The Reality Behind Reality TV


Isabelle McKenzie, Reporter

Whether it’s the latest catfight on “The Bachelor” or the next challenge of “The Amazing Race”, reality TV has viewers at the edge of their seats and eager as ever for the next turn of events.

However, reality TV, the acclaimed “unscripted” form of television, may not be as candid as producers let on. In fact, the unfortunate reality behind reality television is that it is portrayed more as a genre than an accurate description of the programs themselves. While reality TV shows may retain a basic level of truth, the truth is that they consist of more fake shots, staged dramatic moments and fabricated story-lines than expected.

So what is it that’s really keeping viewers glued to the couch and bingeing “Keeping up With the Kardashians?” According to a number of psychological studies today, there really appears to be a science behind the cultural obsession of reality TV.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Jana Scrivani explains that the intense connections that viewers feel towards reality stars often compensates for a lack of connection felt to the busy world around them. Scrivani says, “Every genre of television, but reality television in particular, gives us a false sense that we really know the people we see on the screen each week. This sense of having a personal relationship is amplified with the ‘reality’ label, even though we are well-aware that the reality piece is often greatly exaggerated. Modern life has us pulled in many different directions, and close ties between family and friends are at all-time lows. Over time, we come to see the folks portrayed on the screen as friends.”

With this in mind, picture the face to face interviews that reality TV shows arrange with their stars. Shows such as “Keeping up With the Kardashians,” “Dance Moms” and “Dancing With the Stars” orchestrate these interviews to appear as if the TV star is speaking directly to the viewer. From this perspective, it is easy to see how viewers may feel a close connection to those they see in the screen. Just like a friendship, viewers feel sympathy when stars face challenges or hardships and happiness when they meet success.

Former “Dancing With the Stars” contestant, Wendy Williams has alleged that the TV show’s one-on-one interviews with the camera aren’t as real and heartfelt as they appear. “They script what they want you to say,” Williams tells her talk show viewers. “I know this as a participant, OK. I’m reading, I’m like, ‘Wait, this is not how I’m feeling today, and I wouldn’t say that,’ I would tell the camera.” Williams adds that she feels she would have been in the competition for longer if she had given “a little bit more sassafras”. “Because that’s how they were writing my script: to be Angry Black Woman.”

Media psychiatrist and reality TV consultant Dr. Carole Lieberman explains that another aspect of our deep enjoyment with reality TV. Lieberman says, “We live vicariously through the experiences of the reality TV stars – from the safety of our own homes. We don’t actually have to risk our heart or our reputation when we vicariously live through the experiences of the reality show participants.”

Lynne Spillman, casting director of popular TV show “Survivor,” has said that “the show frequently casts models and actors as contestants on the show.” Though they still have to go through the rigorous casting process, it has been reported that these recruits are selected on account of unqualified candidates in a given year. Information such as this begs the question if “Survivor” challenges are as real as they seem, or if added theatrics come into play.

Psychologist Dr. Patricia Farrell’s research further backs this point. Farrell explains, “Most of us know that this isn’t real at all, and that [reality stars] really are all just playing roles. Remember when you were a child and you enjoyed playing house? This is the equivalent of playing house in a way with people on TV who aren’t there physically with you.”

Reader’s Digest says that reality TV producers often take clips and edit them together to sound like a single conversation. In situations such as this, conversations may be altered to change their initial meaning drastically. “It’s so common we even have a name for it: frankenbiting. If you see someone talking and then the camera cuts away to a shot of something else but you still hear their voice, that’s likely frankenbiting.”

The magazine also describes how reality TV producers often cast roles within their shows. In some scenarios stars are harshly persuaded into roles they do not fit. An anonymous source says, “I once had a woman cast as a villain who turned out to be the nicest lady ever. As producer, I sat her down and said, ‘Listen, you were cast in this role. If you want to make good TV, if you want the series to come back and make more money next year, then you need to play along. If you don’t, you’re going to be cut out entirely.’ It worked.”

Though there are some methods behind the filming of reality TV that contradict the truth, at the end of the day, experts agree that reality TV provides a fun escape from the hectic everyday. Sometime we need to see the never-ending drama of a lavish lifestyle, crazy competition, or the inside view of intense adventure to wind down at the end of the day. After all, sometimes it’s nice to forget about our own problems when even bigger ones lie on the screen.