Reality television is a deceptive moniker for a deceptive format. While the characters, and this is the proper term for the individuals portrayed, are not paid actors in the sense that their participation will guarantee a financial boon the assertion that they are real people is entirely misleading. Thousands of people audition for the opportunity to participate in these programs, not unlike professional actors would, and they are effectively cast in that producers chose individuals for their shows according to their dictates. Indeed, if you watch the title sequence of Survivor you will notice that the islanders are listed and named as the actors in the title sequence of Law and Order are, although those on Survivor are supposedly not acting, that is, they are acting as themselves. This concept, that the people are “real” and thus seen as easily relatable, although still often outlandish, is the unifying factor of a genre that has become increasingly varied since its conception.
The genre is still in its infancy, having only come to prominence in the last decade, and many different variations upon the “real people” theme have become well established, though they are often in characteristically unrealistic situations. For the sake of convenience and simplicity, these can be crudely divided into three subgenera including: the Intervention, the Experiment, and the Contest. In the Intervention a righteous force sweeps in to help an individual or family portrayed as needing or worthy of some profound boon to help them rise above their circumstances. Examples of this format include Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Super Nanny. The Experiment is a show in which a unique situation is created and the novelty of people acting through it is often the key appeal. Setups include propositions such as: Does a woman value love or wealth more? Could a group of children survive without adult influence and create a community all their own? What happens when beautiful women are forced to interact with socially inept men? The last type of reality programming may be described as the Contest in which a group of individuals compete with each other a series of episodes towards a prize facing trials of elimination periodically. The method of elimination varies from arrival time, to audience popularity, or internal voting. Of course, there is often overlap between these formats with shows such as The Biggest Loser that blends elements of both the Contest and the Intervention or Wife Swap which is a blend of Intervention and Experiment.
If indeed these are real people, then we must ask ourselves, why are they on television instead of actors? That is not to ask why the shows themselves exist, as there is obviously a demand for them but rather why what are presented as ordinary people seek to participate in public spectacle. A certain amount of this could be attributed to egotism or a desire to achieve fame, and for some this has worked quite well. Others might seek (or out of mere desperation, apply) for the offer of charity and change that the Intervention programs provide. A small percentage, apparently, is foolhardy enough to believe they might find love on a national television program. However, given the large economic incentives often provided by the Contest shows, and one imagines that all participants are paid to some degree for their cooperation, it is likely that this plays a major factor for those involved.
Part of the appeal of the Contest format is that individuals, or teams, compete with each other directly, a trend found in most all forms of entertainment, with the caveat of the reality inserted into television. Given that these shows often contain novel and surprising challenges for the contestants, a certain degree of success must be attributed to luck, as skill cannot account for success in all situations and often the most skilled fails unexpectedly. This does not keep contestants from eagerly looking ahead as much as possible, making treachery and deceit important tactics for success, in shows where this is possible. In shows where the participants directly affect elimination procedures, such as Survivor and Big Brother, contestants can often be seen forming “alliances” and voting off people they perceive as “strong,” that is, all other things being equal, perceived as more fit to win the competition than the others. This idea is directly contrary to the free market ethic as the best product should be most successful based on its own merits. Contest reality shows such as American Idol and The Amazing Race more closely follow the free market model in that contestants cannot negatively impact each other directly but are rewarded for their performances. Others, such as The Apprentice and America’s Next Top Model, involve an appeal to an authority that arbitrarily decides whether or not a contestant will be eliminated. These shows become most interesting when the artificial market ends, but the exchange continues into “real life.” To date, only two relationships in eleven completed seasons of The Bachelor have persisted as the time of this writing, although four of the seasons had ended with a marriage proposal; a stark reminder that reality and reality television are two separate domains.