While any television viewer loves drama and tension, it's all the more interesting if these things are happening in the real world.

People, whether they are rich or poor, famous or anonymous, are fascinating to watch. In his television show for very young children, Mister Rogers showed his viewers short documentary films that showed people making crayons, pianos, or flying hot air balloons. From small children to grown adults, people-watching is a great pastime. This is what makes reality TV so infatuating to audiences. The cameras give the world an inside look at other people’s lives. They promise to show these people, these communities, as they truly are. However, when it comes to reality TV there is very little focus on reality.

One of the first, biggest celebrity reality TV hits was The Osbournes, starring heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne and his family. In some senses it was real. It really was the Osbournes doing those things, the house was theirs, and so were the many dogs. Yet, the events that we saw unfold, whether in the house or out in the world, were meticulously planned and produced. In part this was strategic, because they couldn’t just show up somewhere with a film crew. But it was also done to make the show more interesting, because producers felt that simply watching them exist was not entertaining enough. So where does the reality in reality TV begin and end? Let’s try to figure that out.

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Credit: Steven Bowler, Flickr


A Bit About Reality TV

To fully understand the phenomenon that is reality tv, we've broken down some important aspects on the subject below.

What Is the Difference Between Reality TV and Scripted TV?

When we talk about this stuff, we use certain shorthand like drawing a distinction between scripted and reality TV. Now, does this mean that scripted shows can’t show real events? No. Does it mean that reality TV is never scripted? Also, sadly, no.

The distinction here is less about the presence of a script and more about what sort of story they are telling. For example, Hulu’s drama about terrorism in the years leading up the September 11th terror attacks, The Looming Tower, depicts real events. Yet, they are fictionalized and presented as a drama. Liberties are taken with the truth, such that whole characters are invented out of thin air.

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On the other hand, an older format of daytime talk show popularized by the likes of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer present themselves as reality. They bring on real people to deal with real issues, and they speak their minds while out there. However, many of their outburst and zingers are scripted or, at least, heavily coached.

So, for our purposes, “reality TV” means shows that purport to show real-life people and events. “Scripted TV” on the other hand, is any fictional show like Game of Thrones, Law & Order: SVU, or sitcoms like “Mom.” Just by how the material is presented, you know that you are watching people playing pretend. What you may not realize is that many of the people you see on reality TV are also people playing pretend.

How Long Has Reality TV Been on the Air?

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The definition of reality TV we established above is very broad, meaning it includes things like game shows and documentary programs. From that point of view, reality TV has existed almost as long as the medium itself. In fact, the reality TV landscape of the 1940s looked very similar to today’s line-ups. There were talent shows, where amateurs performed for live audiences who voted for the winners. There were shows where convicted criminals were interviewed about their crimes and their sentences. There were improvised comedy shows, game shows, and Candid Camera which pulled pranks on unsuspecting civilians.

Reality TV as we think of it today, was born in the 1990s. A decade prior there were many attempts at shows that highlighted zany professions or exciting adventures. In 1989, during a strike by the Writer’s Guild, the show COPS was dreamed up. Camera crews just followed police on patrol, filming arrests and pursuits, but never anything deadly. Then MTV, apparently copying a Dutch program of a similar concept, created The Real World where young strangers lived in an apartment for a few months. Thanks to advancements in editing technology, they were able to let the cameras run all day and just edit what they needed into an episode. This spawned the current craze of reality TV, cementing it as a genre of television that will likely never go away.

Was It Reality TV Ever Real?

At the risk of getting too philosophical for a fun blog post about television, what is “reality” anyway? In this case, what constitutes an accurate depiction of real-world events captured by a camera? Because every single piece of reality TV, from the trashiest group of poorly-mannered protagonists to the highest-brow educational documentary, is a produced piece of entertainment.

