. For example, Keeping up with the Kardashians follows the celebrity Kim Kardashian and her family. Participants are not shown doing everyday, mundane activities but at the most interesting and exciting moments of their already exciting lives. What’s more, they’re seen in emotionally intense and dramatic situations. While this is a documentary of sorts, it’s clear that in these programs there’s been some editing or producer interference. This is a constructed reality.
The fact that the contestants are in artificial and exaggerated situations and know they’re being watched means that many act up in front of the camera. Many desire fame or, at least, understand that their chances of success on the show, whether this may be winning a monetary prize or a modeling contact, will increase with how much entertainment they bring to the show. They understand the way reality TV works. It might include low-key moments but it hinges on the dramatic. Its climaxes could well be things that happen naturally as a result of excitement or tension. But the fact that reality TV relies on dramatic moments means that many participants feel the need to perform. They either exaggerate pre-existing traits, like a bubbly personality, or exaggerate the actions they believe the show wants to feature.
But how can we judge what’s real behavior and what’s not? Annette Hill, a professor of media, comments on performance in Big Brother UK. She argues that ‘viewers turn to their own experiences and speculate how they would behave.’ 3 However, we don’t just consider how we would act in the situation but what would be normal for contestants’ age and temperament, and how consistent their behavior is.
Are You the One features 11 men and women who must date each other to find who ‘matchmakers’ have deemed their perfect match and win a share of $1 million. They might lose their inhibitions more in this scenario, particularly in how often they sleep together. Nonetheless, some degree of drinking and partying is normal for twenty-two outgoing people in their early twenties living in a house together. What is less believable is when they describe their attraction to each other as love after discovering they have the smallest things in common, for instance that they’re both Latino. Knowing that the show’s premise is to find out who ‘matchmakers’ have declared their perfect match, they act up to this image. They exaggerate their emotions because they know, from previous seasons, that being a ‘loved-up’ couple will make them more likely to be featured and highlighted. Most don’t find their match at first and some switch partners, once again declaring undying love. Part of them might genuinely like the next person but even the least cynical viewer may be dubious.
In certain game shows like Big Brother U.S., contestants recognize they must put on an act not only for the audience, but also for their competition. They must outsmart and manipulate each other in order to evict someone each week and ultimately win $500,000. One mini-game decides who becomes the ‘head of household’ with the power to put up two nominees. Another mini-game determines who has the power to replace a nominee. Alliances are formed and often switch as people break away from an alliance to act on their own game plan. Before eliminations there’ll often be someone who lies about who they will be voting out. Nevertheless, a 24/7 live feed is broadcast for the three-month duration of the show. So it would be impossible for an individual to constantly put on an act. Sometimes, especially in their interactions with those they’re closest to, the true selves and motivations of contestants are revealed.
The main vehicle of revealing the true feelings of the contestants is the confessional, the diary room. It’s a space where contestants show off their strategy and give us an insight into what they’re actually thinking. We also get a sense who they are from the way they talk about themselves and others. What’s interesting about Big Brother U.S. is that we often simultaneously see the dichotomy between contestants deceiving each other and their true feelings in the diary room.
However, even in this supposedly honest confessional, many contestants are still highly aware that the producers want things to be dramatized to attract the audience. An easy way to be featured is to play up to the cameras in the diary room. Contestants become louder, exaggerating their gestures and actions as they show off their strategies. There are two levels of role-playing going on – one where they lie to each other and one where they perform to the audience as they reveal their true thoughts and feelings.
Reality TV producers, more than anything else, heighten reality; they determine the way characters and events come across. Producers act in a number of ways. Before the show begins they cast the characters they want to feature. They ensure that what we see has the greatest potential to be a dramatic version of reality by choosing those they think will bring entertainment and interest. During and after the show, story producers analyze the footage and decide what storylines will be at the center and what message they want to portray. They create a basic edit while editors implement their vision. So producers are involved in what happens before and after the show. However, their most absorbing role is intervening during the show itself.
With so many programs to choose from, producers want to keep our attention and so make things happen more quickly. They amplify real events. This can be by designing an activity to heighten a particular storyline, or talking to the contestants, encouraging them to take action. This is true of competition shows but less evident in docusoaps. In shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, the family themselves are the producers. What about other docusoaps though? In programs, such as The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which follows the lives of six wealthy women, producers work with participants to structure their stories. However, just like competition shows, their priority is ratings. Producers can influence participants to walk into a set up, where others are waiting to confront them. They can also make emotions fester by repeatedly bringing up a problem in confessionals. In season 6, producers capitalized on the fact that many of the women suspected Yolanda was faking her Lyme disease symptoms. They made it the theme of almost all the confessionals, stirring up heated emotions.
Jonathan Bigell, a professor of television, argues that ‘the emotional connection audiences felt with the characters led to viewers experiencing [reality tv]… as a realistic program… [so producers try] to bring out their emotional reactions to events .’ 4
Bigell underlines that, ironically, to make the characters and ultimately the show seem real, we need producers to heighten reality. They act as the catalyst that brings out contestants’ joy, fear and sadness. This can be seen as manipulating participants. But it perhaps simply pushes them to be less inhibited in how they feel and enables us to empathize with them. So does producer intervention merely make things happen more quickly or does it ensure that something occurs that would never take place without their influence?
