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

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.

America’s Next Top Model Cycle 24

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.

Acting up

Contestants from Season 4 of Are You the One

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.

Paul, a contestant from Season 19 of Big Brother, acting up in the Diary Room

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.

Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 6

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 Ben Flajnik and his prospective suitors

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.

Bekah Martinez sobs after being eliminated in The Bachelor Season 22

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.

The edit

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

Chad Johnson from The Bachelorette threatens a rival contestant

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.

Editing storylines

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.

Paul against Jess and Cody in Big Brother 19

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

The Kardashian-Jenner family from Keeping Up With the Kardashians

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.

Works Cited

  1. Reality TV (definition). Retrieved from
  2. Docusoap (definition). Retrieved from
  3. Hill, A. (2005) ‘Reality TV: Performance, Authenticity and Television Audiences.’ in Wasko, J. (Ed.). A Companion to Television. New Jersey:Wiley-Blackwell
  4. Bigell, J. (2013). ‘Reality and Reality Formats.’ in Oulette, L. (Ed.). A Companion to Reality Television. Sussex: Wiley and Sons. 111.
  5. Hendricks, J. (2015). The Bachelorette is all a lie. Retrieved from
  6. Dubofsky, C. (2016). The Untold Truth of The Bachelor. Retrieved from
  7. Smith, M. (2017). Five of the Most Obviously Staged Moments in Kardashian History. Retrieved from
  8. Nahmen, H. (2016) An Interview with Chad, the Bachelor ‘Villain’ That’s Not Going Away. Retrieved from
  9. Bissinger, B. (2015) Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story. Retrieved from

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
I'm a freelance writer and copywriter.

Want to write about TV or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. I’m Dutch and remember the very first edition of Big Brother. There was a big debate about it before it even aired: questions were asked in Dutch parliament as it was considered a-moral to have cameras watch people 24/7. No-one believed very many people would watch the show.

    That’s also what made that first series genuinely fascinating. No entertainment was provided for the candidates and nothing was scripted. The candidates thought a handful of people were watching. Boredom was enormous: one candidate (who later won it) got so bored he started crawling on the floor pushing pot plants around.

    It’s all gone downhill since, of course..

    • SarahPhilip

      You’re right. The early years of Big Brother show how far reality TV has come. I’ve never seen the Dutch version but the UK and US versions are quite different. What they all do, though, is bring out the worst in people.

      • Holcombe

        The first series in the UK (summer 2000) was much the same. It was a quite austere house, not an overt film set, and little was done to stimulate the housemates. They were all just locked in and left to their own devices. The show regularly had psychologists commenting on the housemates’ behaviour.

        I remember a key part of the series being where housemates started secretly communicating to each other by pointing to words in a book, so Big Brother banned books (these were the days when the show attracted housemates who actually read books), which really pushed the Orwellian thing to its natural conclusion.

        And of course that was the series where one of the housemates had smuggled in a pencil and was keeping a list of people he was scheming against, the list was discovered and everyone confronted him in the most British of ways – having a sit down over a cup of tea and talking about how disappointed they were in him.

        Compare to now, when all of the housemates know exactly what they’re getting into, but are such boring human beings they need to be prodded like gerbils in a hyperactive child’s cage just to make them do something remotely interesting… which most of the time consists of giving them alcohol so they’ll threaten to kill each other and need to be separated by the security guards. Gone are the psychologists with fascinating insights into body language and instead they have white British twentysomethings talking as if they’re from Jamaica for some reason whilst describing how much they hate a housemate because of their hair…

        Perhaps there’s a reason that first series in 2000 got 10 million viewers at its peaks but the more recent series are lucky to get 500,000.

  2. My biggest gripe with reality TV is it is seemingly the only way members of the public can get on primetime TV.

  3. deanoflife

    Great post. The reason Reality TV is so prevalent is because it’s incredibly popular. Subjectively, Reality TV may be trashy and overly-dramatic, but it’s good fun and something that *can* be empowering.

  4. No shout out to MTV Real World?


    It’s those ‘scripted reality’ shows that get me. The Only Way is Essex etc. I’d quite like to see a documentary on how those shows are made. ‘You two stand there, pretend you just met in a nightclub and talk about your ex partners for a while; here’ s a script’ It’s just bizarre.