It’s not a live-feed from a security cam, and the producers are tasked with telling a story. How closely that story matches reality is something that people have always argued about. Yet, in the past 25 or so years, a certain kind of reality TV has risen that is unconcerned with presenting their audience with anything real.

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One popular kind of reality TV show that pulls on people’s heartstrings are the home makeover shows. They promise to swoop in on some family in need of help and give them a professional renovation out of the goodness of their hearts. However, that’s not how it plays out.

Many of these shows don’t even spring for the costs of remodeling, leaving the homeowners with a hefty bill. They also will accept not just donated materials but volunteer workers, many of whom are not certified to do the work. The work is often not even inspected by local officials, because many of these shows don’t bother to get permits. The real story of these renovations are rarely heartwarming.

What Is the Difference Between Documentary and Reality TV?

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One area of interest for reality television are true crime shows. On cable, there are dozens of them, all of them real-life tales of murder (sometimes with reenactments). Another popular true-crime series recently was Netflix’s Making a Murderer, which is presented as a documentary.

You might be wondering what the differences between reality TV and documentary filmmaking are. It’s not that documentaries are automatically “true,” and you should watch them with a skeptical eye. Documentaries are meant to tell true stories, but the filmmakers often have an agenda of their own. For example, the Making of the Murderer series got its subjects new dates in court. This was not an accident.

Still, there are differences between telling a story about something with your own point-of-view and actively deceiving audiences. Documentarians take the facts and evidence that are available, using them to build and support their arguments. Reality TV that’s just looking to titillate, will exaggerate and outright lie just because it makes the story “better.”

Either way, if you watch a program about something that interests you, research it beyond the documentary or episode. The real details are almost always more interesting and learning about something from multiple sources gives you a more well-rounded understanding of it. Jersey Shore is not a documentary about kids partying on the beach. The house they live in, what they do, and how they behave are all directly related to the producers wanting to put on a show.

Does This Mean Reality TV Is ‘Fake?’

If reality TV doesn’t accurately reflect reality but isn’t fiction, does that make it something insidious? If it’s not reality, are the show’s producers and participants lying to audiences? In some cases, the answer is unquestionably a “yes.” Yet, this doesn’t mean that all reality television is bad. Just like movies or scripted shows, it all depends on who’s involved.

If the central premise of the show involves entitled people behaving like adolescents on bath salts, chances are it’s just disgusting theater. However, in some cases, the shows are painfully real. In fact, some say that the more real these shows are the more exploitative they can be. During the early part of the decade, cable networks saw a string of hits from reality shows involving personal tragedy. A&E cornered this market early with shows like Intervention, My Strange Addiction, and Hoarders.

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These shows brought cameras into the lives and homes of people who live in ways that many of us can hardly imagine. Hoarders, for example, saw film crews enter houses that weren’t just full of clutter, but health hazards like decaying animals, human waste, and rotting food.

Yet, in many of these cases, the help these folks got was real. They were paired with experts in these afflictions, and many did get help. Then there were shows like Celebrity Rehab. Dr. Drew may have genuinely tried to treat those patients to the best of his ability. Yet, one doesn’t need to be a doctor to know that the last thing a celebrity struggling with addiction needs is a camera shoved in their face 24-hours per day.

Realiy TV Tricks

Undoubtedly, what makes reality tv so intriguing is the absurdity of it all. Producers use a number of tricks to create hyperbole of situations.

Lying to and Humiliating the Guests

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Everyone’s favorite parts of those reality TV talent shows are the auditions, specifically when the hilariously bad singers or dancers take the stage. Any audience member must look at these performances aghast and wonder how they thought they were good enough to even try out. Well, the televised auditions are usually the fourth or fifth round of auditions.

That means that every William Hung and other goofy auditioner had to perform a number of times before facing the TV judges. So, they are either doing a comedic bit (being terrible on purpose for laughs) or some producer told them they were great, only so their humiliation later could be more complete. In fact, a number of shows look to humiliate their guests because it makes for better drama. The main way they do this? Booze, of course.

