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Reality TV, Real or Fake?

jaranda's picture

The idea of what is real and what is constructed is frequently called into question. A place where this question is asked, but never really conclusively answered, is on television. Reality television shows are extremely popular, whether these stories are constructed or not, is very difficult to tell. Most reality shows follow a similar story line to that of regular television dramas. Do the people featured in these shows encounter such dramatic situations everyday, or is it really just a constructed version of reality to keep viewers interested? If reality is never ending, how do these shows ever come to an end? What is it about these shows that are categorized as "reality television" that makes them any different than a primetime drama?     

            There are certainly different categories of reality television, there are contest based shows, where the main goal is to be the last person standing and earn big prizes, but there are also many shows that just follow people around in their daily lives. The contest based shows are real in the sense that they feature real people trying to prove themselves physically, mentally, or both in order to win large amount of money. What does not appear to be real about these types of reality shows is that rarely does anyone find themselves in the situation of being padlocked together and having to fight to get a key on the outer edge of a circle that will unlock them from the rest of the group, like the contestants of MTV's Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Duel do in the first episode. In Shields' book Reality Hunger, he has a whole chapter devoted to reality tv, and writes that "(t)he 'reality' of contest shows derives from contestants wanting things that people in real life want." (107) The competition aspect of these shows interest many because it is something they normally would not be doing, even though it is supposed to be 'real'. "It becomes a blurry vision of televised sports (which also has that addend sense of immediacy because it's unfiltered, is 'really' happening, and therefore there's the feeling that in the next minute anything can happen - which adds to the excitement of competition)." (Shields 109) While viewers like seeing how people react, there is still the sense that these situations would never happen in their own lives. 

            A recent New York Times article quoted a survey done by the company TiVo saying that people were getting tired of reality shows, "with 40 percent calling reality the most overdone genre of programming. But in the only poll that counts - the ratings - viewers also had an overwhelming favorite for the summer season of TV, and it wasn't suspense. Reality shows again dominated ratings this summer..." Trying to determine a single reason why people say they are tired or reality shows, but still watching them is difficult. It seems as though people like to watch other people's perceptions of reality, rather than experiencing similar situations for themselves. 

            The Hills, another MTV show, was frequently questioned about the realness of each episode. During the six seasons the show was on the air, various events could be seen as contrived, just to create drama, or an interesting story. Heidi Montag, one of the supporting 'personalities' on the show got married in Mexico during one episode. An Associated Press article questioned the legitimacy of her wedding ceremony because she was later seen filming another wedding ceremony with her finance Spencer Pratt back in Los Angeles. "The courthouse scene became necessary after Pratt, 25, and Montag, 22, acknowledged that their Nov. 19 marriage ceremony near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, was symbolic. The couple had appeared on the Nov. 26 cover of Us Weekly with the headline 'Heidi & Spencer Elope!' but they didn't take the proper steps to have a legally binding service in Mexico." (AP 2008) She did actually get married, but the whole story was not shown. Viewers were forced to decide for themselves what they wanted to believe. 

            Unlike contest-based shows, The Hills was a reality show that followed Lauren Conrad, who had previously been on another MTV reality show Laguna Beach, as she went about her daily life. The show gave viewers the chance to watch her go to school, work, and hang out at exclusive clubs with her friends. Whether Lauren would have gotten to participate in this show if not for her popularity on her previous show is unclear. Much of The Hills focused on boy drama, fun vacations and parties, and occasionally difficult work situations. When Conrad left the show to focus on her life outside of the show, what was she really leaving? She couldn't be leaving reality because that is inescapable, but she was leaving her 'reality' show. Various members of the show have said that there were fake elements, including Conrad, but she seems to think that all of the show was real. In many ways it is real, because it is her perception of what is real. "People can sit back and say it's real, it's fake, but at the end of the day to me this is real because this is my life. Someone else having a lighting crew coming in to their apartment at 8 o'clock in the morning and set up booms and lights is very weird. But for me, that's real. That's how I live my life." (Entertainment Weekly 2007) While these situations are real for Conrad, the way everything is edited together seems to change the reality for the viewers. 

