The Unpredictable Charm of Reality Shows

Explore the chaotic world of Reality TV, an arena where genuine emotions are commodified under the guise of unscripted drama, and where everyday individuals are thrust into fabricated scenarios for public consumption. This is a reflection on how the line between genuine life experiences and orchestrated entertainment has become increasingly blurred, serving as a testament to society's voracious appetite for voyeurism and manufactured reality.


Josh Coblentz

3/28/20245 min read

The realm of Reality TV is perilously filled with all sorts of emotions. You might be subjected to heartbreak, cringe, embarrassment, and greed all in one episode. That being said, Reality TV takes many shapes and is hard to pin down. As someone who works in TV and particularly Reality TV I often have to explain what exactly Reality TV is because it means so many things to different people. What is Reality TV? Even if you ask someone who has seen all 280 episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, (yes I did look up how many episodes there were), they might have a hard time answering the question. In this deep dive into the kaleidoscopic world of Reality TV, we'll unravel the intriguing history, explore what exactly qualifies as "Reality," and dissect the undeniable success that has turned everyday people into overnight celebrities.

What is It, Really?

Reality TV is a genre that thrives on the unpredictable nature of real-life situations, often involving non-professional actors and unscripted drama. Offering viewers a voyeuristic journey into the lives, triumphs, and tribulations of real people. It's the genre that blurs the line between fiction and Reality, bringing everyday individuals or celebrities into the spotlight without the safety net of a script. It straddles the line between fiction and documentary where almost everything in the show is controlled except for the people on camera. In some ways it is fictitious because the cast is being put into situations designed and created for the show. Take Survivor for example, it’s very unlikely any of the cast would actually end up on a deserted island. The show put them there to see what they would do. However, it’s also near documentary since even though the situations are controlled, the cast is not. Whatever the cast decides to do, the production team is instructed to “document” whatever they do. These are real people being put in fictitious scenarios and the entertainment value is seeing what they do.

So that’s kinda what makes up the idea of Reality TV but there is so much more under that can fit into that Reality box. From heartwarming tales of personal growth to the chaos of competitive challenges, Reality TV spans a spectrum of formats, including dating shows, talent competitions, and social experiments. Anything coming out of The Cooking Channel, HGTV, or really anything that doesn’t use a script and doesn’t intend to inform over entertain could be considered Reality television. Even if the only show you’ve watched is Kitchen Nightmares or Iron Chef, you would still be watching Reality TV.

The History

Reality TV really didn’t start to come into being until TV had already started to take off back in the middle of the 20th century. Networks produced a show called Candid Camera which was all about catching people off guard, capturing genuine reactions, and providing a good laugh for the audience. It laid the groundwork for the genre, showcasing the fascination with unfiltered glimpses into real life. Later in the 90s when shows like Cops and The Real World came on which started to move the mainstream genre into a more of the format we see today. This was later cemented in the 2000s with a whole slew of shows that took over the air waves like Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol. These all featured competition like formats that became a major player in Reality TV as we know it today. This isn’t even to mention the 1998 narrative movie The Truman Show which even though was a fictitious movie with a script it followed a character whose entire life was a Reality show. The movie not so subtly pointing out how Reality Television is taking over the TV channels.

Once Reality was seen as profitable to the networks they began pumping out success over the decades seeing moderate to overwhelming success. Coming into the recent writers and actors strike, networks found that they may need to turn to Reality shows to keep the money coming in since its alot easier to make a Reality show writers and actors then a traditional narrative or documentary. Because of this we saw that while a lot of narrative shows and movies were delayed, new Reality shows popped up seemingly out of nowhere.

Behind The Scenes

During my career I’ve worked on a lot of Reality TV shows. Some are more interesting than others. But because my projects have mostly been in this genre I’ve gotten the rare glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes on some of these incredibly popular shows. To help you better understand what makes up Reality television, it may be helpful to give you a sneak peek of what it takes to make a Reality television show. It starts with the network to begin searching for a production company to make the show. The network in this case is the group that is funding the program and usually has final say in what is aired on television, while the production company is hired by the network to gather all the necessary people and equipment and actually film the show. The production company takes the concept of the show then hires producers to help put the story for the show together. After they have come up with what the show is going to look like they then start to find cast. There is usually a whole casting process where people will submit tapes and do interviews with casting directors. The casting directors are usually looking for individuals who fit a TV personality. They are reactive, usually attractive, sometimes emotional, and have some sort of trait they think audiences will love. Once they have cast then they start to hire the rest of the crew. Which is when they find their camera operators, sound mixers, production people, really most of the people in the list during the credits.

Once filming begins it all comes together to create a whirlwind of chaos where the crew has to film the cast but we never know what the cast is going to do. The producers who come up with the plan have to quickly throw it out and come up with a new one on the fly. There are so many moving parts in the process of making TV that when small things go sideways, (which is kinda the whole point of Reality TV), everything starts to fall apart. It’s a struggle most of the time to understand what anyone on the crew is going to be filming that day since it all changes so fast. But that fast paced run and gun shooting is exactly what makes Reality TV, audiences seem to love the humanness found within unpredictability. When scenes are happening during your favorite Reality show, whatever it is, and you don’t know what's going to happen next. Chances are the crew filming it doesn’t either. And this is what makes Reality TV so good - nobody knows what is going to happen.

Reality TV became a major part of my life when I began my career in the film industry. I found myself on some of the big shows that people gossip about at the nail salon. Ever since then I've noticed that many people have a perception of Reality TV as strictly The Jersey Show or Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which it is, but there is more to it. Its home renovation, its cooking shows, its wilderness survival shows, and a whole lot more on TV. This genre that gets made fun of all the time (by myself included) really is just the blend of fiction and real life.