Producers talking to contestants
The Bachelor franchise has been accused of going too far in trying to keep our attention. It involves one man in The Bachelor and one woman in The Bachelorette choosing between 25-30 suitors of the opposite sex. In talking to contestants producers cannot force them to do anything. They simply manipulate their emotions to spur them to more outlandish and aggressive behavior. In Season 16 of The Bachelor, Jamie Otis, a female suitor, told producers she wanted to ‘open up’ to the bachelor, Ben Flajnik. (In The Bachelor franchise, this is often a euphemism for wanting to kiss someone.) She also told producers that she needed alcohol to take the next step. They not only encouraged her and gave her ‘liquid courage’ for twenty minutes, but partly orchestrated events. They told Ben to pull her aside in private, setting up the moment for her to kiss him, 5 ensuring she couldn’t have second thoughts. She ended up straddling his lap and so producer intervention heightened her actions. But she was the one who decided to attract his attention; they simply pushed her further.
However, producers can amplify reality to a much greater extent. When contestants are eliminated from The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, they are driven away from the shared contestant house in a limo and interviewed about the process. At times producers refuse to let eliminated contestants out of the limo until they reveal how they’re feeling. They even make those likely to be leaving believe they have a better chance of remaining on the show so that they will be more upset in their eliminations. 6 This illustrates how producers, in their quest for drama, can go too far. To some extent they promote a false version of reality by suggesting that anyone cut from The Bachelor would be utterly devastated.
Nonetheless, genuine, long-lasting relationships (and in some cases, even marriages) have developed from the many seasons of the show. In The Bachelor, around a quarter of all bachelors develop a relationship lasting at least a year. For The Bachelorette, the figure is more like a half. This suggests that the show can’t be totally fake – enough of the contestants’ true selves must emerge during filming. For the most part, what we have is an amplified reality where producers make things happen more quickly and more dramatically, rather than cause events to take place that would never otherwise happen.
Producers twisting the truth
Producers can go too far to underline a certain point. They can make up an entire scene and suggest that it really happened by getting editors to insert this manufactured piece into the timeline of actual events. The possibility that this could happen makes viewers more concerned with how genuine reality TV is. From the beginning of Keeping up with the Kardashians, the mother Kris, has been a producer, so the goal has always been to make sure her children come across in the most positive way possible. Subsequently, in any confrontation, their boyfriends are more often than not presented as being in the wrong. This could be the truth. For years, eldest sister, Kourtney dealt with her now ex-boyfriend Scott’s drinking, but it’s not always the case. After the breakdown of Kim’s marriage to Kris Humphries, the producers constructed a scene to make Kim come across more favorably. One of the producers, Russell Jay, admitted that a scene where Kim confesses that she was struggling in her marriage was shot after she had filed for divorce. He stressed that it did not take place during a trip to Dubai as the footage claimed. 7 The scene made her seem more sympathetic as she admitted to her mother that she could be herself without Humphries, that she was happier alone and ultimately she wasn’t looking forward to returning to him. Jay could be lying but Kim and her mother were seen entering a sound stage, in Hollywood, three months later in the same clothes they wore in Dubai. Re-filming can happen for continuity. However, here, the Kardashians instructed editors to insert an artifical scene into the timeline of actual events to paint themselves in the best light. This is not an isolated incident but something they do repeatedly. It goes beyond enhancing reality. Even if some people enjoy the show regardless, many feel that they constantly take things too far. The Kardashians are more of an extreme example though. In general, most participants aren’t producers and won’t have the power to do this.
Producers play an important role in heightening the action as events play out, and decide on the general direction the show will move in terms of characters and storylines. Most, nonetheless, don’t make up scenes like the Kardaishians. Editors either cut or add things to mould the show and its characters according to the producer’s augmented version of reality. Just like producer intervention amplifies the action, reality TV needs the edit’s skewed version of reality to work. It is by cherry picking what scenes and character interactions to include that viewers are plunged straight into the action and gain an immediate impression of both the central characters and key storylines. This, to some extent, cheats the audience by only letting us see reality through a partial lens. But most of us watch TV to be entertained, to get to the drama, and it is this enhanced version of reality which delivers it.
Editing how participants come across
Producers cast characters to fit certain stereotypes: the bad boy, the girl next door. Editors work with producers to determine how contestants come across by predominately showing us moments where these characteristics are most pronounced. Editors aim to make us react more strongly to participants either in a positive or negative way. The Bachelor franchise uses stereotypes to distinguish the many contestants. Season 12 of The Bachelorette saw one contestant, Chad Johnson, depicted as a villain. He was repeatedly shown acting aggressively: threatening other competitors and even ripping a rival’s shirt. A mocking comment by a rival would often lead to an aggressive meltdown from Chad. What was rarely shown though was the full context to the threats. Chad later defended himself, arguing that at one point some of them ‘got in his face for half an hour.’ 8 This coupled with the stress of the situation and his inability to remove himself from the other contestants in the house, provoked his bursts of temper.