From dating and matchmaking shows to day-in-the-life series like Jersey Shore, alcohol (and possibly other substances) are encouraged by the producers. A former producer for the Bachelor said that the women in the house are served alcoholic drinks at all times of the day. This is meant to loosen their inhibitions, but it all too often leads to blow-us, arguments, and emotional responses. Even though a lot of these shows are actually heavily scripted, the looseness provided by light intoxication makes the dialogue and emotion of the event seem more intense, if not more “real.”

Unreal Settings

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There were two very popular survival shows on cable at the same time. There was Surviorman with Les Stroud and Man vs. Wild hosted by Bear Grylls. Stroud would go to an exotic locale, armed with cameras, and set up his own shots while he survived in the wilderness. Grylls seemingly did the same thing, but his survivor stunts were often staged. While Grylls has an impressive résumé, he is often criticized for “faking it,” at least compared to Stroud. Yet, there is no question that Grylls’s show was faster-paced and more entertaining, because it was more heavily produced. So, while Grylls really did drink water from a giant piece of elephant dung, he didn’t actually have to.

Reality TV will often do this, present scenarios for their characters that aren’t actually what they seem. The environments on Survivor, the mansions on the matchmaking shows, even the homes of certain day-in-the-life reality stars aren’t their homes. It’s all a façade, which is fine for television but a little disingenuous when what they promise is “reality.”

For example, the MTV reality jewel of the early 2000s, Cribs, often featured celebrities in rented mansions. This was hilariously subverted by rapper Redman who hosted the show’s camera crew in his actual house. It was a mess, there were sleeping people on the floor, and is the only clip of this show to survive its cancellation in the national consciousness. 

Wardrobe

Credit: MTV

In today’s world of the internet, it seems like nothing is off-limits. You can post photos of corporate logos, repurpose artistic works, and pretty much anything else without asking permission. However, television is governed by older, different rules. In some cases, merely showing the logo of a bottle of water in a camera shot gives the company license to sue for use of their intellectual property.

So, whether reality TV was dedicated to truth or merely all an orchestrated sham, they would have to carefully curate their participants’ wardrobes. This usually means that no corporate logos or other copyrighted images or music can be used. This means that every time Kim Kardashian listens to her husband’s music on the show, the producers have to get clearance from his company to air it.

Of course, there is another reason successful reality shows are careful to make sure products and logos are carefully hidden. Promotional considerations are often paid by companies to ensure that their products are on display. This means that every bottle of water in the Big Brother house comes from the same company. If you see a Real Housewife or some other such reality TV character wearing something with a logo on it, chances are the show’s been paid for that. This is a way to offset the losses in advertising revenue since the advent of the DVR and fast-forwarding through the commercials. If you watch the credits closely, you will see the names of all the designers and products used in the show.

Scripting Scenes

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As mentioned above, in scripted television, writers come up with the dialogue for the actors to deliver, usually over multiple takes. In reality TV, this is not supposed to happen. The reactions and conversations we hear are supposed to be spontaneous and real. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Some scenes are loosely improvised.

The old VH1 reality show about Hulk Hogan, his kids, and his now-ex-wife was almost completely staged. In his memoir, Hogan wrote that producers would set up storylines based on things that had or “might” happen in his family. Then, they would improvise their conversations around that theme. This is how a lot of those day-in-the-life shows work, particularly because keeping union-allied crew on-set 24/7 would be incredibly costly.

Yet, while planned and staged, this isn’t necessarily “scripting” the events. However, the confessional portions of reality TV shows are almost always scripted. These are usually done after producers know what storylines they are going to use for an episode. Then they and the writers on the crew will write the confessional for the show’s participants to say.

They will add snarky lines, jokes, and more to these supposedly off-the-cuff personal confessions. Other moments that are often scripted are “ceremonies” in the competition shows, especially when someone is being “voted off” the show. The reactions from the competitors might be somewhat genuine, but the Bachelor is not coming up with the stuff he says spontaneously.