    • Only now their scripted reality has become their reality, meaning the scripted couplings are getting scriptedly hitched, having scripted babies and creating more scripted reality.

      we truly are down the rabbit hole…

      (disclaimer, I quite like Love Island)

    • What’s even more mysterious to me is what’s happening in the mind of the viewer. What do they think they’re watching? How do they have any sense of knowing where they stand?


        Yeah… My wife watches them in a kind of half-hearted way (is there any other way?) and I’ve asked her if she’s convinced by any of it when it’s obviously so contrived. She just says ‘it’s light entertainment, don’t worry so much about it’. Fair enough I suppose, but I can’t believe they are so popular when you are watching neither fact nor fiction and the ‘actors’ are so poor. It really is beyond me.

    • The nightclub scenes they film in the day, that’s why you can hear them speak without having to shout over music. They don’t script it, but they produce the hell out of it though.

  6. RiseFromOut

    Funny that the news is not considered reality TV.

    • SarahPhilip

      News stations use some of the same techniques. They edit footage to focus on certain people who they think will come across as more sympathetic or entertaining. One example is the famous Antoine Dodson ‘hide yo kids, hide yo wife’ interview. ( News stations repeatedly showed Dodson’s dramatic ranting after his sister was almost raped. He was the one highlighted, not her.

  7. I don’t like the way it manipulates people. Audiences have always been manipulated of course but reality TV seems to me to be manipulating the ‘performers’ too and that feels wrong somehow.

    • In the early days you might have said that, but people do kind of know what they’re letting themselves in for when they take part, and for many, the chance of getting ‘media’ opportunities afterwards seems to be the driving force, sadly. It does depend on the programme though. People seem prepared to go through a lot to achieve their wannabe celebrity status.

  8. Kristan

    I love to laugh, cry, and cringe when watching reality TV.

  9. This is a brilliant analysis of reality TV.

  10. We’re in a golden age for TV programming.

  11. Alfonzo

    Whereas panel and quiz shows used to feature ordinary families and people, they rarely do now. One of my favorite things on the TV is actually old episodes of Bullseye, watching it you realise that you never see ordinary people with ordinary jobs on TV shows anymore. I used to watch ‘Family Fortunes’ in the 1980s, with all sorts of fairly ordinary families often making idiots of themselves – now they only have a version with ‘celebrities’ in it.

    • SarahPhilip

      Celebrity versions are everywhere, sadly, because producers think that it’s celebrities who will make their shows more interesting. Even z list celebrities are more likely to increase ratings.

  12. In Carrion

    This is a genre well passed it’s sell by date..

    ..perhaps tv companies might try and be a little more creative with something new?!!

  13. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    An interesting discussion. I think there are some interesting psychological connections related to our desire to be part of a community and our enjoyment of reality TV. I do think however, that I am a little sick of the overly negative and deliberately scripted versions that seem to only be able to reflect back the lowest common denominator of humanity.

    • SarahPhilip

      I agree. Scripted reality TV can go too far. Producers are always trying to bring out participants’ bad behaviour. I suppose that’s why it can be so addictive.

  14. The first series of Big Brother was great. Nobody knew what to expect, including the contestants. Unfortunately that led to TV producers “casting” their reality shows with “characters”, and the contestants themselves knowing what behaviours would be most likely to win them their place on the show and the 15 minutes of fame. It became less and less real after that

  15. It really is NOT relatively easy to extract 30 minutes of material from hundreds of hours of footage, it is the opposite in fact (as I have found from my own experience as a ‘digital editor’).

    • From my experience as a digital editor, it’s dead easy if you only shoot what you need.

      It helps if you delete a bit from the camera on the train or plane home.

    • fallinggrace

      Isn’t it a bit depressing to put in so much hard work in order to produce something so vapid and unedifying?

  16. Susanne

    I love reality TV. Declaring all Reality TV as terrible and inferior is a cheap, cliché and over-simplified opinion.

  17. I went to a seminar not so long ago on ‘Millenials in the Workplace’ and one speaker posited a theory that – due to the overnight success and stardom that reality TV contestants experience – millenials now expect a similarly quick advancement in their ‘normal’ careers…

  18. BlankPage

    Ice Road Truckers is awesome RTV!

