Reality television has been around since the dawn of the medium, as popular radio shows such as “This Is Your Life,” “Candid Microphone” and “The Original Amateur Hour” made their way onto the box in the 1950s. Today, in what’s been called the era of “peak TV,” the genre remains popular and profitable. According to Nielsen, it accounts for half of all programming on broadcast and cable, and it generates $6 billion in annual revenue. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t widely misunderstood.
Speaking from experience, producing reality television is one profession you might want to keep quiet about when introducing yourself at a Hollywood party. Critics blame the genre for “dumbing down America.” Gary Oldman once called reality television a “museum of social decay.” Some claim that exposure to the stuff can make you more self-absorbed: “See a Kardashian, be a Kardashian,” warned Pacific Standard, reporting on a Psychology of Popular Media Culture study linking reality television to narcissism.
Yet a 2015 study found that reality shows could stimulate the parts of our brains that handle empathy, in an experiment that had subjects watch clips of embarrassing scenes from reality TV and then lie in an fMRI machine. In a study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, 68 percent of the girls surveyed said that watching reality television made them feel like they “can achieve anything in life,” and those who watched such shows were almost twice as likely to aspire to leadership than non-viewers. Reality television has also been a leader in presenting diverse experiences. An NAACP report from 2008 found that nonwhite people were underrepresented in almost every part of the television industry — except in reality show casts.
Reality producers and on-camera talent rank low in the show business hierarchy. “Simpsons” writer Dana Gould summed up reality shows as “people who aren’t actors working with people who aren’t writers in an amateur production of nothing.” Onetime TV star George Clooney said: “Theater actors look down on film actors, who look down on TV actors. Thank God for reality shows, or we wouldn’t have anybody to look down on.”
Yet people often cross this supposedly unbridgeable genre gap. Bill Hader, co-creator of the acclaimed HBO drama “Barry,” started out as a production assistant on shows like “The Surreal Life.” Matt Hubbard worked on MTV’s “Fear,” a paranormal reality competition series, before going on to win an Emmy for his work on “30 Rock” and collecting writing and producing credits on hits like “Superstore” and “Parks and Recreation.” Sarah Gertrude Shapiro mined her experience as a producer on “The Bachelor” to make her scripted series “UnReal.”
On the flip side, there’s “Ally McBeal” creator David E. Kelley, who once griped at a Writers Guild of America awards ceremony that network heads would rather “have lunch with the next contestant on ‘How to Marry a Terrorist’ ” than invest in quality writing. But Kelley soon afterward made his own foray into producing reality television in 2005, with “The Law Firm.” It was pulled from NBC after just two episodes, illustrating that crossing over into reality isn’t as easy as some may think.
Critics complain about the heated confrontations that permeate reality television, especially in docu-soaps, where cameras follow groups of people through their everyday lives. Memorable incidents include Tom punching Jax in the face on “Vanderpump Rules” and Teresa Giudice’s legendary table flip during an argument on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” Entertainment Weekly cast this as a worrying trend, saying physical outbursts are often “central to a show’s plotline.”
But on-camera physical altercations are extraordinarily rare. A 2010 analysis by psychologists at Brigham Young University found that while reality television shows contained higher levels of relational aggression, they depicted “almost no physical violence.” While producers encourage participants to express themselves openly and candidly, mining for conflict, most shows, from “Big Brother” to “Top Chef,” have very strict no-violence policies, and they eject cast members as soon as they display threatening behavior or take inappropriate action against castmates.
These days, audiences are embracing friendlier, more harmonious reality content. Who would have thought that in these tumultuous times we’d be falling in love with “The Great British Baking Show ,” grabbing for tissues during an even more sentimental “Queer Eye” or reveling in the sweet, silly fun of “The Masked Singer”?
A recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch featured Will Ferrell and Cecily Strong as reality stars who suddenly launch into an over-the-top shouting match the moment their camera crew arrives to cover a reunion with old friends. Mike Fleiss, the wildly successful creator of “The Bachelor,” claimed in 2012 that 70 to 80 percent of reality shows are “fake.”
Most of the time, though, the material isn’t fabricated. It is roughly planned and then edited for time, clarity and continuity. With show budgets tightening, waiting around for something to happen isn’t an option. So production often starts with loosely crafted outlines. These lay out a simple agenda for the episode, with items like “Cast Meets for Dinner to Discuss Trip.” Once shooting begins, however, that “shopping list” of beats often changes, based on what’s happening in the field — a cast member getting into an argument, arriving late or showing up with her pet possum on a leash.
With very few notable exceptions (like “Big Brother,” which webcasts live even as the show is being edited for broadcast), most reality television is shot first over a period of days or weeks, then edited. A month in the field could be whittled down to 44 or 22 minutes of action. That way, the audience sees reality stars only in essential moments — and not during the hours spent peeling carrots or putting the kids to bed. Almost nothing airs exactly as it fell into the lens, but the final product is usually more or less what happened.
Did reality TV give Trump the boost he needed to get into the Oval Office? “Donald Trump had 14 seasons of carefully edited prime-time exposure to imprint a presidential impression on American minds,” say University at Buffalo psychologists, who studied how viewers formed “parasocial bonds” with “The Apprentice” host. NPR suggested that “it wouldn’t be surprising if he picked up some tricks from TV that he applied to the 2016 campaign.” Novelist Jennifer Weiner even declared that she was “breaking up” with “The Bachelor,” a show that Trump never appeared on, because it “did the Republicans’ work for them, helping to prime America for its current leader” by promoting the idea that the most interesting contestant — not the best one — should stay in the competition.
But Trump had been an established media figure for decades before “The Apprentice,” starring in ads for McDonalds, Oreos and Pizza Hut; making countless movie and television cameos; going on talk shows; and more. And characterizations of Trump as a reality television star don’t mention how his other reality projects, “Pageant Place” and “Girls of Hedsor Hall,” flopped, or how ratings for the Apprentice franchise dropped over time. The Season 14 finale of “Celebrity Apprentice” boasted 6.1 million viewers — a respectable number but a mere shadow of the first season finale’s 28.1 million. (By contrast, Trump pulled in 46.8 million viewers for his 2019 State of the Union address.)