The Reality of Reality Television: It's Here to Stay

Thanks to low production costs, outsize personalities and the chance to see ourselves reflected back, reality programming is now a permanent fixture of today's television landscape.

By Lesley Savage
|  Tuesday, Feb 26, 2013  |  Updated 6:16 PM EDT
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With "Survivor" back on screens in its 26th incarnation, stalwarts "The Bachelor" and "Biggest Loser" mid-season, and TLC's "Gypsy Sisters" and A&E's "Southie Rules" making their debuts, it's clear that reality programming is here to stay.  Amidst all the pranks, competitions and pratfalls, there's a formula that remains constant: Big personalities plus viewer empathy plus minimal production costs equals the continuous onlsaught of televised reality.

While the genre may still have an aura of modernity, it's worth noting that reality programming is in fact far from new. Well before TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras," Bravo's "Real Housewives" or even MTV's "The Real World," there was the British documentary "7 Up," the first of the innovative "Up" series—which followed the lives of fourteen British children starting in 1964 when they were all just seven years old. "The personalities of the people started to overtake the politics of it," says Michael Apted, who directed seven of the eight "Up" installments, including the latest, "56 Up," now in theaters.

What was intended to be a socio-economic study of Britain’s class system soon morphed into a show fixated on the personal lives of its subjects. Participants quickly became characterized as the "dorky divorced guy" or "criminal from the wrong side of town." And for that reason, it has long been considered the grandfather of reality programming. "It’s a very cheap form of entertainment," says Apted of the genre. "They show that the drama of everyday life can be appealing and watchable."

And cheap is the name of the game when it comes to reality programming. People shouldn’t underestimate how big a part the low cost of these shows plays in keeping the plethora of reality programming on the air. Even if a show is doing poorly in terms of ratings, especially compared to scripted shows, it makes more sense to them keep around simply due to the cost factor.

“It’s always been about product placement and cheap production costs; it’s never been about viewers. It’s about how little it costs,” reality expert and author of “Reality Bites Back” Jennifer L. Pozner said. “It can cost 50-75% less to make a reality show than to make a scripted show. And the scripted shows don’t come with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars from product placements like reality shows.”

Subway sandwich promotions or Pepsi placements aside, there is no denying it’s the drama that keeps the viewers coming back for more.

The cameras and audiences will like you better (or love to hate you more) the bigger your personality, and the bigger your risk of self-humiliation. Audiences know it and the participants know it. For those of us addicted to reality TV, we can’t get enough of the unspoken motto of contestants – go big or go home!

And big is certainly what the women in this 17th season of ABC's "The Bachelor" are going for. Why else - during the season premiere - would a seemingly professional woman literally fall on her face while attempting actual back flips in order to impress a guy she’s never met, or another be compelled to turn up in a wedding gown and veil offering up her hand in marriage that very second?

“People sometimes realize that if they don’t act in a certain way whatever their trope is, then they get fired, or they get no airtime,” Pozner says. “Omorosa [from the first season of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice”] knew how to play the game—she figured out that by stirring up trouble, there were suddenly cameras in her face.”

Another recent show that highlighted people behaving badly on camera was MTV's "Buckwild," which followed a group of West Virginia teens and twentysomethings partying it up down-South style. So much so that it prompted Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia to write a letter to MTV's president in which he called the show a “travesty” and claimed that the show's producers encouraged the cast to misbehave for ratings, saying: “You preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior…”

Coaxing? If any of those “young people” had ever watched an episode of "Jersey Shore" or "The Real World," then they already knew that the worse you act, the more attention you get. We don’t watch the "Real Housewives" for econ lessons; we watch it for the fights! We watch it for the tears! We watch it for the pure absurdity of it all.

Even producers of shows with a positive premise, like NBC's "The Biggest Loser" which helps dangerously overweight people get healthy, promote big personalities as much as physical transformation. When casting for the show, contestants must not only be medically obese, but they have to leave an impression. "They must be someone that the audience can relate to," says Dave Broome, executive producer and co-creator of "The Biggest Loser." "They must be memorable."

As for the notion of being wrongly portrayed or edited to highlight memorable moments of a less-flattering nature, today's viewers and applicants have an idea of how things work going in. We can no longer play dumb to the heavy-handed editing and storytelling that goes into these shows. It's the nature of the reality-TV beast itself—hours and hours and days and days of film must be boiled down and spliced together to create short, consumable, and juicy storylines.

"If you have eight to eighteen minutes to dramatize their lives—which in itself sounds absurd—then it's bound to be an objectification of them," says Apted. And it's up to the director and producers judgment, it's what they find exciting, he adds. "There are a trillion ways to cut the film, but it's my judgment, and I want to present it in the most dramatic way."

“Most of the manipulation happens through casting and editing, not turning a shy person into crazy person or Mensa candidate to an idiot,” says Pozner. “Even on a show like ‘The Bad Girls Club,’ don’t underestimate the power of sleep deprivation and too much alcohol. ... You have to poke and prod until people give you personality.”

But why? What makes someone go on national TV and make a fool of themselves in the name of love? Or bare their body, rolls and all, while getting berated, passing out and vomiting in front of millions? It's the hope of glory, a little bit of fame, and ultimately, our support.

According to Pozner, there are multiple types of people who go on reality shows, those seeking fame and money, and the few who naievely think it may just be fun. "Some put themselves through it because it’s a calculated risk as a stepping stone towards acting. There are people who know how to play the game, and there are people who let producers lead them, and then there are people who don’t care because they think they may have a chance at becoming the next Snooki.”

And we will continue to cheer them on. Regardless of their motives or misguided behavior. Because no matter how harshly we may judge, we see ourselves in them. "We all can identify with it," says Apted. "I relate it to my own life and my success or failure as husband or father, it's the drama of everyday life."

And what better way to escape the drama of your own everyday life, then by watching someone else’s on TV.  

Lesley Savage is a freelance entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Elle and The New York Times.

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