Are reality shows fake? It’s a question that has been asked since the genre first gained popularity. While it is true that most reality shows are not completely unscripted and spontaneous, they are also not entirely scripted and planned. There is a middle ground where the events are carefully planned and edited to create a particular effect or story line.
This is not to say that everything on reality shows is fake, but it is important to remember that what we see on television is often not the whole story. For the post, we have spoken to members of various production teams and contestants who have been part of the show to tell you the behind the scenes secrets.
What reality TV shows are actually “real”?
All reality shows are first and foremost TV shows. The presence of cameras will impact the way people react, and there is a production company to make sure there is action.
Sometimes they will manufacture drama by asking leading questions. Other times they will pose a hypothetical question to get soundbites. Often the production teams behind the scenes will have a major role in deciding who goes home. While the on camera “Celebrity judges’ are just there to read decisions and be on camera talent.
In 2022, I am unaware of any show that doesn’t have some level of intervention from the producers behind the scene. Some shows are far more true to the fairness of the competitions while other shows have steered away from calling it a competition due to how the games and rules will change throughout the season.
In my honest opinion, the closest to a true reality show would the the Great British Bake Off. It has a set format with very few twists. The top prize is a cake plate, and while the participants may act differently because they know they are filmed the production team and judges take great effort to have a level playing field. Also, the challenges are set and known before the season starts as contestants have reported needing to submit all of their recipes and ideas prior to the first episode.
In terms of shows that are the most scripted, I would look at the shows that just seem to have crazy twist after twist from the competition side. The twists allow the production team an easy way to influence who is staying and who is going. In the non-competition side, I feel many of these are produced to the point of having manufactured storylines. They may be based on real events, but dialogues, scenes and many of the filmed interactions are planned in advance. Additionally, many of these fights are captured from different angles, and may take multiple takes just to get the best shots.
This doesn’t take anything away from “Reality shows”. It just means they are less about reality and more about a show where the person on screen is playing themselves rather than a completely different character.
Are reality shows scripted?
Most reality shows are not scripted, but the production team does have the ability to influence the on screen talent to say certain phrases that can be used as soundbites.
There are many examples of people who’ve been on shows saying that the producers will do an interview with them and ask leading and hypothetical questions and then use their responses in a context completely separate than they were thinking.
They can manufacture drama this way by asking a contestant “How would you react if person XYZ were telling people to vote for you?” Person XYZ may be totally loyal and a true blue person, but the producers will now be able to capture a sound bite showing either mistrust or anger towards the other person.
On screen talent also quickly wise up to this and understand that they are being led to create clips that can be edited in.
One of the best talents someone who wants to be an “Reality TV Star” can have is the ability to take prompting and create catchy one liners. Being memorable and easy to work with is huge.
When a contestant just has a unique way of looking at the world with witty dialogue, the producers will spend time with that person because it will lead to usable footage.
I’m sure we can all thinks of seasons of Survivor or our other favorite shows where someone just blends in the background, and they get very little camera time with minimal confessionals.
In some cases, this is because the person isn’t vital to the overall story arch, but in other cases the person may have been really hard to work with or simply boring in the 1:1 videoed confessionals.
Is drama in reality competition shows edited in?
Drama in reality competitions is absolutely edited in after filming. The production team may have more than 100 hours of footage for each hour that is broadcast. This gives them many options for conflict and many angles to take in any given scenario.
For many reality contests shows, the outcome is known by the production company and the on screen talent before any editing has started.
This allows the editors to craft an overarching narrative. It allows them to find key points in that person’s journey and make sure that is seen by the viewers at home.
The best example of this is Rick Devens from Survivor Edge of Extinction. This season they spent an absurd amount of time talking about and showing exile island. It was very annoying for me to watch, but my family immediately guessed that someone would return from exile and they would be a major player.
Additionally, we also felt like Rick was getting a lot of camera time to get voted out so early. This led us and many other people to this Rick would be the overall winner of the whole season.
He ended up leaving in the fire making challenge when the immunity winner, Chris, chose to make fire against Rick. I believe he felt that if Rick made the final tribal that he would win so the only way he could guarantee that he didn’t sit across from Rick in the final 3 would be to take him out himself. Should he fail, he wouldn’t be at tribal council anyway, but that didn’t matter as he was playing for first with a fire making when or fourth with a loss.
Is drama in reality non-competition shows edited in?
Drama in reality competitions is edited in after filming and often before filming even begins. The production team will have key plot points, and they will have interactions where the main person will have a dialogue (or confrontation) with another cast member.
The time, location and people around may be all selected for specific reasons. This could give the people who are volatile a chance to throw things, storm off or using someone else in the area as a prop.
When it comes to the HGTV shows, the drama is often totally manufactured. In the cases that a true issue exists, it can be magnified to seem like a much bigger problem with more serious consequences.
While we all know that these “reality” shows aren’t 100% real, it’s important to understand how much is planned out and what techniques are used to create the drama that we see on our screens.
By understanding this, we can see through the “reality” and better enjoy these shows for what they are: entertainment.
What we see on television is often not the whole story
Camera crews will get hundreds of hours of film for a single episode which has just over 40 minute of airtime. This means that more than 99% of the film is left on the cutting room floor.
For competition shows there are many stories that can be told, but the producers will want it to feel cohesive so that the audience has a heroes journey.
For the non-competition shows, they are either a procedural where the same thing happens each week. As an example of this think about a celebrity cooking show where they teach you to make a dish or one of the many renovation shows on HGTV.
In each case, there’s a defined format to the show, and the entire episode is likely totally scripted and filmed with multiple takes to get the lines delivered perfectly. For the HGTV shows, there is also a selection on how they choose to end the show.
After the great recession in 2007 where so many people lost their home, the fix and flip home shows now almost always have a positive spin where the person makes a profit or has a lot of offers.
I remember in the mid 2000s, I would watch some home repair shows where the owner would just totally botch the flip and lose money. On those shows, it was more of a guess whether it would workout or not, but I can’t recall the last time I watched a show like that.
I think the audience is less interested in that and just wants to live in a world where every flip turns a profit. It’s like watching a movie where the hero wins.
If we watch someone invest their life savings and a lot of their money into a property only to fail, it leaves the audience with a dissatisfied feeling. For this reason, I feel many of the home renovations shares are even more fake than others.
I spoke with an executive with a company who supplied products for many of the major home renovation and building shows. He would get a call from the production company on his personal number, and he would call the owner of the factory to get the items manufactured and shipped overnight.
It was a very one off process, and the production company had a list of 5-8 options they could choose from. They would be able to build a house in a few weeks, but the regular person watching from home would never be able to get items so quickly.
Another secret is that companies will often greatly discount or even give away merchandise for free simply to get the advertisement. The executive I spoke about early shared that his company donated hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to the various shows, but it resulted in huge spikes in their traffic when one of the episodes aired.
Also, remember these episodes don’t only air once, but there is a lot of value in the reruns.
Yes, reality shows are highly scripted. They are not pure snapshots into how the on screen talent lives or handles situations. They are not completely fair, unbiased competitions who are seeking to find the best in a certain field.
They are television shows with the goal of entertaining you. I’ve known many of the background secrets for years, and it does shape how I watch the episodes, but I still get great enjoyment from all the shows.
Have you ever been on a reality show or worked for a production company? If so, we’d love to hear your story and any tips you’d like to share with our readers.
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