Fantasy World of Reality TV
By Alicia Downs
Summer of 2000 proved that programs dubbed "reality TV" shows have an
overwhelming audience. Based on the format of videotaping real life people, translating to non-
actors, in their real life, such shows provide the answer to the voyeuristic tendencies of the
American audience. While the desire to see real life people reacting to things in their everyday
life is not new, remember the popularity of "Candid Camera", these programs pride themselves
on being more "real" than ever by filming groups of people interacting over a duration of time.
While the initial footage of these shows is no doubt genuine, the end products cannot be valued
as anything more than a great deal of fiction based on a little bit of reality.
We have all heard the expression, "based on a true story" and perhaps that saying defines
the very essence of "reality TV". We must not forget that these shows are pieced together for the
sheer goal of providing high ratings. TV executives have a tried and true formula for producing
high ratings centered around the knowledge that Americans love an underdog, love to have
someone they love to hate, and love a good scandal. Despite this knowledge, they still must
figure out a way to put a spin on the same old story. Turning otherwise fictitious plot lines into
ones that resemble reality through filming real people in real situations gives the formula a
modern edge. The next step involves finding a way to control reality into fitting the formula.
They must successfully produce interesting storylines and characters that will keep us tuned in
each week. They have to manipulate real people into doing the things that would result in the
plots that draw viewers in. The solution was not as complicated as it may seem. It simply
involved finding a way to blur the lines between fiction and reality. In making a show that fit the
mold, the reality aspects of the programs was sacrificed in favor of fantasy type story lines that
were developed from the footage shot. Everything in the show would have to be calculated and
controlled to best promote the fantasy plots.
Take for instance the fact that the casts of these shows represent the same level of
diversity as complained about in other network sitcoms and dramas. For the most part they center
on white middle-class people, even though we all know that reality has a lot more to it than that.
Despite this knowledge, we find ourselves watching these "reality TV" shows that have an ethic
ratio of about eight whites to two blacks with little recognition of the Asian and Hispanic
populace. They also lack financial diversity with most, regardless of ethnicity, coming from a
middle-class background. Like their TV counterparts, these real people find themselves in
situations that most people will never be in. For example the casts of "The Real World" very
unrealistically get to live in a mini-mansion rent-free for four months. "Survivor" castaways
unrealistically ended up on a semi-deserted island with a one in sixteen chance of winning a
million dollars (back to reality when the winner finds that Uncle Sam still takes his share). Then
look at "Big Brother", which places people in confinement from the outside world for a few
months (in real life this would be called prison) where they have a chance to walk away with half
a million dollars if they can keep from being voted out by the public. Just like the "fake" shows
we find the casts put in situations designed to amuse us, even if it does so through unrealistic
means. "Reality TV" tries to deter this idea by using real people, thus attempting to appear as
more genuine than their "fake" TV counterparts.
Editing easily overcomes the above mentioned problems of no defined characters or
flowing storylines. In a little room far far away people sit with over 700 hours of footage and the
power to turn that into twenty hours of sheer entertainment through a little creative editing. In
this process, one-dimensional "characters" are built by manipulating one aspect of their
personality and using the footage of them that promotes the good-guy or bad-guy persona. Small
disagreements of little value to the participants can become big scandals in the final product.
Backstabbing and ill will easily develop in using comments the casts made after the fact. In this
room reality will become the soap opera that we love to watch. We will get to see the conflicts
and resolves that tormented these "people" over a portion of their lives and we will get to see it
all in under a days time. Even though the footage we see appears genuine, more often than not
the events shown do not reflect the original context of the situation, favoring altering them for
the value of entertainment and time constraints.
Through methods such as bias casting, persona stereotyping via creative editing and
overall bogus situations, executives found a way to blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
This blur now has a name, "reality TV". The end result is a world that further draws viewers into
the false ideas of reality under the dangerous pretense of being an actual representation of reality.
Even though it may be entertaining at times, the overall product displays no more a reality than
the scripted sister shows that rely on the talent of actors. Instead of giving viewers insight to a
reality comparable to their own, these shows provide a fantasy world under the false pretense of