The premise is this: take a group of strangers and place them in a house outfitted with cameras and film their interactions 24/7. Or maybe instead of a house we abandon them in an exotic wilderness and film them competing with each other (and the elements) for a large cash prize. Or a rich family could agree to have a camera crew follow them around and preserve their daily squabbles with friends, family members, and neighbors all so the average person gets an idea of what it’s like to live the privileged life. All three of these scenarios fall under the collective umbrella of “reality TV”; a category that is somewhat of a misnomer. Reality TV is characterized by shows that feature regular people rather than actors and plot lines that are mostly unscripted and unrehearsed. However, to say that reality TV is a true reflection of (for lack of a better term) reality is a bit of a stretch.
Disregarding the implausible set-ups like living in a house cut off from outside contact or roughing it in the Amazon while competing for food or money, the reality TV genre strays the farthest from portraying actual reality in the way cast members and their social dramas are depicted on screen. The people who agree to participate in these shows realize that they will be on television, their antics broadcast for the entire world to see. There is a natural tendency to “act up” or “perform” when you know someone is watching you, and a television camera multiplies that tendency a hundredfold. Knowing that the spotlight is on them, a fair number of participants will affect some type of “made for TV” persona. Sometimes this persona is simply a reflection of what that person thinks the audience will like, but it can also be an excuse to act in a way that differs to some degree from their normal behavior. In the case of shows like Survivor or Big Brother, which are always referred to as “games” in which lying, cheating and backstabbing are integral parts of game play, people who are normally honest and trusting are thrust into a situation where they must alter the way they normally behave in order to succeed in the game.
It is also important to recognize that these shows are heavily edited; what the audience sees is but a fraction of the hours of footage the camera crew has captured. Through the editing process, the producers present the participants in such a way as to create entertaining viewing. This is where you begin to hear things like the “hero edit” or the “villain edit”. The producers have decided which characters (because at this point they pretty much are fictional characters) they think the audience will sympathize with and cut the film together in order to show them in the best light. Likewise, the designated villain is portrayed using footage that showcases their more scheming, dastardly qualities.
Even shows like The Hills or the Real Housewives series which profess to follow the stars through their typical daily routines have had some tinkering from producers. Although the shows aren’t scripted, they aren’t entirely spontaneous, either. Confrontations are generally staged to create the most dramatic effect possible and the sheer number of arguments these people engage in is a bit staggering. And isn’t it a little curious that they always seem to happen when a camera is around to capture every word? The producers’ hand in creating drama is also seen in the artificial settings. Survivor’s castaways and Big Brother’s houseguests are isolated from the rest of the world, meaning they literally cannot escape each other. Combine that with emotional stress and lack of sleep and the possibility of snapped nerves and heated arguments is much more likely.
Seeing as most networks have at least one reality TV program on their schedule, it would appear that even when offered scripted dramas with famous actors, the public will readily tune in to shows chock full of regular people. Yet looking at a reality TV program and saying it is a true reflection of what life is “really” like is false. When it all comes down to it, reality TV, like any other television genre, is designed to entertain. The editing team has to whittle multiple days’ worth of footage into an hour-long program that is going to keep the audience interested and willing to continue to tune in. The easiest way to do that is to exaggerate the interpersonal drama. In real life, most of us don’t face as much conflict, or to such a degree, every one-to-three days as depicted on these shows. Reality for the most of us is ordinary, humdrum routines of work and chores that wouldn’t entertain anyone. With that in mind, the true “reality TV”, then, is in the dull segments left on the cutting room floor.