    • But not “reality TV” in this sense, I would say. There have been programmes about people and their jobs for much longer than that.

    • morwoen

      The false sense of jeopardy that the producers create is hilarious though. Just before an ad break they’ll imply that major incident is about to occur, but then all that actually happens is that one of the driver loses traction for a 100m or so.

  19. Stephanie M.

    Thoughtful and relevant article. I’d love to see a follow-up based on more family-oriented shows (i.e., Supernanny, America’s Supernanny, My Cat from Hell, etc.) These purport to focus on ordinary people with ordinary lives, doing everyday things like trying to raise kids or care for pets. But as you mentioned, the highly constructed space, confessional nature of the participants, and intense editing of how people act, are still there. My question is, do these things look different in those shows than in competition or docu-soaps, and if yes, is it a positive or negative difference? For instance, is Supernanny more edifying than say, Keeping Up…Kardashians, or have the kids just been coached to behave perfectly once Jo Frost leaves? (I suspect it’s the latter).

    • SarahPhilip

      I think you’re right. Programmes about families or animals who need help are just as manipulated. They have to follow a formula so that, in this case, by the end of the show the Supernanny is shown to have improved their lives. Producers probably not only influence the kids to act up before and after her visit but also choose the worst examples of their behaviour before she comes and the best behaviour after she’s left.

      • Stephanie M.

        Agreed. I tend to think reality television preys on the worst examples of human behavior just to net ratings. Then again, dramas like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and etc. do the same thing. Even something that looks a little less exploitation-driven, like The Good Doctor, is not immune. Shaun Murphy’s autism is played for drama, and the featured patients never have common ailments. It’s usually some one in a million thing, or something common that mushroomed out of control, and can now only be treated through highly unconventional means.

  20. Reality TV has been entertaining on a number of occasions.

  21. I think that reality TV is the reason I watch the box less and less in real time, preferring to digitally record programmes I really do want to see, like good documentaries or the latest thriller.

    I recently bought a new TV and am wondering why I bothered.

  22. Earnestine Wu

    All that reality TV has done is to shine a light on unfortunate subjects, so that the viewer can sit in comfortable judgement.

  23. Anamaria

    For me, ‘reality’ TV is the vaccuous and banal concepts where participants are not present because of any particular and/or specific skill which they possess.

  24. Makes you think about how we follow similar approaches and dramatize our lives on social media!

    • SarahPhilip

      That’s so true. On social media you are your own producer and editor. You show a particular image of yourself. In fact, social media is connected to reality tv in many ways. The rise of reality tv parallels the rise of social media particularly with so many people discussing these shows on various platforms. What’s more, many reality tv stars extensively promote themselves on social media.

  25. Competitive reality TV seems the most interesting as it takes ordinary people and pin them against one another in a modern-day battle. Those elements of being exposed or going too far is what attracts me into watching all of them.

  26. nolarmade69

    There’s literally a show about this called “unreal”.

    • Exactly. I was surprised that it wasn’t mentioned. The first season is very well written and acted. It went off the rails after that.

  27. I’m guilty of reality tv watching if the right show is on, but this is definitely a new insight on what exactly goes on behind the scenes. You never really think of how it is edited to make it look more dramatic, just about what’s going to happen next; the editors must be doing a great job if this is how the audience is reacting!

    • SarahPhilip

      You’re right. As much as we might criticise editors for not showing us exactly what’s happening, they are great at their job. There are so many reality tv shows that get millions of viewers, especially compared to more traditional dramas.

  28. This is a very interesting article. I don’t really watch reality TV, mostly for some of the reasons highlighted above. Nonetheless, I believe that most people watching reality shows today are aware of how scripted they are and are merely watching them for the entertainment value. However, if they are not aware, I believe that articles like these allow them to be more aware. The show, “UnReal”, is a really good example that portrays how reality shows like the “Bachelor/Bachelorette” are manipulated and scripted, especially since the show was created by an individual who served as the associated producer for the “Bachelor”.

  29. It’s interesting how many people are still willing to go on a reality tv show when knowing these sort of facts about them.

