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Meekin On Movies On...Reality TV

The Unreality of Reality TV: An Opus

(Author’s Note: As someone who has worked on his fair share of Reality TV, I figured I could help explain the process that goes into making those sorts of shows)

(Second Author’s note: The third part in the editing pro-wrestling series is on hold until I obtain the hard drive.)


I’m of the firm belief that reality TV is the new soap opera. It’s also the new educational television. It’s also the new game show, geekshow, and travel show.  As the world grows and changes and new forms of media and entertainment obsolesce older ones, it’s becoming readily apparent that audiences crave “reality”. “Pawn Stars” may be about history, but it’s also about three tough-guys in Las Vegas. “No Reservations With Anthony Bourdain” may be a travel show, but it’s also about one tough S.O.B’s love of cooking, boozing, culture, and fun. “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” may be a vapid, banal, and ultimately pointless show, but it’s about four very real women who have very real lives and make very real news.

But how real is “reality”? Are Kim Kardashian and Co. secretly reading a script outline before heading to shop for clothes? Has Rick from Pawn Stars been told what he’s going to pay for a Civil War musket? Is Anthony Bourdain’s attitude a function of the production? Well, the question is complicated.

And I know the answer.

In much the same way pro wrestling becomes infinitely more fascinating once you’re “in the know”, Reality TV becomes a triumph of editing, cinematography, directing and perhaps most importantly, producing once you understand the process. It’s really easy to film a bunch of people doing things and call it a reality show. It’s incredibly difficult to coordinate meetings, locations, camera crews, and audio people and still give the audience the feeling that they’re a fly on the wall at a lunch between Harvey Pekar and Anthony Bourdain.

In what I hope will be a successful series of articles, I hope to educate, entertain, and explain the process that takes place when it comes to shooting a reality television show. I will hit on the history of the genre, the various sub-genres, and ultimately tackle the question of whether, by and large, the genre is “real” or “fake” (Spoiler: Somewhere in between).

I will do this using the knowledge afforded to me by my fancy pants degree in Television Production, my experience working on a variety of reality TV shows, and for flavor, relay to you the times I was on “Jerry Springer” and “The Judge Pirro” show - and how those shows bend “reality” for the purposes of good television.

A couple of notes here: I can’t 100 percent guarantee the factual accuracy of my claims and research. It’s mostly coming from wikipedia sources, my own common sense, and things I’ve read or heard throughout the course of my life - plus I’m writing this for fun on a niche pro-wrestling blog. So feel free to yell at me if I claim a show was “groundbreaking” when an obscure show in Germany did the format first, that’s cool,  but in general I’ll be writing this from the perspective of the general consensus of American audiences. Sorry Canada.

But lets dive in.  

Part 1: History
Docusoaps, reality competition, and PBS ruined everything.

If America felt so inclined, they could blame reality TV on PBS. In 1973, “An American Family” aired on the Public Broadcasting System, compiling 300 hours of footage into a single 12 episode season. Initially intended as a “fly on the wall” (or Cinema Verite) look in at your typical American suburban family, the Louds, the filmmakers actually ended up capturing something a bit more compelling - namely an affair by the patriarch of the Loud clan, and one of the Loud family’s sons coming out as a homosexual (and became the first openly gay “character” on television). Safe to say, this was some pretty spicy stuff. Due in part to this unexpected drama, the show was a smash.

The press wasn’t as enamored. This article from “The New Yorker” features a few particularly brutal highlights from the contemporary press’s reaction to the show at the time, with charming insights like referring to the gay son (Lance) as  “camping and queening about like a pathetic court jester, a Goya-esque emotional dwarf.”

The Loud family weren’t pleased about how this whole thing turned out, either. At the time, the Louds claimed the footage was unethically edited to make their lives more compelling, to focus on the “drama” and “negative” aspects of their lives at the expense of how things played out in reality (sound familiar?).

Creative editing is a staple of the documentary process, and is probably the most important tool in turning hours of footage into a compelling 30-minute TV show.
Take a look at this silly trailer I made for my family and friends (Yes I know about the typo). Judging by the trailer you’d assume my life was filled with parties, booze, kittens, marijuana, and bald-spots. While this is a trailer and not an actual reality show, it’s safe to say that if you watched that trailer and didn’t know me or my family, you’d assume we’re a bunch of party animals. What you don’t see are the numerous weird looks I got from following my friends and family around with the camera, and endless amount of boring footage of me driving in my car or filming birds. To keep things entertaining, you need to cut the fat - even if the finished product is less than a true-to-life interpretation. Unfortunately it’s the price of doing business.   
Equally as unfortunate - the aftermath for the Loud family wasn’t pretty. The aforementioned Lance Loud eventually became addicted to Meth, and died from HIV at the age of 50. It was filmed for a PBS special in 2001. Whether or not being America’s first “Reality” TV family contributed to the downfall of the Louds will never be answered. Was the scrutiny of the media, and the camera, and the american public so much that it was impossible for the family to ever be normal again? Who knows.

