One of the challenges in writing this blog is the content. Not the lack of content, but the sheer amount of manipulation that occurs on a weekly basis that could form a great blog entry. This past couple of weeks, for example, we’ve had discussions on talking about the anti-vaccine movement and its attendant manipulations, new voter laws in some states suspiciously timed to coincide with the 2012 election, nasty real-estate manipulations in Las Vegas, and sea life massacres being hidden from consumers. And, of course, we have the mother of all Internet manipulation, SOPA, the content industry’s attempt to regulate the entire Internet, currently being considered by our Congress. We could write entire pages on how such a terrible bill as SOPA could get so far – despite the the fact that it can break the Internet as a whole, for example, or that the inventor of the web protocol itself has tried to explain how badly thought-out this bill was, but suffice it to say that the writers of the bill just left to go work for the media companies that benefit most from the act. Or that the bill’s sponsors have gotten 4 times as much money from the media industry as they did from the tech industry. Or that Rep. Lamar’s – the bill’s author – major contributor has been… yes, the media industry!

The bill may get rejected, but will probably ultimately pass, possibly as a rider on some important other bill. Still, when your bill is condemned by Doctors Without Borders, you know that you’ve reached the status of Disney Villain.

So what to pick? Well, since it’s the end of the year, and the mood needs to be a little lighter, and since our friend producer Dave is in town for the holidays, we’ve decided to introduce our yearly Reality Show Update. We’ve written about reality shows before, but this roundup is different – we wanted to have a simple barometer of how ‘real’ each show is. So we’re giving each show a grade out of 10 – 1 is completely faked (think Sitcom-level actors here), and 10 is complete, unstaged, news-level levels of reality & truth.

We obviously can’t cover all the shows on television here, but we’ll cover a few now, and add some every year at this time. And, even with our connections, shows obviously try to keep their manipulations quiet, and those non-disclosure agreements can be nasty, so we will only include shows where we have some factual basis for our ratings. So, without further ado, here we go!

PAWN STARS:                                                Reality level: 3

We all like this show, but it’s hard to call it reality programming. Many, if not most, of the interactions are staged with actors and fake sellers – one acute viewed documented some of these here. Increasingly, the show is almost fully scripted with actors and other professionals being brought in to facilitate storylines.


THE AMAZING RACE                                     REALITY LEVEL: 8

This is a fairly complex show – several teams, production around the world, etc… but it is fairly ‘real’. The show uses some editing tricks to make some races more suspenseful than they would otherwise be, but there’s almost no manipulation of the outcome or scripting (although the contestants do have to travel with the camera crew, and re-shoot scenes when they need to buy tickets, for example: they buy 3 or 4 tickets to include the crew, and then re-shoot the scene to just ask for 2 tickets). Still, relatively minor manipulations here.


HELL’S KITCHEN                                             REALITY LEVEL: 5

It’s hard to rate a reality show that is largely controlled by one person as ‘real’ or not. But in this case, let’s call it a push. Most contestants don’t actually get to win the prize they are promised, the diners are usually told to eat before they come to the restaurant since they will probably eat nothing, and there is a fair bit of ‘manufactured’ drama. At the end of the day, though, it is a cooking show and the chefs do cook, so let’s give it a 5 for now.


MANTRACKER                                                 REALITY LEVEL: 9

This is lesser-known, but the show where two contestants try to outrun and outsmart the Mantracker is actually surprisingly ‘real’. The show goes to great lengths to keep the action real – by having several teams running around the area, for example, and relatively few rules designed to skew the outcomes. There are several injuries, occasional camera snafus, and other ‘real’ artifacts of the show. The only reason that the show doesn’t get a 10 is that the producers occasionally re-shoot scenes and force the Mantracker to explain why he does certain things.

CASH CAB                                                          REALITY LEVEL: 4

We’ve written about this one before, but there are several factors that contribute to the relatively low score here, despite the simple premise. The contestants are chosen, not randomly picked. The show is heavily edited (notice how those NY streets never have traffic?), and there are assistants that help Ben throughout the trip. On the other hand, Ben Bailey really does drive a cab in NY, and the contestants do earn some money for trivia prizes, even if the more entertaining ones seem to be given a lot more leeway than the less fun ones.



