It is an ongoing battle for television networks year after year to compete in creating the most cutting edge programming. Enticing viewers with the promise of new shows full of drama, suspense, and laughter whilst testing the boundaries of what is morally and socially acceptable, funny and thrilling, yet remaining, most importantly, entertaining. Fitting all of these criteria is reality based television – a genre of programming in which the everyday routines of ‘real’ people are followed closely by cameras, enticing the viewer with captivating plotlines and day-to-day drama.
But how much of the lives we see on TV are real, and how much is purely set up for our entertainment? Most people can relate to the sudden sense of panic when someone behind a camera lens instructs you to ‘be yourself’ or ‘act natural’ and you instantly forget how to appropriately behave in everyday situations. Surely it is inevitable that the cast members of these shows will suffer this problem from time to time, and it only leads to the question: are these actors actually instructed to be themselves, or have they been given a persona to ‘act’ in order to create enough material to keep the audience interested for hundreds of episodes?
The Only Way is Essex, for example, currently in its 13th series amounting to almost 150 episodes, begins each episode with the statement “these people are all real, although some of what you see has been created for your entertainment”, leading viewers to spend the next 45 minutes questioning in every scene what has been set up and what is genuine in the lives of these “real” people. Gemma Collins, a main cast member, recently declared on the Loose Women panel: “we don’t get a script but the producers and the researchers are heavily involved in our lives.” She adds: “they’ll ask me what’s going on in my life, and I’ll say ‘well this has happened today’ and they’ll be like ‘right we’re filming this tomorrow’”. This kind of confession all but obliterates the viewers’ already dubious belief in the fact that the lives they are watching unfold are 100% true to life.
Even in light of this confession, TOWIE still beats its main reality TV rival, Made in Chelsea, in the ‘reality’ stakes. TOWIE has approximately 3 days between filming and airing; editing is kept to a minimum and what you see is near enough true to how it unravelled before the cameras. In comparison, Made in Chelsea is filmed at least a month or two before it appears on our screens, leaving producers plenty of time to glorify and exaggerate otherwise mundane everyday occurrences. Dinners are filmed at 7am; fights are reconstructed time and time again to find the perfect camera angle; not to mention the notorious ‘chance’ meetings of the cast members shopping on the King’s Road, drinking in bars and walkingdogs in Battersea Park. The exaggerated ‘laddish’ persona of ladies man Spencer Matthews and his excruciatingly awkward counselling scenes of last season in relation to his sex addiction and phobia of commitment are but one example of the way in which the show has taken a giant leap away from what can be defined as reality television into the realm of the ludicrous blend of reality and fiction, which even the cast have trouble differentiating between.
Across the pond, the meaning of reality television has become just as distorted as it has in England. Even Kim Kardashian, the world’s most famous reality TV star, boasts of the control she exercises over the direction of her show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians; maintaining the “right to edit and approve all footage”. A right she apparently takes full advantage of – despite seeming surprised in the scenes depicting her engagement to basketball star Kris Humphries back in 2012, Kim apparently planned the engagement herself, even insisting on it being filmed in the daytime to provide better lighting. It seems that engagements are an area in which Kim strives for perfection – nearly 2 years after her engagement to Kris she is seen filming scenes for KUWTK wearing her engagement ring from Kanye West before his extravagant and frankly OTT PDA at San Francisco’s baseball stadium for Kim’s birthday-come-proposal, despite claiming the affair was the “surprise of a lifetime”.
For reality TV there is an increasingly obvious correlation between the rise in popularity and the decrease of how much content can actually be deemed as ‘real’. This has, however, not hindered ratings in the slightest, leading to the question as to whether or not the label of reality TV is either relevant or necessary in regards to the content of these shows. All in all it seems that only the lack of an actual script separates these ‘reality’ TV shows from soap operas, which are just as eventful but with less awkward pauses.