Reality TV Basics
Reality TV Basics
Mark Cronin (Founder & Producer) gives expert video advice on: Is reality TV a new phenomenon?; What were the first reality shows?; How popular are reality shows? and more...
What is 'reality television'?
To me, reality television is the portrayal of real life, in some way, in some unscripted way. The closest thing to reality television is documentary. What a documentary is to films, reality television is to television. I guess that's the easiest way to say it. Although all of reality television, and to be honest with you, all of documentary work, even in film, is manipulated in some way.
Is reality TV a new phenomenon?
Reality television has been around literally since the birth of television. The earliest forms of television were game shows, talk shows, and panel shows, where people came on the programs. People don't really count news as reality television, but anything that's showing your life and recording as a real event can be construed as reality television. It's really anything that's not fiction. It's any form of television that is not about made-up characters doing made-up things in a made-up plot. Most of television actually is reality television.
What were the first reality shows?
From the very earliest days of television, the object was to get a lot of programming for not much money. That's true today now on cable television, but in the very early days of broadcast television, they were under the same problem, that they weren't making a lot of money on advertising, so they had to generate programming at a low dollar. In general, the most efficient way to make television is through reality television, through putting a real person into a situation and seeing what happens, because it's a good way to get something interesting without having to plan it all out and make props, and hire script writers and directors and things. So, the earliest forms of television were reality concepts, and they were talk shows, game shows, hidden camera shows, and, very quickly, very clever people found ways to make interesting little games or formats where you could repeat the same set-up over and over again, but plug in new people and get a whole different show, and that became extremely popular. That's where game shows came from, because you could set it up once, you could build one set, you could have one set of rules, one basic script with little holes in it for where you put the questions, and you could do that show over and over again, but every time you put a new contestant in the chair, you would have a completely different show. That became a very efficient form of television and really took over in the early days.
What started the current wave of reality TV popularity?
I think the current wave of reality television came from two simultaneous forces. One was the wearing out of a lot of the scripted genres. The sitcom genre was the main dominating force in television in the seventies and eighties and even into the nineties, and it became tired. It was too predictable. The sofa, the wacky neighbor, the stairway in the back: every sitcom started to look the same, and started to use the same kind of platitudes, line sequences, and format. Every sitcom starts with the family in one place. They all go through something crazy and then by the end, they're all in exactly the same place they started. It just got tired. Force number one in the current wave of reality television was that the sitcom became very tired, and force number two was there was a real need for inexpensive programming. There were no longer just three networks with all the money. Suddenly there were cable channels who needed programming. There were satellite channels, and now there's the Internet. There are so many different ways to get television that the need arose for lots more of it. Because it started spreading out, television became more democratic, and there was a need for low cost programming. You basically saw what you saw when television was first born: a push towards, "Wow! If we can just build one set, and have one set of questions and one script that I can just fill in new trivia questions to, I can do five of those a day, and 65 of those in three weeks, and that's an efficient way to do television." So you saw a resurgence in game shows and a resurgence in these reality contests.
Why are reality shows so popular with audiences?
I feel that reality shows are popular with audiences today because it is the unpredictable medium. The audiences will always love sports, because you never know who is going to win. With football, every year the same two teams will play each other, every year the players even might be similar from year to year, but it's still breathtakingly exciting to me, because I don't know who's going to win and anything can happen in that particular game. Reality television delivers on that level, which is that it is not predictable like a sitcom, or even like a crime drama. On CSI, they are going to figure it out. In reality television, you don't know that. You don't know what's going to happen. Who's going to be portrayed, what's going to fall apart, who's going to cry, who's going to laugh, who's going to be friends. It's almost impossible to predict the outcome of a reality television show. To that extent, I think they are very popular because they satisfy the audience for that need for the unpredictable.
How popular are reality shows?
Reality television has come to dominate our schedules now. They are low cost to produce relative to dramas and comedy, because their ratings are at least at the same level as those things often do or sometimes higher. The highest rated shows of all at the moment are reality television shows. Because they're cost-effective and ratings-effective that's a win-win. You're going to see reality television on television for a very long time.