Deceitful Premise

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Some reality TV shows are so unconcerned with reality, that the entire premise of their show is a complete fabrication. For example, the infamous matchmaking show starring internet celebrity Tila Tequila, who says she identifies as bisexual, featured men and women competing for the host’s affection. Yet, unnamed sources in entertainment publications alleged that the host was, at the time, a self-proclaimed heterosexual. Not only that she had a boyfriend, apparently. The winner of the show, a man named Bobby Barnhart said that after the show ended, he never saw Tila Tequila again. She didn’t even give him her phone number.

Other shows are less overtly deceitful, but still have misleading parts to it. Adrienne Curry was the first model to win the America’s Next Top Model show. However, the contract she won was allegedly for much less work than originally promised.

One show that does this right, actually, is So, You Think You Can Dance? The show is a competition and the top dancer gets a gig. However, since the show started a number of dancers who didn’t win have found careers on the show. They come back as judges or choreographers. Some find jobs at other shows, such as former contestant Twitch who now works with Ellen DeGeneres. Sure, winning the show is important, but they aren’t going to waste all the talent they have at their disposal just because some people vote them off the show. 

The Magic of Editing

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Pretty much every reality TV show has had some version of the following scene. There is a confrontation brewing amongst the principal characters, and then one of them says something shocking. Before anyone replies, the camera cuts to the shocked or hurt expressions of every other character.

Chances are, those reactions they just showed the audience were not actually the reactions to what was said. When it comes to editing these shows, there are almost no scruples. They will fabricate whole conversations culled from the hundreds of hours of footage they have, all in service of telling a story. And they don’t anything like the truth get in the way of that. 

To be fair, any reality show or documentary needs to be heavily edited. Anything else is just a livestream, meaning it would be fairly boring. Still, there is a difference between editing footage to fit a show’s runtime and editing it to change what happened.

From fights to romantic liaisons, almost none of what you see on a reality show necessarily happened in the order you see it. A good way to watch for this is the cast’s wardrobe, their jewelry, or anything else that might indicate continuity. Also, if a person is talking and the camera cuts away from them but you still hear their voice? That’s a clear sign that some editing trickery is going on.

What is the Effect of Reality TV on the Business?

As mentioned above, Reality TV’s key appeal to television networks and streaming services is its low production budget. An entire episode of Dirty Jobs probably cost as much as a single location shoot on the ABC drama The Rookie. At the dawn of this new age of television, many feared that networks would oversaturate the market with these shows because of that cost savings. Some feared that great, scripted television would disappear.

However, the opposite happened. Scripted TV, from the broadcast networks to the streaming services, is better than its ever been before. The filmmaking is more cinematic, the actors are fantastic, and the stories are bold and exciting. In a way, cheap reality TV hits can subsidize a low-rated, critically-acclaimed show like Brooklyn 99 or others. There are few reality shows today that can garner the kind of cultural buzz as Westworld or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

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Yet, the idea that reality TV may go the way of the western someday is equally silly. With the need for more content greater than ever, providers will need reality TV to tide over viewers during the wait between seasons for their hit scripted shows. Streaming services also offer great outlets for reality TV, like documentaries, that don’t have a place on the networks.

For example, Disney is reportedly developing a series about the making of Star Wars movies, using copious amounts of on-set footage taking during filming. Instead of a 90-minute DVD feature, this could be an hours-long peek behind the curtain of making movie magic. Who knows what other kind of new, exciting ideas reality TV producers will come up with for streaming services hungry for series?

What is the Effect of Reality TV on the Audience?

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Talking about how a certain type of media affects an audience is always fraught with peril. You risk sounding like a nervous grandmother. Yet, there is one glaring negative effect some reality TV has on its audience. Anything that actively tries to deceive people or misinform them is regrettable. You don’t want to walk away from any media experience knowing less than when you went into it. Still, lying to their audience isn’t the only problem with reality TV. There are some out there who believe the reality TV isn’t just making its audience dumber, it’s making them actively meaner.