Just like characters are edited to make the audience more interested in them, events are crafted into storylines to appeal to the audience and make them more accessible to us. As much as we might become obsessed with reality TV, we rarely have the time or patience to watch twenty-four hours of a show, and few programs will give us this much access. Big Brother U.S. is a rare example with 24/7 live feeds. But this comes at an additional cost and most people won’t pay for every episode of this. The way that we think of things, that we become invested in them, is through a narrative, a developing story. Viewers need moments to be highlighted. Events or characters that don’t fit must be cut out or barely featured and the characters highlighted shown mainly in terms of the stereotype that fits the storyline. A major aim of both producers and editors is to generate talking points and, more recently, social media buzz, by highlighting some conflict that will make the audience take different sides and thus become more invested in the show.
In Season 19 of Big Brother U.S., the major storyline for the first half of the show was Paul and the rest of the house allied against Cody and Jess. Paul was someone the other contestants supported and revered as a seasoned contestant who had made it to the final two in the previous season. Though other contestants were featured in this storyline and had minor storylines of their own, many were barely shown at all. Almost all of them were predominately shown in terms of their relationship to Paul, Cody or Jess.
Editing to underline the brand or the message behind the show
Producers want to make us invest in the message behind the show, its unique brand, and instruct editors on what they should include. Keeping up with the Kardashians follows Kim Kardashian and her blended family: her mother Kris, stepfather Bruce, siblings and step-siblings. For many years the edit created the image of a happy family. Whatever problems occurred and kept recurring, such as Bruce feeling that his opinion was not considered, the family would always come together by the end. At times this seemed manufactured. Nevertheless, we could, to some extent, believe in them as a close–knit family given their moments of genuine happiness. However, though the show and real life indicate that most of the siblings remain close, this image of a happy blended family fell apart with the end of Kris and Bruce’s marriage. Kris filed for divorce in 2014. One year later and a few months after the divorce was finalized, Bruce transitioned into Caitlyn. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Caitlyn, in talking about the reasons for the divorce, stressed that ‘twenty percent was gender and eighty percent was the way I was treated.’ 9 The edit, however, failed to truly acknowledge the seriousness of their problems.
What remains successful is the way producers use editing and the media to make us invest in the Kardashian brand. They’ve persuaded us that theirs are lives we should want to follow. The crux of what we see is real but producers and editors amplify real events to make everything that happens sensationalized. One famous example is when Kim announced her engagement to Kris Humphries in, celebrity magazine, People, one month before Season 6 started, to ensure the audience were already curious. Editors then cut the season so that few disagreements between the couple were shown: the main storyline was the proposal, the plans for the wedding and ultimately the wedding itself. Their divorce one year later suggests that we were only shown part of what really happened. Yet, in sensationalizing real events through both the edit and the media, producers and editors succeeded in generating mass interest in the Kardashian name. It’s a strategy they repeatedly used with Kourtney’s pregnancy and Kim’s subsequent marriage to Kanye West.
What do viewers see when they watch reality TV? Do they see what’s actually happening, or what producers and editors let them? Reality TV offers an enhanced version of reality that combines natural moments with constructed elements. There are numerous examples of participants acting up, editors showing only a partial perspective of events, and producers manipulating the drama. In the worst case scenario, events can be entirely made up. At times both producers and editors go too far and this can make us feel cheated. But, however much people complain, in watching reality TV viewers are generally looking to be transfixed and entertained. This can be through getting an immediate impression of the characters or through becoming captivated by the story-lines. The premise of reality TV is how people act in either a manufactured competitive setting or the dramatic scenarios of docusoups. Viewers want the shorthand of reality TV. They want to see the most interesting events and the most intense emotions, and it is the producers and editors who bring this about. In fact, for some, one of the most interesting parts of watching reality TV is debating how much what they are observing is real.
- Reality TV (definition). Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158934?redirectedFrom=reality+tv#eid26852219. ↩
- Docusoap (definition). Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/docusoap. ↩
- Hill, A. (2005) ‘Reality TV: Performance, Authenticity and Television Audiences.’ in Wasko, J. (Ed.). A Companion to Television. New Jersey:Wiley-Blackwell ↩
- Bigell, J. (2013). ‘Reality and Reality Formats.’ in Oulette, L. (Ed.). A Companion to Reality Television. Sussex: Wiley and Sons. 111. ↩
- Hendricks, J. (2015). The Bachelorette is all a lie. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2015/07/22/the-bachelorette-is-all-a-lie/ ↩
- Dubofsky, C. (2016). The Untold Truth of The Bachelor. Retrieved from http://www.thelist.com/2871/secrets-abc-doesnt-want-know-bachelor ↩
- Smith, M. (2017). Five of the Most Obviously Staged Moments in Kardashian History. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2017/09/keeping-up-with-the-kardashians-fake-moments.html ↩
- Nahmen, H. (2016) An Interview with Chad, the Bachelor ‘Villain’ That’s Not Going Away. Retrieved from https://www.manrepeller.com/2016/12/chad-johnson-bachelorette.html ↩
- Bissinger, B. (2015) Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/caitlyn-jenner-bruce-cover-annie-leibovitz ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.