This is not going to be a surprise to anyone who actually watches the show, but this one is heavily staged. Several locations are used more than once throughout the series even though they are meant to be different sites, and most of the interactions (at least now – seems it was less so in the earlier years, according to a show insider) are heavily scripted. The show is now also using actors to portray ‘friends’. Both Gene and Shannon are very media-savvy, and the producers know how to get the best exposure for their stars. Very little reality here, but good lessons on how to mix reality shows and talk shows to generate buzz (watch it here).


SURVIVOR                                                             REALITY LEVEL: 9

Perhaps surprisingly, this old chestnut is close to the real thing. Yes, there is a lot of filming that the viewer does not see, but nothing that really influences the outcome. The show is also relatively fair about editing, and the rules are relatively open. Most of the manipulation of Survivor happens during casting, when Casting decides who will be interesting and who will not, but once the cameras start to roll, there is little manipulation that goes on. Part of the reason that the show can afford to do so is that this is one of the most profitable shows on TV, and the budget allows for a LOT of filming – hence the need for manipulation is low.


MAN VS WILD                                                        REALITY LEVEL: 3

Bear Grylls is a survivalist showing you, the sedentary viewer, how to, well, survive. Some of what he does is real. Much is not. He stays in hotels during shoots, for example.  He also dramatically jumps onto bridges that are, in reality, only a few inches high (see hilarious video here). He hunts wild animals, or, when that’s too hard, his crew brings in tame ones to stand in. His trek through lava was actually enhanced with fog machines and lights. All in all, it’s a pretty poor record of ‘reality’ here. Watch Survivorman instead.



THE APPRENTICE                                      REALITY LEVEL: 6

The Donald may be a fake presidential candidate and probably a fake billionaire, but the Apprentice is more ‘true’ than ‘fake’ as a show. The manipulation is more in the choice of cast, and in the events chosen for each episode, than in scripting or manipulating the dialogue itself. There is some basic editing to heighten tension, but again relatively conservative (ha! get it?) use of editing overall. The main reason the show loses reality points is that the winners rarely go on to run anything – most become sort of publicity spokesperson for Trump, with very few achieving any measure of business success. This may have more to do with Trump himself than anything else, though.



Really? You really need us to justify this rating? Well, we’re not going to – that would demean us both. This is a show about the sisters of a woman whose sole claim to fame was a fawning friendship with a loose heiress and a sex tape. The fact that this show gets the ratings it does is a tribute to its producers and its star, but let’s not pretend that it is a reflection of any kind of unscripted reality.





STORAGE WARS                                               REALITY LEVEL:  3

This is a relatively new show, and it’s already convincing watchers to pick up a new hobby or profession – buying old storage lockers and finding the treasures within. Unfortunately, most of the show is staged. In real life, the rate of ‘treasure finding’ in old storage lockers is around 1/100. The storage facility manager usually goes through old storage units well before anyone else and picks up anything that looks valuable. What’s left is the occasional hidden gem, but nowhere near the frequency that the show portrays. There’s also a larger-than-usual editing errors on the show (boxes that are stacked in one scene aren’t in the next, objects have moved, etc..) probably driven by the long takes. The only real part of the show is that storage auctions do take place, and some of the people on the show were once storage hunters. That’s about it.

CELEBRITY REHAB                                                   REALITY LEVEL: 6

Rehab is a serious business, and thrusting your rehab to a reality show is a strange decision. It is also a show that would be easy to manipulate – you have a number of B-list celebrities in poor shape and an almost infinite way to torment them. And some folks have accused the show of being fake, and a couple of folks who have been on the show are now dead. Still, given its potential for abuse, the show is less fake than many. Yes, the participants are paid $30-50k to be on the show (which is not irrelevant – are you on the show to get healthy or to get the money?), the cameras are intrusive, and there is plenty of evidence that Dr. Drew (the host) doesn’t care much about his patients once they leave the show, but the show’s fundamental premise and approach is similar to a standard rehab clinic’s. Expect this one to get worse, though, not better – it becomes harder to recruit celebrities each season, and as a result the show will need to be more dramatic each season, which will mean more staging and scripting. We’ll revisit this one soon.


We’ll continue with the list next year. Amusingly enough, to go back to our opening paragraph, under SOPA (remember SOPA?) it’s much safer, legally, to instruct you all on manipulating elections, or how to fleece customers, or on how to start a war, than it is to link to and discuss copyrighted images, or to host a comment board. It is a strange world we live in.


Have a great Christmas break and see you in 2012!