So here is our long-awaited yearly reality show update!! It is a week or so late, but let’s gloss quickly over that and see what the previous year brought us in terms of manipulative TV shows!
First off, we’re lowering the rating on the Storage Wars show. Last year we gave it a 3, but since then it’s become more ‘fake’, apparently. One the stars of the show is suing it, and new revelations have come to light around the producers planting items (which we knew about), scripting auctions (which we suspected), and even paying for plastic surgery for some of the participants (yea, that one was a surprise) . It wasn’t high to begin with,
since our friend Dave gave it a 3, but we’re lowering it to 2.
The Bachelor Reality Level: 5
The Bachelor and the Bachelorette have a terrible track record of creating couples – one lasting relationship over 15
episodes for the Bachelor, for example – but it is good television, as shown by the ratings. How manipulated is it, though? Well, fairly. The process is set up so that the bachelor always appears in romatic situations and settings, whisking the women on exotic destinations at breakneck speed, forcing them into manufactured experiences to shoehorn a romance into an 8 week shooting schedule. Producers also are fairly shameless at creating conflicts situations (such as taking a woman on a date at a racecar circuit, after establishing that her dead fiance was a racecar driver). The show is a good case study on how, by manipulating the environment and fostering rivalries, you can get a number of rational women to act like comic-book characters.
Dancing with the Stars Reality Level: 7
What could be purer than a show with B- and C- and D- level stars competing for a dancing trophy? Well, as with any
voting show, DWTS is relatively easy to rig: no one other than the producers are counting the votes, after all, and the
temptation is high to fix the votes so that popular contestants stay on. Hope Solo wrote in her memoirs about the show,
and discussed the memo that outlined who would be ousted when. On the other hand, the dancing is real – it’s hard to fake a samba or a valse. In other words, the stars are actually dancing, which is the core of the show, and it is exactly what the title promises.Who wins, now…
Deadliest Catch Reality Level: 9
This is a reality show about crab fishermen, their boats and the crabs they fish – in Alaska. The sea and the freezing weather provides a lot of the drama and tension, and that relieves the producers from having to manipulate the stars.
Also, it’s not easy to manipulate large, angry fishermen that are living on 3 hours of sleep. The producers do play some editing tricks, and occasionally ask the stars to record voice-overs or to re-act a scene, but it is a reality show that is in, in fact, quite real. Perhaps the main manipulation of the show (and it’s a slight one) is that, given the lack of scripts and manufactured drama, even a full season of filming is hard to stretch over a dozen episodes, so the producers often resort to nature shots – waves, storms, surf – to pad the episodes.
Kitchen Nightmares Reality Level: 4
Kitchen Nightmares is a show about struggling restaurants that chef Gordon Ramsay comes in to rescue. It’s an
interesting show because it’s central premise is usually the same – Gordon comes in, sees the restaurant in complete disarray, and then shouts at people and reinvents the menu to turn the restaurant around. It always works, at least on tv. The show was sued by some of its participants for being fake but overall, the producers probably don’t fake the actual problems with the restaurants – they do use a lot of editing, though, to ’emphasize’ the problems, and they also use tricks like forcing the cooks off-site and returning them to the restaurant to an unfamiliar menu a few minutes before a large service to play into the ‘they are incompetent’ narrative that Gordon loves so much. Also, most of the restaurants that Gordon works with and ‘saved’ have actually closed, some a few weeks after his intervention.
The Voice Reality Level: 8
This was this year’s breakout reality winner, coming in second only to American Idol. It’s a singing competition with a twist – the idea of celebrity coaches that mentor and train each team of aspiring singers. Like any other singing competition, the ubiqitous public can vote for their favorite artist, but there’s a twist: they can vote by buying the
song from itunes. That twist makes it a little more difficult to manipulate the results, as Apple doesn’t fudge the numbers of itunes download for reality shows. There’s a blind audition process as well, where the judges can hear the contestants but not see them. All of these twists make it more difficult to manipulate the process, and as a result the show is fairly ‘real’. We’ll revisit this one periodically, though, because with every passing season the temptation to manipulate the outcome will grow, and it will be interesting to see how long the producers can hold off.
The Biggest Loser Reality Level: 8
Some shows are easier to manipulate than others. You can fake call-in votes to allow a dancing contestant to survive another week, or change the rankings of a singing competition, but it is much harder to tweak someone’s weight loss.
This show is basically fat camp with a camera. There is some manufactured drama with family back home, and the casting director (especially on the later seasons) is getting carried away with trying to find ‘interesting’ candidates, but the biggest manipulation is the focus – the show focuses on athletic workouts, which are easy to film and exciting. For morbidly obese folks, however, diet is much more important – but how do you make a change in diet exciting to watch? As
a result, the show tends to mislead viewers. But, ultimately, the contestants do lose the weight, so let’s go with an 8 on this one. For now.
Breaking Amish Reality Level: 3
This was a show with a fascinating – take some Amish folks, who have never really encountered the modern world, and then
place them in said world surrounded by cameras to film their reactions. It should require minimal manipulation, but
apparently the producers thought that reality needed a boost. As the show gained popularity, more and more revelations have emerged that the contestants have much less of a naive background than expected. Web pages have been written to highlight the issues, but, basically, many of the contestants have been arrested or divorced before.
This makes sense, in some ways. Generally, a conservative, innocent Amish is unlikely to sign up for a reality show in NYC. Whether they knew it or not, the producers got the folks who already knew enough of the world to hold back a lot of information. Either way, the show is now essentially an acting gig for most of its partipants.
Real Housewives of [insert city here] Reality Level: 2
This will not come as a shock to anyone who has seen the show, but most of this show is ‘tuned’ for drama. The reality of filming a group of well-off women together in ‘real’ life would be fairly boring, and the participants know this. So many of them manufacture drama – feuds, fights, misunderstandings – to keep viewers interested. Over time, too, even the title has become a bit of a parody. Most of the women featured on the show are single or divorced, and they don’t do much to do with homes (most of the show is the women shopping or dining). Does Bravo care?
Apparently not, since by shifting cities regularly and changing the cast to “keep things fresh”, they can keep the viewers interested. Ironically, the show’s own participants have started calling these new spin-off shows ‘fakes’ themselves.
Duck Dynasty Reality Level: 7
Reality shows that follow families are usually fairly scripted – the best example is the Kardashians, who have perfected the art of acting on “reality” shows. As a result these types of shows usually score pretty highly on the manipulation scale. Duck Dynasty is different, though. The show follows the daily lives of the family who owns the Duck Commander business, a duck-calling device based out of Louisana. When the show started, as is usual with these shows, the producers gave the families scripts, but the families soon rejected them. Instead, they decided to play off the redneck stereotypes with their own brand of deadpan humor. The results are interesting: this is a show in which the participants clearly know they are on television, clearly play up the expected stereotypes, but do it their own, humourous way, and producers need to manipulate the show very little as a result. It will be very interesting to see how this show evolves over time, and whether the ratings continue to grow in its second season, since the temptation will quickly become overwhelming to, in fact, manipulate the show into the standard family reality show.
That wraps up another year. Send in some suggestions in the comments for reality show that you want to discuss below, and we’ll review them at the end of the year.