But lets fast forward two decades when MTV green lights “The Real World” - which took a similar approach to “An American Family” but replaced a single American family with angsty young adults from all walks of life - throwing them into a house with limited bedrooms and ample alcohol. It debuted in 1993 and has thus far produced well over 500 episodes. It covered a whole bunch of taboo topics including homophobia, racism, HIV, homosexuality, domestic abuse, and how much coconut rum it takes to put a person into a diabetic coma (lots).

While the series initially started as a fascinating social-experiment, as the show went on (and audience numbers waned) it morphed into a combative, sexually charged, vulgar, and trashy ghost of what “The Real World” once was. The hyper-charged “Docusoap” was born.  

Which brings us to the Heisenberg effect, which more-or-less states that the very act of observing something changes the outcome. Did the Loud family change their actions or act differently because cameras were documenting their every move? Did Lance Loud become addicted to the fame, and when it was gone, replace that addiction with Meth and unprotected gay sex? You can’t really say.  

What I can say with some authority is that the cast-mates on “The Real World” (at least the newer seasons) are very obviously playing to the camera, supercharging fights, partying, and their perceived “personas” in an attempt to be the most engaging and outlandish personality in the house. Controversy creates cash, after all.  

“The Real World” ultimately begat “Road Rules” which was essentially “The Real World” on wheels. It followed a buncha people in a giant winnebago as they competed in challenges in an attempt to win a prize of some sort. The shows would regularly cross over for the “Real World / Road Rules Challenge” which unintentionally invented (or popularized) the concept of a “Reality TV All Star” and the sub-genre “Reality Competition”.

Both the “The Real World” and “Road Rules” helped pioneer the use of the “confession cam” where the show’s “characters” would talk directly into the camera about their situation, their roommates, and a variety of other subjects. In fact it’s impossible to watch any reality TV show these days and not see a confession cam. It is here that the line between reality and Reality ® blurs.

These confessional interviews are generally made to look like off-the-cuff comments. Very often, however, there are producers encouraging the cast to speak about a specific subject, person, or event in the household, often times not-so-subtly suggesting ways a cast member can incite drama or rage amongst his house-mates. These sorts of conversations between producers and cast members are instrumental in creating “quality” “reality” television for the masses.

Ultimately “The Real World” and “An American Family” paved the way for the sub-genre of reality TV that is largely responsible for the trashy stigma associated with the format. From “The Real World” you can pull out well over a dozen shows that have used a similar format, or opted to follow a select group of people during their day-to-day lives. There is no “Jersey Shore” without “The Real World”.

“Docusoap” Reality TV is popular and ever-present for a few reasons. First of all it’s far cheaper to produce than most forms of television entertainment - a 26 week run of “The Real World” is likely shot in a little over a month or two, where as a standard drama or sitcom takes 7-10 days to shoot and edit a single episode in addition to months of pre-production. Additionally there is a sense of fidelity that comes with watching “real” people do outlandish things. It’s far easier to become engrossed in the acts of a “real” person who jumped into a pool naked with two bottles of tequila in her hands than it is to invest in the antics of Ray Romano on a set with a canned laugh track.    

But to really understand what made Reality TV is what it is today, we need to get tropical. “Survivor” debuted in the summer of 2000 and was an immediate smash and cultural phenomenon. It averaged about 28 million viewers per episode, with the finale pulling in just north of 50 million eyeballs (well technically 100 million eyeballs). By comparison the Super Bowl that year was watched by about 88 million folks.

Hell, it’s 12 years later and people
still know who Richard Hatch is and I had to look up who played in the 2000 Superbowl.

Following “Survivor” reality TV was off to the races. American Idol, Big Brother, The Bachelor Fear Factor, Dancing With The Stars, The Surreal Life, and about six dozen other shows ushered in the era of competition reality television. MTV launched “Making the Band” which combined the theatrics of “The Real World” with the competition element of “American Idol”.