  30. American Family (shot in 1971, aired in 1973) might be considered to be the first ‘reality’ TV show, so the genre is actually quite old. The first ‘big brother’ type show, certainly in the UK, was The Living Soap, filmed by the BBC in Manchester in 1993 and featuring a student house. The Living Soap featured many of the editorial techniques that are familiar now – telephone voting and ‘the diary room’ concept. It’s interesting to consider how the genre has both retained historic features and changed over time – although the changes seem to be relatively minimal.

  31. I liked the emphasis on editing. Assumptions: 1. that week’s show films actions from the previous week. 2. 10 people on the show and they are filmed for even just 8 hours day = that would come to 560 hours of video. Some of video shows multiple characters, so maybe 100 hours of video. The episode airs 47 minutes (subtracting ads). Even with all honest intentions, that would mean only .007 (47 divided by 6000 minutes) of the video taped time would be aired. And, as the author points out, intentions are rarely about honesty.

  32. I feel like a lot of people are drawn to reality television because it’s easy for us to immerse ourselves – it’s not necessarily far-fetched like fiction, but interesting enough for us to be invested and not find it boring like every day life. I feel like we can be satisfied watching this kind of TV because the peoples’ lives are eccentric and dramatic more-so than our own – but almost reachable so we’re not disconnected.

  33. I think something else to explore about the subject of reality television is the implications for the employment of creatives. Is reality television taking jobs away from talented actors, scriptwriters, comedians etc. and instead gaining free labour from “everyday” people?

  34. I was a fan of The Bachelor franchise for years (my not so guilty pleasure). However, I found that after watching he first seasons of Unreal (a scripted show that revolves around a fictional ‘bachelor’ like set) I could no longer take the ‘reality’ of the original Bachelor seriously. Since then I have not watched another season of The Bachelor/rette… the irony here is that seeing ‘the reality’ through the fictional lens of Unreal, destroyed my ideal of ‘the reality’ of reality TV :))

  35. danielleraffaele

    I enjoyed this succinct and relevant comment on reality TV as I agree it is on screens to entertain not inform.

    It is interesting – other formats, such as cooking shows, are increasing being spliced with elements of constructed reality. My family talk about this around the dinner table with reference to My Kitchen Rules Australia often. The drama emphasised in the show is almost shakespearean in nature with tragedy, conflict and comedy yet hardly any focus on the food… not to mention the typecasting of competitors (two Russian ladies dubbed the “Cooking Comrades” in the current 2018 series comes to mind immediately). Nonetheless, I think it certainly does wonders for ratings because who doesn’t love a little pinch of drama? – (no pun intended).

  36. I’ve learned to not credit the opinions (as much) of people who deny the value of reality tv despite not watching it. I loved this article, but think there could be a lot to be said for Survivor’s role in forming the genre as we know it.

  37. Great post. This makes me think of more controversial reality shows such as Wife Swap. Many previous participants of the show ended up publicizing how they were consistently told what to do and how to do it, which essentially defeats the purpose of the show.

    It’s a clever industry however, and I don’t think it will die anytime soon…

  38. Really interesting read! the power of reality TV is really a commentary on our society. We are so happy to consume without really thinking about it and in the case of the Kardashians and the Real Housewives there is something so fascinating about viewing how the ‘other half’ live. Call us lazy, but ever since the dawn of television, the easy-viewing nature of sitcoms was something we were drawn to. Sure, we’re living in the golden age of TV right now, but there’s no shame in enjoying a little reality television where you can just switch off and relax for a while. What’s the harm in that?

  39. Very accurate and well written! Such a good, thought-provoking read

  40. Very accurate and well written! Such a good, thought-provoking read !

  41. In my opinion, they see a combination of reality and manipulated reality. I think that most viewers understand this and either way enjoy these programs based not on whether or not they are factual, but as a fun and interesting distraction from every day stresses.

  42. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    The Loud’s might have been the first reality TV family shown in 1971. Eventually, the parents separated then divorced. Later the family claimed that through careful editing only the negatives were emphasized. I’m sure that as family members saw what made it to TV, they must have wondered what was the real them from what was the TV version of the real them. I wonder with reality show stars or contestants today if they step back and spend time repeating to themselves “It’s only TV,” so they develop a healthy dose of perspective.

