Is reality real? René Descartes, The Matrix, and Inception have theorized that we can’t know if what we are experiencing is fake or not. But assuming that I’m not just a brain in a vat with electrodes stimulating my synapses and creating the illusion of this world, I can make at least one claim with great certainty: Reality TV is pretty fake. It isn’t as fake as scripted TV, but a viewer understands that a show like The Walking Dead isn’t a documentary – even if I wish it were. The big question is one of degree: When does “producing” a reality show cross the line into the territory of fabricating character, plot, and incident as one would with a scripted show? And does the distinction even matter?
While watching June’s season finale of The Real Housewives of Orange County, my experience in TV production told me that much of what went on during the fight-filled episode had to have been staged. The camera angles were too planned, the plot was too linear, the interpersonal drama too heightened. It was too unbelievably narratively convenient that Vicki and Tamara would erupt like volcanoes at the very end of the season. I called a top executive at a network with several hit docu-soaps to suggest that shows like RHOC are becoming too manipulated to be thought of as “reality.” But she disagreed, saying that reality arcs that feel like scripted arcs aren’t the producers’ doing … at least not entirely. “The reality characters self-produce, knowing that they need to be a heightened version of themselves,” she said. “They end up over-reacting. I can’t tell somebody to do things, but we know that we’re putting two people together that will have conflict. Sometimes we’ll leak information to them [meaning things each character wouldn’t know that the other characters said or did, which may instigate a conflict] but we won’t tell them what to do.” When I pressed her on the practice of doing “pickups” — scenes shot after the fact, re-creating something that may have happened off-camera and placing them within the body of the show, as if they were shot contemporaneously with the other scenes — she explained that her producers won’t “re-create a fight but they can re-create the setup for a fight.” I asked her what she thought was going too far when it came to “producing” a scene, and she said, “One time a producer [on one of her shows] suggested to a character that he propose to his girlfriend [even though he had not previously considered doing so] and we said, ‘No’! We thought it was ridiculous. If you watch The Bachelor, I think they are bullied into proposing. That’s too far.”
I went to another long-time reality producer with much experience working on multiple high-profile shows, who seemed chagrined at how the genre has been increasingly molded by producers and networks. She acknowledged that scenes in most shows are overmanipulated, explaining that “at the beginning of my career, we followed a true 'cinema verite' code and we truly let situations play out authentically ... we would never reshoot a conversation for a second camera angle or have a couple reinvent a fight ... But these days, that would get a producer fired off a show. Additionally, we had significantly more time to produce shows ... now networks wants higher drama on lesser budgets. The fact is, producers must ensure that each episode has some kind of high-level, promo-worthy drama or it will be perceived that they simply did not do their job.” And, like the network executive, this producer sees how savvy the reality stars have become about delivering the needed performance. “A great cast absolutely knows that the bar is high for drama on TV,” she says. “They, too, watch their smug network execs watching monitors behind the camera and they know that they better deliver lest they be uninvited back for the following season — gasp! — and never have an US Weekly cover again.” Though she certainly seemed dismayed by the increased falseness with these shows, she also felt that “as a producer, if I found out that someone was faking their drug addiction to get on Intervention (or pregnancy for Teen Mom), I'd find that appalling and I'd be highly suspicious of not only the series but of the producers as well. However, if the Kardashians or the Jersey Shore cast were lying about someone they slept with or some fight they had ... I'm not sure I'd care (as a producer or viewer).”
When I was a small boy, I used to love watching professional wrestling, and I remember clearly the day my grandmother told me that this “sport” — which I thought was as legitimately competitive as other sports I watched on TV, like baseball and tennis — was in fact fake. I was crushed. More important, I stopped watching it then and there, not in protest but rather because there didn’t seem to be a point to it if the situations were completely contrived and the outcome preplanned. I think that is where the line ends up for me. When it was recently revealed that participants on HGTV’s House Hunters had already purchased one of the homes from which they were supposedly choosing and the other two possibilities were just their friends' houses and weren’t for sale, I would have thought it would affect the perspective of the series’ viewers in the same way I was affected when my grandmother cruelly spilled the beans about my favorite masked wrestler. And yet, the ratings didn’t change after this news; that could mean most regular viewers never heard about it or, of course, that they just don’t care. Maybe they would have a more negative response if there were a disclaimer at the top of the show stating that the events that follow are not real and have been staged to create drama. But maybe they would just shrug and go back to looking at people compare square footage.
I talked to someone with inside knowledge of Showtime’s Gigolos, a “reality show” billed as “an uncensored look into the personal and professional lives of five hot guys in Vegas who like to hang out, have fun and get girls, but in their case they get paid for it.” My source recounted similar stories about pickups being shot and producers suggesting ideas to the cast, but also noted that the women on the show aren’t regular clients of the gigolos as the viewers are led to believe; the producers find women willing to have sex with these guys on-camera and pay them $300 to do it, because actual women who hire male prostitutes want to keep it discreet. So, in a show purported to be about men who are paid by women to have sex, the producers are actually paying women to have sex with men whom the producers are also paying. (Showtime did not respond to a request for comment.) But while I was surprised by this, I don’t think the revelation would undermine Gigolos viewers’ interest; much like those who watch House Hunters may be more interested in house porn than veracity, people watch Gigolos for the sex, not a real insight into male prostitution. I guess the answer to the question of whether or not it matters that reality TV is fake or real depends on why the viewer is watching the show. If you just want to vicariously snoop around a bunch of different houses, it doesn’t matter if the people you’re following aren’t really in the market to buy a home; and if you’re watching a show to see attractive people have sex, it doesn’t really matter who’s paying whom to copulate. And, most certainly, if you find it funny or interesting to watch a couple of drunk, vapid, rich women who have had a lot of freaky plastic surgery yell at each other at a social gathering, you’ll still enjoy The Real Housewives of Orange County, no matter how “produced” the show has been.