The Reality of Reality TV

It seems that Reality Television is the only type of show produced in Australia. TV shows like My Kitchen Rules, The Bachelor, The Block, X-Factor and The Voice have become increasingly popular.  What most viewers don’t realize is the amount of construction which goes into producing a show like this. Just how “real” is Reality Television?

Firstly, the participants go through an auditioning/casting process in which they are selectively chosen based on their character. Once the contestants are selected to appear on the show, they have to sign a contract. So these contestants know what they are getting themselves into before the filming of the show begins. This is just the start of the staging process before the camera is rolling.

Reality TV might be real in the sense that in that the events actually occur without following a script as such. However, it is really not that different to filming a fictional drama. The events depicted on screen are unlikely to transpire without the presence of a film crew. This includes directing, cameras, lighting, sound, make-up, set design and more. There is a lot manipulation that goes into making an interesting 30 minute episode out of several hours of footage.

This brings me to editing. The editing process changes everything when it comes to “factual” video productions. It challenges you to question all the information presented as fact. Such is the power of editing that you can juxtapose two totally unrelated shots and imply that there was a conflict when the events didn’t even happen concurrently. Reality TV is a heavily manipulated form of storytelling not too dissimilar to fictional drama.

Here is a case study derived from David Rupel, a writer behind Reality TV shows:

“The first thing to realize is that the term ‘unscripted’ is a fallacy. No, we don’t write pages of dialogue, but we do create formats, cast people based on characters traits, and edit scenes to tell a powerful, intriguing tale.”

From a writing point of view, most reality shows fit into one of two categories. There are shows that have very little structure, where everyday events become the stories. On shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, The Osbournes, Jersey Shore, editors sift through days/weeks of footage to find compelling stories after shooting has occurred. These shows tend to have longer shooting schedules because you can’t predict when something interesting is going to happen.

Then there are shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race and The Bachelor which are heavily formatted, where events are planned before shooting begins. These shows tend to have much shorter shooting schedules. Two to three days is typical to create a one hour episode.

Reality TV in the first category shows how what you see may be “real” but can be untrue as Rupel explains:

“When I worked on Bug Juice (a show for Disney Channel about kids at summer camp), we faced a major problem with our big boy-girl love story. After weaving the storyline through nine episodes, we were caught flat-footed when our boy Connor had the nerve to dump his girl, Stephanie, off-camera! We had enough interview bites to explain what happened, but we needed a good visual to make it work. If you catch a rerun of the show, you will see a happy Stephanie obliviously bounce up to Connor, who solemnly takes her hand and leads her off, as his interview bit ex plains he needs to ends things. With the help of a tender music cue, it turned out to be a touching and bitter-sweet end to our summer romance. The reality: Steph walked up to Connor, gushed about his Adidas T-shirt and they headed off to have lunch. We used the interview bites and music cue to shape the otherwise innocuous scene to approximate the reality that we failed to shoot.”

Remember all of this the next time you watch a Reality TV show.


Hampe, B. (2007), 2nd ed., Making Documentary Films and Videos. Holt: NY. pp 20-22.

Image comes from another interesting post on Reality TV:
Reality TV Is Manipulating You More Than You Think