  43. Uh, reality tv – the true embodiment of a heightened reality. It’s funny how you say that majority of the time we sit there debating whether what we are seeing on screen is actually real or not, because I can tell you that’s exactly what it’s like. I’m one of those suckers for Keeping Up and it’s a completely odd sensation when you are conflicted with believing what is presented and feeling like it’s all a gimmick of some sort. When we watch normal shows we know that everything that we are seeing is fictional and all the characters are fake – it’s honest in its dishonesty. But reality tv – everything seems on the hush hush, where they want everyone to believe it’s real, despite the evidence that certain reality shows are scripted or manipulated, and I suppose it’s our romanticism that fools us into thinking, for however brief the moment, that what I’m watching is in truth real. Will this stop me from binge-watching reality shows? No. Because I don’t watch it for the plot lines and the little orchestrated gimmicks, I watch them for those very few moments of truth that manifest between the lies, the ones that they couldn’t quiet buffer out.

  44. Munjeera

    I have never watched a reality show due to time constraints but would be interested to see how reality tv is manufactured. I have noticed though how Millenials are extremely savvy about conflicts in life and their group dynamics. I wonder if it comes from watching reality tv. How did Millenials get so smart? My generation (X) was slow to figure out relationship and family stuff.

  45. I think a great show (that is entirely scripted) that gives some insight into how scripted, manipulated, and controlled so-called ‘reality tv’ can be is UnReal. This show is just about how the producers orchestrate things to suit their own narrative for the ‘contestants’ and to play to the audience.
    I just can’t believe that most of what we see is real, because I can’t help thinking ‘who would act that way, when they have to live with this for the rest of their lives?’
    Sometimes it amazes me how far these things can go though. It is trash tv, and unfortunately, I am hooked.

  46. It is simple everyone loves gossip and that is the reason for the addiction. The same reason goes for the Wendy Williams show. It is also a type of distraction from our own reality.

  47. Monica

    Most times, there is very little “reality” in a reality tv show

  48. What I love about reality TV shows is the perspective I feel after watching these story-lines unfold. If i was able to cut and paste all the glorious moments of my life together anyone would be fooled into thinking I was living an outlandish life when that’s truly not the case. I am content in knowing that reality TV shows are the biggest irony of them all as the material we see barely reflects any relate-able kind of reality or realism.

  49. Yvonne Tapia
    Yvonne T.

    I believe “reality tv” really isn’t reality at all. No matter how hard producers, etc. try to promote a show as something real, it is not.

    If you take a look at social media platforms, sometimes you can see someone recording someone else without their knowing. It is when they realize they are being filmed that they may burst out laughing, and then react very consciously of what they are doing.

    For producers, shows’ creators, etc. to get the true nature of a person and their lifestyle, they must record them without their knowing. Then, they may ask for permission to air it. However, there is no doubt that it would be a very tricky process and probably require some legal action over rights, consent, and such.

  50. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    I assume none of it is real. I remember reality-show writers going on strike because they were not being paid as much as sit-com writers. So, writers on a reality show, writing for, what? actors, reading scripts. I think of it as a form of acting. It’s entertainment. Producers need the shows going long-term. I think this is a good opening article on reality shows which can lead to more articles exploring their endurance and impact.

  51. James

    It’s interesting to see how different reality TV is in other countries as well. You can watch a cooking competition show in the UK and it’s always much more subdued. It’ll focus on the cooking and the outcome of the competition, but the whole thing feels much more relaxed. Then you watch one produced in the US and the editing/ sound effects make it so much more dramatic. They’ll have the host say something, take a long dramatic pause and then use some musical sting and cut to a super close up of a bunch of the contestants. They really want to put you on the edge of your seat.

  52. msnfrd

    I appreciated the way you deconstructed different aspects of editing, production, etc. For competitive reality TV, one of the key things seems to be the choice of people in the first place. Watching shows like Big Brother and Survivor, I’ve often been struck by how much people are living, walking stereotypes. In some measure, it’s match the types of “characters” you want and let the conflict happen. to be heightened then by the many things you’ve discussed.

  53. For shows like Big Brother (US), I believe they would benefit from returning to a simple format with no added twists or powers. Too often do those twist inadvertently end up ruining the most interesting storylines of the season. In additions, Fans have long complained about these powers being used to bolster “production favourites”. Returning to the simple, HOH, Veto, eviction vote format for at least one season would be worth a try.

Leave a Reply