Why Reality Television Isn't Real

It's not just the show creators but the participants themselves who have shaped the reality television genre. The stuff we call reality TV is now more accurately categorised as 'reality as we wish it was', replete with happy endings, edits and external validation.

I'm a fan of reality television.

I loved it back in the early days when you could try to pass it off as having an interest in psychology and I love it today when everyone who owns a telly knows how to have a media-friendly reality TV journey.

One thing that I've noticed through watching so much of the stuff is that the participants themselves have helped shape the genre as it becomes increasingly self aware. The stuff we call reality television is now more accurately categorised as 'reality as we wish it was', replete with happy endings, edits and external validation.

Of course, the extent to which this is true depends on your chosen reality vehicle. Big Brother's live feed was often an unruly beast. An element of narrative always persisted but mostly because socially driven cause and effect dominates most of our lives - who said and did what yesterday will lead into what happens today. Of course there was a smattering of editing because producers would be called on to select which cameras to screen at any given time but it wasn't enough to create pure heroes and villains (although the main edited evening shows were more than capable). With the live feed, quirks of normality kept slipping through. Hated characters might do something amusing or show some vulnerability for a split-second. Series favourites could be caught rolling their eyes rudely or revealing some hideous vanity that would be smoothed away in the evening edit.

The X Factor sits toward the other end of the reality spectrum stopping just shy of full blown character arcs and wading through a quagmire of personal growth, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, dead relations and triumph over adversity. The eponymous 'X Factor' is as much a byword for 'good backstory/sobstory' as it is for 'talent'. From the auditions onward contestants' speech is liberally peppered with "I promised my dead relative I would pursue my dreams," "This is to show everyone who ever put me down," and "I just want to put myself first for once".

In reality television as in life, it seems we prefer the edited version of ourselves - the one where the story on television plays out like the one we might secretly harbour in our head. We are good people, we just need a chance to show our inner wonderfulness and somehow that will be enough for us to reap endless rewards. That's fine when internal and external realities mesh but when they don't (and my goodness that happens a lot) the less than attractive byproduct is celebrity without talent and talent without grace.

Reshaping our world to accommodate our real desires is ironically also what makes reality television so fake. The lumps and bumps of real life can be smoothed away in the edit and all but forgotten in favour of a chosen narrative. Just look at The Bachelor - love can blossom more easily when a show doesn't let couples spend more than a few hours at a time in each other's company - nearly anyone can hold in a fart for that long - but it's harder to cultivate when the television crews go home and the couple are left to their own devices. I've often wondered how the first massive argument gets resolved without video evidence to help the happy pair apportion blame.

One solution is simply to never send the camera crew packing and its now that we come to the Kardashians.

Every episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians is essentially the same. Someone takes someone or something for granted until someone else intervenes. At the end of the episode amends are made and everyone learns a valuable lesson. Until the next week when we return to square one. In its arrested development it's closer to a cartoon or a sitcom than reality. The idea seems to be to live out a neverending fairytale celebrity existence on camera, protected from real reality by an incestuously close relationship with the E! network.

You catch glimpses of reality, for example when Kim stumbles against a chair or when Khloe keeps trying to start a sentence during a phone call only for the other person to keep talking over her by accident but generally the editing stick is applied with full force. That even applies to other shows on the channel - The Soup (another show on E!) is actually banned from mentioning Kim's sex tape - arguably her most real reality footage.

Editing to this degree, whether it's because the stars themselves choose to play a particular character during filming, or whether things are chopped up in post production, generally leads to a kind of two dimensional semi-reality populated by caricatures. One of the stranger results of that is that fiction suddenly becomes more realistic than life. Scriptwriters, directors and actors (if they're any good) know to leave enough of the knobbly bits of life in while reality shows don't seem to exercise the same restraint.

Take Gavin and Stacey. I imagine (because I ponder such things) that Kim Kardashian and Bruce Jenner could have had a similar car ride to Kim's wedding venue as Stacey with her uncle Bryn, both aware that despite being fortunate in having a father figure in their lives that they would have much preferred their real fathers to still be alive to see them married. But where Bryn and Stacey's scene was heartbreaking, touching and lovely, Kim and Bruce's would come up empty because weirdly the real people's characters are less fleshed out than the fictional.

There's a subtle acknowledgement of the fake reality/real fiction dichotomy in scripted reality. Shows like The Hills and The Only Way is Essex have sprung up with increasing regularity and openly admit to a certain amount of 'helping the story along'. Other shows, such as The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills have reality impinge on them flagging up the distance from reality - in TRHOBH's case it was via the suicide of one of the cast.

It will be interesting to see which way the genre moves next. For my money, I think reality television will gradually become openly acknowledged and defined as a particular type of fiction. Real reality will only ever emerge onscreen if we abolish things like contracts and waivers and human rights and start hiding cameras all over the place.

If real reality's what you're after, you're better off decamping to a coffee shop and people watching for a few hours.


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