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Is Reality TV Really Reality?

Nov 5, 2007
Part of the appeal of reality TV is that it offers a look into the lives of ordinary folks like you and me. No writers, no actors, just everyday folks using their strength and common sense. Why, we could be the ones up there on screen winning glorious prizes for outlasting our tribe mates or marrying a pseudo millionaire! But just how real is reality TV?

Not very, say some critics and observers. In fact, reality TV producers manipulate reality in several ways. Otherwise, the shows wouldn't attract the ratings they have. After all, who would tune in to watch people in their own homes living a perfectly average day?

The first way that reality is manipulated is that the participants are removed from their everyday environment. Whether they are marooned on an island or housed in a resort, they are fish out of water and their access to resources depends on the goodwill of the producers.

Second, the participants are placed in competition with each other. Only one person can win the grand prize, whether that prize is a cash reward, a television contract, or the love of another person. In order to stay on the show, contestants must face difficult challenges. Each show usually ends with at least one contestant being sent home. Thus the focus of reality TV is manufactured conflict.

The conflict is usually heightened by the selection of participants. Producers know that conflict means ratings, so they try to cast each show with people who are natural opponents such as an out gay man or lesbian and a homophobe or a strong, take-charge woman and a sexist man. Such pairings are almost guaranteed to keep conflict going and provide hours of arguing for the entertainment of viewers.

Finally, even with the controlled environment and the inherent conflict, reality TV shows must still be edited to create a 'storyline.' Editors sort through countless hours of mundane activities to find the moments fraught with tension and conflict. If two participants get along great for 99% of the day, but exchange sharp words once, it is likely the argument that you will see. Similarly if a participant says many positive things about another participant but adds, "I wish he weren't so controlling," you're likely to see only the complaint about the controlling behavior and none of the compliments that came before.

Careful editing can make smart people appear dumb, nice people seem like villains, and casual friends look like lovers.

Over and above these obvious manipulations, there is some question about whether reality TV producers go even a step further and try to manipulate the results of the competition. In 2001, for instance, Stacey Stillman sued the television program Survivor claiming that the executive producer had encouraged other contestants to vote her off the island instead of a player who was more popular with viewers. CBS, the network that airs Survivor, has vehemently denied these charges. Other series that have been accused of rigging outcomes include The Amazing Race, American Idol, and Big Brother. Even many of the staunchest reality TV fans admit to wondering if the outcomes are really as random as they are made to seem.

In the end, no one has ever been able to prove that the outcomes of these shows are fixed. One thing is certain, though. The situations in which the participants interact with each other are so carefully manipulated that they bear little, if any, resemblance to reality.
About the Author
HNE provides reality tv casting services and reality tv auditions for shows like Survivor, Biggest Loser, Amazing Race, Big Brother, Extreme Makeover, Fear Factor.
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