Who are some of the most influential producers of reality TV?
The pioneers that I look at in the modern age of reality television are Bunim & Murray who created The Real World, which really was one of the first of these social experiment type reality shows. That was then taken a little farther by Mark Burnett, who I believe was the pioneer of the big competition show. He drew on what Bunim & Murray started, which was a social experiment idea. I can take real people, force them to live together, and get interesting television. But what if I made it worse for them - What if they were starving? What if they needed to rely on each other for food? What if they needed to rely on each other to compete with other tribes? He brought all that stuff into reality television. The other thing he brought to it, that he still does better than anyone else, is an epic feel, a cinematic feel to reality television: beautiful setting, beautiful photography, beautiful B-Roll, which is the little bits that we see in between the scenes. He photographs them gorgeously, with time-lapse photography, done on film - nature photography - and he throws that all into the soup, with the most basic of human conflict - man against nature, man against man, and created Survivor.
What was the impact of 'The Real World' on reality television?
This idea of doing a social experiment reality show with people, and putting them in some kind of weird situation, or live in a fish tank, or live on an island, was pioneered by Bunim & Murray. They said, "We could make a soap opera out of real people just trying to be roommates." It turns out that the difficulty of bringing different people together to become roommates, almost like freshman year of college, is interesting. It's always interesting to see people figure each other out, get to know each other, make friends, make enemies, try to figure out a bathroom schedule, work out who's leaving stuff in the refrigerator, etc. It turns out being roommates creates a lot of conflict. That early reality show, The Real World, was basically the opening point for all the reality television that has come since.
What was the impact of 'Survivor' on reality television?
Survivor is really a pioneering show. It really blew up because it was the first of the network shows. The Real World, the pioneering show, was on MTV. But it doesn't have the same audience level; it doesn't have the same panache. When CBS did one of these shows and it was such a hit, that's when things really exploded with reality television. Mark Burnett is still to this day the gold standard of reality show producers, in my opinion. He handles the biggest budgets for his shows; I think he has the most consistently high rated network shows and he has also proven that he can do it, not just in Survivor format, but also in The Apprentice format and other things that he has created very successfully.
How does reality TV differ from documentaries?
I think when somebody refers to documentary versus reality television, I think that the people doing documentary are trying to keep to some kind of journalistic standard, I imagine. The truth is that it's not that black and white. If you're trying to make an entertaining documentary, you are probably manipulating the story a little bit so that it's entertaining. You're either compressing the time line a little bit or you're amping up some of the emotion, even with music. Even adding music to something can enhance its emotional impact, and it's not journalistically rigid to be adding music. The news never adds music to their presidential interviews, whereas a documentary maker will. If we look over all that, the people who think they're doing documentaries are trying to adhere to some kind of journalistic portrayal of the truth, without interfering with what they're filming. When people do reality television, I think it's pretty much acknowledged that they're telling, in general, a true story, but there's a lot of creative leeway with the editing, with how you amp up the emotion of the story that you're telling - not just through simple things like music, but also through careful choice of interview bites, even manipulation of interview bites to help tell the story. Reality television is basically a social experiment more than a journalistic look at real life.
What are some surprising influences on reality television?
A big influence on my version of reality television is Howard Stern. He actually started pioneering on radio interesting entertainment out of whacked out celebrities and real people, doing social experiments on the radio. He then did some television projects that I was actually a part of in the early nineties, where we did some of that stuff on television and I really feel like, to this day, he is a big influence on pop culture and reality television in general. Many reality shows have been made out of little concepts that he's done on his radio show. Somebody heard it and thought that would be funny. For example, all the shows now, like Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? or a show I am doing called America's Most Smartest Model, are based on the idea that we always find it funny when Howard Stern would put some unbelievably stupid person on and then ask them very simple questions and watch them answer them wrong. It's just incredible. It's so much fun to watch.