When The Real World debuted in 1993, its name practically begged people to make fun of the show’s veracity. The typical, spectacularly witty critique went something like, ‘Oh, attractive people living rent-free with camera crews following them – that’s real!’
Incredibly, 13 years later, we’re still hearing the same complaints, despite the genre’s evolution since then. In that time, producers should have both educated the audience about how this sort of entertainment is constructed and, by being true to the documentary roots of the genre, earned the audience’s trust.
Instead, far too many have betrayed both viewers’ trust and the origins of their art form.
There is a degree to which reality TV can never be ‘real,’ whatever that means, because so much work is involved with filming people’s lives, never mind turning that footage into entertaining, television-ready segments. That’s true whether the show is taking place in an artificial context (Survivor, Big Brother) or in someone’s real life (Laguna Beach, The Real Housewives of Orange County).
Despite everything that’s necessary to film a reality television show, the production should still allow the cast to be free to exist in their world. With that freedom, the environment, the cast, and the format will give birth to drama that will capture the audience’s attention and make everyone involved rich and famous.
The problem, of course, is that not all formats are brilliant ideas, and not all casts make television magic when they meet each other. Sometimes the results are coma-inducing, and that’s a tragic waste of both money and talent.
However, what has been even more devastating is the response to the possibility of failure. Instead of working harder to develop show ideas that are creatively interesting, some producers have stopped trusting their own formats and their casts, and instead have decided to play Cristof, the manipulative producer in the film The Truman Show.
Cast members on some shows, for example, are instructed to sit down and have conversations about specific topics. The results are awkward and weird because the participants aren’t actors. Some reality shows reconstruct scenes that cameras missed or ask their non-actor cast members to play make-believe. Worse, some editors are told to manipulate storylines or create drama that never actually occurred by using clever editing techniques.
For many viewers – particularly those who obsessively watch a show, connect themselves to an IV feeding tube, and then dissect every moment on message boards all night long – these sorts of manipulations detract from the experience because, generally, they are very obvious. And when they aren’t obvious, the eventual revelations about their existence can hurt ratings when viewers realize they were deceived.
Coaching contestants, asking them to behave abnormally, recreating scenes, splicing audio – none of it is necessary. Ultimately, it’s all a product of impatience, incompetence, or laziness. If the cameras don’t catch something as it happens, it shouldn’t be a part of the show, and if there isn’t enough drama, perhaps the format or the casting needs to be reconsidered.
The burden shouldn’t fall on cast members to protect the jobs of producers or network executives. If a cast is terrific at being snobby high school kids, they should be allowed to be themselves, not be asked to work hard at pretending to be snobby high school kids or recreating their snobbiest moments.
If spontaneous, engaging drama is the goal, there are two options: let it occur naturally, or script it and hire actors to perform. The latter is not reality television; it’s a sitcom or a drama, and should be labeled as such. The contract producers have with their audience demands that kind of honesty.
Audiences respond to reality TV because at its core are real human moments and emotions, and that’s what draws them and keeps them tuning in and talking about a show – especially when there are seven half-naked strangers drunk and making out in a hot tub that someone else paid for.