How Real Are Reality Shows?
Mark Cronin (Founder & Producer) gives expert video advice on: Do reality show writers ever invent stories that didn't really happen?; How is 'reality' manipulated on reality TV? and more...
Do reality show writers ever invent stories that didn't really happen?
A lot of people ask the question, "How real is reality television?" and, "Am I watching something true or is it being made up for me? or, "Are they being scripted to do what they're doing?" Different shows have different levels of manipulation. Some reality shows are very heavily manipulated by their producers to the point where they'll pull a person aside and say, "Why don't you go in there are get into a fight with Suzie, because it'll make you a bigger TV star." Then they'll go in there and get into a fight with Suzie, and you'll see it on TV as a real fight. Some reality show producers do hardly anything at all, and they let events play out as they occur, and they try to tell you that story. Some producers are in between the two, where they might suggest that it'd be better if you got in a fight with Suzie, or they might interview you and say, "How do you feel about Suzie? Are you feeling like she's a bitch?" They use the power of suggestion. There are lots of different ways to manipulate reality shows and people, and different shows do it to different levels. My policy is to stack the deck properly ahead of time: cast well, make your set pieces interesting and create problems for the cast. Simply making someone the boss for the day is enough, usually, to get things going. You can do enough and not manipulate the cast so much that things start feeling fake. I feel like the home audience can smell it when a reality show feels fake. I feel like a reality show should do its best to deliver to the audience unpredictable real life as much as possible, because that's actually why they want to see the show. If the audience feels like they're watching something fake, they will reject you. The better reality shows are a lot less fake than the shows that are not so good.
Are reality shows edited to create fake stories?
There is a phrase we have in television called 'anything appeal' and what that means is that you don't want to find yourself in a situation of trying to tell a story that really didn't happen. It is really hard to do that. If two people are best friends in a reality show it is hard. You can make them enemies through the editing. You can make it so that every time you see one girl say that she doesn't like Brad, the producer can switch the name from Brad to Shu. The truth is that Shu is her best friend and you are digging a hole for yourself. It is the tangled web of deception. You can't continue the fakeness of the story. Generally, if you don't know what you are doing then you don't fake up a story.
Are reality show contests ever rigged?
It is against the law to defraud the American public and so it is against the law to present a contest to the American public and say that it is real when it is not, in the same way that it is illegal to tell someone that your little pill cures cancer. It is illegal to say a person answered this question correctly and they really didn't, or this person just won over all these other contestants because they were the smartest one, when really they were the ones that were being coached. All of that is illegal; it is fraud. In the entertainment business, when you are saying to the reality show audience, "This is a real contest and it is a fair contest and the winner won on skill and knowledge" they really better have done that, or else they could be sued or prosecuted.
How do networks ensure reality show competitions are fair?
In terms of game shows and reality shows, there are a lot of precautions taken to make sure they stay fair. There's a division of the network, probably, called Standards and Practices. They usually have a representative on the set that watches everything, that randomizes the questions that get asked. The producers want an entertaining show. The truth is that their incentive is not a fair competition. Their incentive is: "Was it fun? Was it interesting? Was there a tie that was broken at the last second?" They would rather it was the most exciting possible outcome every time, which as we all know in real life is impossible. If you're really a fair competition, you never know, somebody might run away with it in the first two minutes. You just have to live with that, the same as with a football game. To answer the question, the reality show producers are pushing against their inner nature to make the show fair, and they're usually held in check by outside forces, like a standards and practices department, or a lawyer on the set, or other things that are there put in place to protect everyone from an illegal or fraudulent contest.
How is 'reality' manipulated on reality TV?
I think it's pretty much acknowledged that they're telling, in general, a true story on a reality show, but there is a lot of creative leeway with the editing, with how you amp up the emotion of the story that you're telling. This is not just through simple things like music, but also through a careful choice of interview bites, even manipulation of interview bites to help tell the story. When we produce the reality shows, we don't just let people sit in front of a camera and decide what they want to say and do, because it would be actually like taping real life, and it wouldn't be interesting. What we do is we set up a situation where the people have to perform, basically. For example, we'll give them a challenge that you must beat this other team at this game or else you will be eliminated tonight. Once you set that up, you put things in motion. It's something they wouldn't do normally. If we just put cameras on people they wouldn't compete normally in silly little games and obstacle courses and photo-shoots; they would just sit and talk to each other. Instead, we basically force the hand of action and we map out a path or an obstacle course of tasks for these people to accomplish, using all kinds of different methods: either they want to win money, or they want to be America's next top model, or whatever it is - there is some reason to keep propelling things forward on a reality show.