There was a reality sub-genre for everyone. “Project Greenlight” appealed to our inner filmmakers, “Last Comic Standing” for our funny bone, “The Bachelor” for our inner romantic, “Joe Millionaire” for our cynic, and so on. One part human drama, one part game show, it was easy to see why these shows attracted massive audiences - some became invested in “the game”, others in the people, and most, if I had to guess, watched these shows as guilty pleasures. By and large, these shows are...okay. “Dancing With The Stars” might as well be America’s personal USO show, and after 12 years “Survivor” is so slick it’s impossible to *not* be enthralled by the challenges, locations, characters, and competition.

As Reality TV boomed like never before, chances and experiments were taken regularly. A&E launched a show about the day-to-day lives of Airport employees, as well as a show about the workers at a funeral home, they also launched the delightfully trashy “Dog The Bounty Hunter” in 2004. Discovery Channel chimed in with “American Chopper” in 2003, and followed it up with the incredibly popular “Deadliest Catch” in 2005. The “workplace reality show” was coming into it’s own - and as the 2000s turned to the 2010’s, they’d come to dominate the reality TV landscape.

Next time:

The “unreality” of “reality” - The tricks of the trade you won’t notice unless someone tells you about them, and the ethics behind them.

Also: the creation of “reality” - inside my production documents for my own reality TV show, “The Good Samaritan”


  1. A reality show called Cheerleader Nation was filmed at my high school in my senior year. The amount of nonsense on there is mind boggling. Everything from the food in kitchens being brought in by the production company to conversations being redone for dramatic effect to a dance being invented for the cheerleaders which the majority of the students weren't told about to the coach actually trying to say what a strong tradition cheerleading has in Kentucky and how it's the most popular sport. It's ridiculous.

  2. That was a great read. Nice post.

  3. LOL I remember that show. My ex-gf was big into cheerleading and watched it. Chelsea was my favorite one, or at least the one I thought was the hottest

  4. National actually. Yeah she was in my Spanish class. She looks even better in person.

  5. I worked on a few reality TV shows as a production assistant. The experience numbed me and ultimately caused me to not pursue television as a career. Referencing the Heisenberg Effect is a little reductive when considering what happens on TV today, because none of what's being watched is real to begin with. I witnessed producers actively pitting cast members against each other by feeding misinformation on what others had said to spice up the show because they were worried it was going to be boring. I witnessed those cast members turning into completely different people off camera because they were playing characters.

    What bothers me about reality TV the most is that it isn't even pushed so hard because it's a ratings juggernaut, it's really not in most cases. Reality TV shows are about as successful as most scripted shows. Reality TV gets pushed so hard because it can be used to bust unions, specifically SAG and the Writer's Guild. Very few reality TV shows employ union writers, and none utilize union actors. Production companies can then skirt labor laws and fair wage practices. Which is funny because I always hear pundits calling the entertainment industry liberal.

  6. Five years, "Deathball". No doubt it my mind.

    Good read, what a soul-sucking process Realish TV is.

  7. Astute comment on the cutaway interviews being the thing that really invented modern reality TV. COPS was a successful reality show before The Real World, but it was The Real World's cutaway interviews that revolutionized the genre.

  8. Realish TV..

    I like that.

  9. Please, feel free to tell us more. I, for one, would like to know what I'm actually watching and what type of things I should and shouldn't support. I'm a little naive when it comes the reality genre... except for the fact that anything involving following a celebrity is staged or partially planned ahead of time and most of the editing tricks.

  10. Chuck Barris from the Gong Show wrote a book called The Big Question that is a pretty good satire on where all this is headed.

  11. The Gong Show was amazingly prescient. And just plain amazing.

  12. Always glad to add to the language.

  13. I like this guy's stuff.

  14. I'm so far removed from that I couldn't tell you now which shows you should support. Honestly, I'd advise to avoid all reality TV outside of stuff like Pawn Stars, which at least somewhat functions as a skewed take on the History Channel. The biggest one I worked on was one of the Real Housewives shows, and it was fucking ridiculous to see what those people consider hardships. Honestly, the only "reality" I care for is documentary filmmaking. It's much easier to deal with all that nonsense condensed into two hours. It's also much easier to stomach to subject matter, which is usually as awful.

  15. As always a very entertaining and well researched article, I Mr. Meekin stamp my approval. On the side of your topic I still watch Survivor it's become like sports to me in a way. I mean it's way less meaningful but I do get excited at every season.

  16. No mention of Cops = no buys.

    But, seriously, for shows like Amazing Race and Survivor (the actual competition ones, not the talent shows like AGT or Idol), do the producers determine who gets the boot? Yes, it's clear they edit to make goody guys/bad guys and some scenes are almost certainly staged/re-shot...but are they actually toying with the outcomes for these?


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