There are a lot of examples of this, from Real Housewives behaving monstrously to shows that openly seek to mock their subjects. However, the best example of this is Simon Cowell from 20 years ago, compared to Simon Cowell now. When he first showed up on our television screens, Cowell was a cold and cruel man. People would nervously approach him, taking a huge risk by performing, only to be mocked whether they deserved it or not. And audiences adored him for it.

Yet, today, Cowell is much different. On America’s Got Talent as a judge, he’s sweet, warm, and encouraging to everyone who comes onstage. This sort of tonal shift seems to be happening across the genre. Perhaps instead of reality TV making us meaner, the audience made reality TV a little kinder?

How to Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Reality TV

The saying goes that there is no accounting for taste. So, if watching the fabricated nonsense that are matchmaking shows or day-in-the-life reality shows gives you joy, keep at it. However, if you are looking for quality reality TV where the trickery is kept to a minimum, you have to look for it. Instead of worrying about this, try to manage your expectations for each show you choose to watch.

This means accepting what you’re seeing for what it is. No, the Kardashians didn’t just spontaneously go to the go-kart track. But, if you enjoy watching Kris, Kendall, and the rest of them zip around laughing their heads off, more power to you. Same goes with matchmaking shows. You’re not watching people fall in love, but rather you are watching a booze-fueled improv soap opera.

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The best reality TV shows are those that try to document reality, educate the audience, and prioritize entertainment after both of those things. Shows like Cosmos, Planet Earth, and even more traditional reality shows like The Last Alaskans create drama but not at the expense of the truth.

Just know that if you learn something from any television show, your next step should be to do your own research to confirm it. If reality TV inspires people to learn more about the world and people around them, no matter what you think of these shows, that’s unquestionably a good thing.

What the Future of Reality TV Might Hold

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Reality TV came at a time when both broadcast and cable television were looking to expand content but not spend too much. As mentioned above, the production costs for reality TV is nothing close to what it can be for scripted series. Yet, despite the viral video potential of the network talent shows, the real accolades in television today is going to cinematic, big-budget scripted series.

There is also the rise of streaming television to consider. While they do need content, their all-at-once delivery model for shows goes against the stalling, tension-building tactics of modern reality TV. Also, since many streaming services offer full 4K HDR video, their shows are meant to be more visually stunning than the usual reality fare.

Still, reality TV might find a place on these services. Comedians like Joel McHale, Michele Wolf, and others have tried to create comedic reality-based shows. The first two have seen their series cancelled already. Hasan Minhaj is currently doing one but there is no way to know if it’s a success and marked for renewal or cancellation.

Marie Kondo recently made waves with her “affluent hoarders” show about organization and tidying up. There are also competition-style shows, like the hilarious Nailed It which shows amateur chefs trying to make complex culinary creations. Yet, there seems to very little of day-in-the-life reality shows in the offering. However, documentary films and series seem to be growing in popularity. 


Reality TV can be harmless escapism, exploitative and hurtful, completely fabricated, or totally honest, but it’s up to audiences to figure out which is which.

In those minutes before movies when they show the trailers for upcoming films, everyone in the theater becomes a movie critic. We look with a skeptical eye and critique what we see, often harshly. This is how you should watch reality TV. Don’t let it ruin your enjoyment of the show. Just know that if something happens that seems unbelievable, it probably was a set-up. Whether you let that bother you or not is up to you.

Reality TV is not the news but, rather, just another form of entertainment. So, if it makes you curious about something don’t let what you watch be the end of it. Take that curiosity, learn about something, and better engage with the world.

What do you think? Is there anything important about reality TV that we missed? Let us know along with your thoughts, reactions, and experiences in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media if you enjoyed it!

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