            When The Hills ended, it ended with a shot of one girl pulling away in a limo, while her ex-boyfriend looked on. As the camera pulled farther out, viewers could see that the limo was actually on a film set, and while she had just said goodbye, she got out of the car and gave the ex-boyfriend a hug and then leaving the set together. This was a controversial ending to a pretty controversial show. Once again, the viewers were forced to make their own decisions about what had just happened, whether the whole show had been 'real' or 'fake'.    

            In the same Entertainment Weekly interview, Conrad talked about why people were drawn to her show and interested in her life, "I think people are just fascinated with other people's lives in general. I mean, that's why we watch any scripted show, or when we're in high school and we gossip about other people. People are just obsessed with other people's lives. I don't know whether it's kind of a way to escape their own, or something to follow...I really couldn't tell you." (Entertainment Weekly 2007)  Viewers want to watch something compelling, and do not want to think about whether what is happening is real or not. When a reality show ends, like most of them do, whether it is after a contest wins the prize, or the people move on to other things, it is not the end of reality, but rather the end of the constructed reality, something that was made for the viewer's enjoyment. 



Works Cited:


Carter, Bill. "Tired of Reality TV, but Still Tuning In." The New York Times. 13 Sept. 2010. Web. <>.

"Montag, Pratt Nuptials Questioned" 17 Dec. 2008. Web. <>.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.

Soll, Lindsay. "'The Hills': How Much Is Set Up?" Entertainment Weekly's 12 Dec. 2007. Web. <,,20165361,00.html>.


The Hills, Series Finale "All Good Things..." - 

Real World/RoadRules Challenge:  The Duel -






mehrin rinu's picture

Very helpful to me☺☺

Very helpful to me☺☺ happy

The visitor. 's picture

It just sorta goes with your

It just sorta goes with your own opinion. For instance you could say the people on the are just like you when really so is a fiction movie but that's not real it could never happen so I guess its just up to you and your own discussion. Hope this helps.

Anne Dalke's picture

Constructing Reality

you've led me here into a whole new world: I've never watched a reality show, nor ever quite understood why so many others watch them so incessantly. Your essay is filled with material that is new, and so very intriguing to me.

You begin w/ quite an onslaught of questions--how many of them do you answer? Are any of them more important to you, or to the argument you develop, than others?

I actually found myself wanting to add another question to the list, one that would be prior to all the others, and reveal some of the presumptions that seem to underlie your study, but are never articulated. What is the real? Until you have a workable definition of that concept, all the description which follows, about what appears or "does not appear to be real" doesn't really take us very far.

You say, for instance, that some of the shows are "real in the sense that they feature real people trying to prove themselves physically or mentally." You quote Shields along the same line, as saying that the reality of these shows "derives from contestants wanting things that people in real life want." You observe that the "competition aspect" of these shows make them "real." And yet you also say that some of these shows are "not real" because the situations--like being padlocked together!--are not situations in which most of us find ourselves. Or that they are real because they represent not external but internal reality, an actor's "perception of what is real": "this is real because this is my life." Or that the end of a reality show does not represent "the end of reality," but only "the end of constructed reality, something made for the viewer's enjoyment." What does that phrase , "constructed reality" mean to you? Isn't reality that which is not "constructed," but comes to us "straight"? How does "constructed reality" intersect w/ the other phrases above, about the realities of wanting, or competing, or perceiving?

You also repeatedly show me viewers unsure about the reality being represented on these shows: "forced to decide for themselves what they wanted to believe,""forced to make their own decision about whether the whole show had been 'real' or 'fake.'" Or not wanting "to think about whether what is happening is real or not," but just wanting to "watch something compelling." [Does this observation vitiate all your earlier questions? Suggesting that the "reality level" of a show isn't relevant to its ratings?] You also show viewers watching "other people's perceptions of reality, rather than experiencing" their own.  Or being fascinated with other people's lives--but whether as "a way to escape their own, or something to follow" isn't clear to you (or me).

And then there's the puzzle that "people say they are tired of reality shows," but are still watching them, that they describe reality shows as "the most overdone genre of programming," but yet it still dominates the summer ratings...why are "we" so drawn to something we detest, or @ least are very tired of?
P.S.: There's something funny going on w/ your font and spacing--try re-entering your prose using the "paste from Word" button, and let me know if that doesn't work? I'd love to talk w/ you, too, about comma usage: I'd recommend many more of them up there (as well as converting some of your commas into colons, semi-colons, periods); punctuation can really help in guiding your reader how to read...).