Reality programming is quite popular these days, largely because various television networks offer it more than any other single kind of show. 40% of all programming on television is reality shows, because they are cheap and people seem to like watching. There's virtually no reviewing power for these shows, once you've seen them you really don't care to watch again. But they cost so little to produce that networks love them. Yes, the guy who came up with The Real World was Chuck Barris-brilliant in terms of television programming but he has a lot to answer for.
What's interesting is that they're so varied behind the scenes. Some "reality" programming is almost entirely staged and fake. Some is almost totally spontaneous and uncontrolled. The Real World on MTV had no writers and no scripting, they just put cameras in there and hoped for the best. To be sure, they front-loaded the show with conflict, but even that didn't always work. Other shows are more controlled.
Survivor for instance is very controlled. The events are scripted and the sequence is all carefully laid out in advance. When the tribal meetings are held, the host uses language and sets up situations designed to produce conflict and drama. But at the same time, what you see is what you get, according to the contestants and staff I've read online.
The people have little food, no extra clothes, and they claim no cosmetics, although the girls seem awfully well tended for someone without a razor. Given that they stage all these shows in warm climate areas for the bikini shots, I suspect the girls are given a bit more than they're admitting. But they are totally cut off from the world for seven or so weeks, which is how it is portrayed.
Other reality shows are... less honest. Shows like The Hills and other "E" channel junk are barely in the category of "Reality" shows. They all have writers, if for nothing other than the voiceovers and introduction, but some take that a bit further. One such writer shared some secrets. For example:
The "Frankenbite" -- So-named because sometimes, we'll take two audio "bites," that is, two short sections of dialogue, and "Frankenstein" them together into an entirely new bite. For example... we took two pieces of audio, one where a girl said "I'm really getting sick of this food," and another where the same girl said "Lisa is so nice. She's hardly ever a bitch." We then cut them together to make it sound as if she said "I'm really getting sick of Lisa. She's a bitch."But That's Not What I Meant! -- If something dramatic happens onscreen, and a couple of contestants comment, "Oh my God, I was so freaked out!", they could be talking about something completely different. We once used the quote above in a situation that called for a dramatic quote. It was the contestant's answer to the question: "How did you feel when we called to ask if you wanted to be on the show?"OK, Sometimes We DO Just Write It -- To put it bluntly: we made her break up with her boyfriend and get back together with him at least four times over the course of the show -- and she even did that in a boring way.
Other tricks employed include using footage of some emotional moment, then a voice over of that person talking about something totally unrelated (usually used when something happens off camera that they want to portray); compressing time by showing only the interesting parts; and showing things out of sequence to appear related or sequential. And of course, they use the old interviewer's trick of showing a reaction shot of someone from some other event as if it is in response to a statement or action. Michael Moore used that so excessively that the clock in the interviews with Charlton Heston leaps around spastically in all directions as Moore spliced various quotes without regard to context or truth.
The truth is that "reality TV" is just a title, not a description. These shows are no more reality than a Soap Opera, because even The Real World was deliberately cast for conflict, in a house where everyone knew they were on camera, for a specific period of time, paid as actors for a job in a television show. Some are more real than others, but none of them are real, because reality is usually boring and slow and TV needs to be fun and fast.
Still, it doesn't mean they're all awful. I still enjoy shows like American Guns and Pawn Stars. Yes, its almost all staged and yes, they inject drama and events for the sake of TV, but they still can be interesting and entertaining. I just wish they'd stop doing that "go out and shoot things that blow up" lame sequence on American Guns. Even if it wasn't dull the 80th time, the fake cheering and yelling really grates on my nerves.