Un-Reality Television

by marhalt.

You probably watch reality television. This is not going out on a limb – around 30% of programming is now reality television of some type. That is amazing, in a way – 10 years ago, this type of programming was virtually unknown. Today, most of the top-rated shows on television are reality shows – from American Idol to Survivor to Big Brother to Jersey Shore, reality shows are the most important and dynamic segment of television today.

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Important. And Dynamic.

Reality shows are a bonanza for the networks. They cost half as much to produce as scripted shows, they don’t require writers, and they can effectively go on forever. They also allow for so much more product placement than traditional TV shows that sometimes, the product placement fees alone can pay for a significant proportion of the production fees.

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Sponsored by… NOT Pepsi

But everyone lives in reality. Reality is boring. And most reality show contestants have no appreciable skills. So how do you get people to tune in, week after week? The quick answer – manipulation. Reality shows are probably the most manipulative programming available today, and in some areas the reality producers have literally written new chapters in the book of manipulation. Let’s take some examples, (with my thanks to Dave, who’s been both a good friend and an executive producer for reality shows for almost a decade now!) and see how many you already knew!

– Casting. Most people know that casting is key to the success of a reality show. Pick the right people, and you’re already half-way to ratings gold. Big Brother, for example, has an extensive casting process, where potential roommates are screened and tested to see which ones will offer the best television. But it is a lot more subtle than just picking ‘extremes’ – much of the skill of reality-show casting directors is to pick folks which will provide good storylines. Casting directors look for contestants that could provide support different storylines – villains, friends, romances, drama. It is at this stage that producers look for the potential storylines that will keep viewers coming back for more, be it on the Amazing Race or the Biggest Loser. Casting is where the producers get the basic ideas and storylines that they will come back to all season – it is literally where the basic script of the ‘unscripted show’ gets written.

By the way, casting is a lot more than choosing contestants. One of the most important stepis to make sure everyone signs the Agreement, a 30+ page contract that not only makes sure that the contestants sign over their image and all rights to the production company, but most importantly makes sure that they keep everything about the reality show – filming, editing, etc… – completely confidential. The Agreement basically stipulates that if they reveal anything – anything, at any time – about the show, they are liable for damages – a lot of damages. The Agreement is the main tool that producers have to make sure that the secrets of their reality show remain secret.

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Sign at the bottom, please.

The best casting, of course, is when it is invisible. Cash Cab, for example, is a show on Discovery in which a special taxi prowls the streets, and if you’re lucky enough to get in, you have a chance to win some cash in a trivia quiz. Part of the attraction is that the cab looks like any other, and thus everyone in New York seems to have a slim but real chance to one day hail it. As it turns out, however, the Cash Cab contestants are screened and cast prior to entering the cab, and so your odds of simply stumbling into it are essentially nil.

– Editing. Most viewers completely underestimate the power of editing. Watch this clip, for example, to see how the exact same scene can be cut differently to make someone look like a hero or a zero.  Film is cheap – since directors can film thousands of hours of film, they can choose fragments and edit them together to create whatever story they can imagine. With thousands of facial expressions and days of dialogue, a skilled editor can create almost any storyline that he wants. In a typical reality show, a director will shoot 150 hours of footage for every hour that ends up on screen.

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“&#@# reaction shot!!!”


If all else fails, there is a technique called Frankenbiting – basically, cutting audio that was recorded separately into a scene. This way, contestants can be literally made to say anything that the director wants. Dating contestants, for example, can be asked who their favorite actor is, and then the footage can be spliced with another name to produce a completely different scene (a very popular technique with dating shows).

Another technique that is often hard to notice is using music. It seems trivial, but adding mood music (and some sound effects)  can change the entire interpretation of a scene. A couple is walking away, talking. Friends? Add in a romantic music, and fade the dialogue softly, and now they are lovers. A skilled editor can use music to change the entire ‘feel’ of a scene.

– Acting. The director of a reality show will often ask contestants to re-enact a scene. This will often be done because something happened off-camera, or because the footage the camera did catch was poor. But sometimes the director will ‘push’ the contestants during the enactment. A good director can entice contestants to exaggerate their reactions, or sometimes to simulate them entirely. Of course, some shows can take this idea to extremes and basically hire actors to directly ‘simulate’ reality. For example, Operation Repo, a show about repossession of cars and boats, shows repo men and the reality of their day-to-day operations. It is very ‘raw’, but it is, as the show very brief disclaimer states, “based on real events”. In fact, the show features actors who participate in scripted re-enactments. There is nothing ‘real’ about it.

On most reality shows, though, the producers do not develop an exact script. But that is not to say that the show is not scripted. One ‘writer’ on a reality show described it thus to theWashington Post: “We’re not sitting in a room writing dialogue,” she said. Instead, typically, “we write outlines, with beats. We write specific jokes. We contrive comedic situations and then we help edit them, and we go back and reshoot scenes to bring out the various stories. And sometimes we just tell the contestants you’re mad, you’re happy, whatever. Act that way. And if they’re not getting it, we feed them a line.”

There are many more techniques that we could discuss, but there are two conclusions that are worth highlighting. The first one, which deserves its own post, is that many of the manipulation techniques used in reality shows have been adopted to news media, where they have profoundly more impact. More on this later!

The other interesting insight here is that “reality”, for these shows, is analog, not binary. Rather than a dividing line that splits ‘real’ from ‘not real’, reality shows form a spectrum, from the absolutely faked and manipulated (e.g. Operation Repo) to ones that are almost entirely real (e.g. Amazing Race) and manipulation-free. A good illustration of this is Pawn Stars:

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Pawn Stars is a show about real pawnbrokers. It is a fun show to watch with a relatively rare feature – it is set in a real Las Vegas pawn shop, which you can visit, giving people a rare chance to compare the reality to the television show. If you do go, incidentally, you will notice that the store is clearly there, with real people bringing in objects, and the stars of the show really do work there. But, on the other hand, the store looks much larger on television, the traffic is mostly tourists who have seen the show, and about half of the real store is taken up with merchandise… from the show! So… real or manipulated?


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