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.)

Introduction

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”