The Ugly Reality of Creating Reality Television
Reality TV attracts millions of viewers and thousands of hopefuls, but at what cost?
The couple in front of us rides a giant motorized stuffed teddy bear into the storefront audition room.
While we stood in line, my sister and I watched the animals—giraffes and tigers and horses, oh my—putter around the half-empty Arizona mall as a rolling advertisement for the toy store next door. Now, we follow the bear with its cowboys waving from their two-person parade.
Instead of noting how sad the adults look all made-up sitting on a child’s toy or wondering how desperate you would have to be to make an entrance that requires paying off a teenage store clerk, instead I simply think: Damn, we should have done that.
Welcome to the extreme, over-the-top world of reality television.
Since the beginning of reality TV, the number of shows classified as such has skyrocketed and, with it, the number of people who believe they deserve to be on those shows. Nearly 100,000 people audition for American Idol each season. And Survivor, now in its 27th iteration, reportedly gets almost 20,000 application videos for every installment.
In part it’s a chicken-egg question: Do more people want to be on reality programs because they’ve seen more of them, or does the increasing viewership—and numbers of programs—reflect changing values that correlate with the desire to be seen on television, in front of millions?
“It's awfully hard to prove that programming trends like reality TV actually change behavior on their own,” says Mark Andrejevic, deputy director of the University of Queensland’s Center for Critical and Cultural Studies, who authored the academic paper “The Work of Being Watched.” “It's a lot easier, I think, to consider the way that they reflect changing behavior and attitudes.”
A study found that people who watched reality television of the surveillance docu-drama variety (as opposed to competition shows) were more likely to believe that relationship drama is normal and to overestimate the amount of bad behavior—such as gossiping—that women engage in.
This is particularly true when it comes to how we feel about personal privacy. If you’re OK with watching strangers live out their lives around-the-clock, then you’re probably more OK than others with them watching you. Reality TV “tends to equate willing submission to monitoring with participation, self-expression, and personal growth,” Andrejevic says. “Being watched, as seen on reality TV, is good for us. It is not something to be scared of but something to be sought after.”
People watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Real Housewives and “they really want that for themselves,” says Angela Weingrad, a casting director. It can be viewed as a way to get famous and rich, says Karyn Riddle, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin who studies reality TV. “It seems so easy.”
Fourteen years ago, when Weingrad started working in reality show casting, recruiting meant hitting the street and convincing potential dating show contestants to put themselves in front of a camera. Now, people come to her—lots of people. And the casting process has become a science, with networks hiring consulting companies like Control Risk Group to vet potential stars, according to The New York Times.
“BE YOURSELVES! BUT DON’T be afraid to look your BEST!!” Those were the email instructions we received the night before our audition.
Once in the storefront room, my sister and I realize that we are not the only ones who have decided our best means boots and a blazer. Nice, but not too nice. We all seem to hope it says, I just threw this on, but don’t I look camera ready?
If either of us had searched online first, we would have found hundreds of resources full of advice about what we should wear, how we should act, and what it takes to get selected. We could have even attended the New York Reality TV School.
But everyone else here could have done that, too. The biggest problem these days with reality TV casting isn’t that too few people are willing to have their every move watched and recorded. It’s that too many are. According to Weingrad and a number of other casting producers, the real challenge is finding the authentic people among all of the reality hopefuls.
We are auditioning—though they would prefer you not call it that—for Bear Grylls’ new NBC survival show. Bear Grylls, of Man v. Wild fame, has been my sister’s idol since he taught her how to fight off a crocodile with her bare hands, how to build a raft out of her pants, and how to drink her own urine. Admittedly, the last requires the least amount of skill.
It seemed obvious that we would apply for a show where Grylls would mentor couples as they complete challenges in the wild. What other outcome could there be except that she would win him over and become the next survival superstar and I would win $1 million and a book deal. We were made for TV. We totally deserve our own show.
“Of course, everyone thinks they deserve their own show,” Weingrad says.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that reality TV stars were among the most narcissistic of celebrities, who are already more narcissistic than the general public. There has also been speculation, without enough research to back it up yet, that narcissism is linked to viewing reality TV, not just participating in it.
But it’s difficult to determine causal direction. Am I narcissistic and self-involved because I watch reality TV? Or do I watch reality TV because I’m narcissistic and self-involved?
In the audition room there are eight couples sitting around a conference table. The casting producer, a surprisingly normal-looking woman named Donna, tells us that the show will be a cross between Survivor, The Amazing Race, and The Hunger Games. “Minus the whole killing each other part,” I joke. Donna does not laugh. No one laughs, except me. I laugh at all of my own jokes for the next hour.
Donna says we’re just going to get to know each other, have a conversation. We’re instructed to start by telling her a little bit about ourselves.
The couple on the other end of the table goes first. The best version of her wears a hard shell of hair and an elastic, painted-on dress. Her partner is a skinny boy in skinny jeans. Everyone plays a part. I play manic, crazed, sarcastic.
Skinny jeans: “I’m a Libra. I enjoy long walks on the beach, no, hah, kidding. We’ve known each other for, like, ever and I’m a designer. And, oh my God, I just remembered, I hate Velcro.”
I laugh, distinctly at and not with him. “Oh my God,” I say. “Did you just remember that?”
His partner says that people always tell her she looks like the Little Mermaid. You can almost see it, minus the red hair, mathematically impossible proportions, and tail.
I laugh again. In fact, I haven’t stopped giggling. I giggle maniacally throughout everyone’s show. My sister punches me in the leg.
When it’s our turn, we go for heartfelt and intriguing. We just want the chance to spend time with each other again. We used to do crazy things, have adventures. One time we got lost in a bog and chased by a cow. Cows are surprisingly scary, but everyone is trotting out their crazy adventure stories. Or are they? “People might not be 100 percent honest with you” during the application process, Weingrad says.
The reality of reality TV has been widely disputed. It’s well-documented that editing can change how events are perceived, that off-screen directors can manipulate people, and that some scenes can even be restaged. But not everyone knows this. “This was surprising to some people,” Riddle says.
In the audition room, we’re not lying, but maybe we should be. The teddy bear-riding Rodeo Queen has a story involving a bear. Bear trumps cow. She has a lot of stories that trump ours.
Her dad invented some kind of rodeo. She looks like an ASU sorority girl. She is an ASU sorority girl. But she’s an ASU sorority girl who can build her own shelter, start her own fire, skin the deer that she just killed with her own bow and arrow—and she rode in on a toy bear. She also hopes to set an example for her two-year-old by competing on this show with her husband. Her husband has no discernible characteristics.
If I were Donna I would almost certainly pick the stuffed-animal-riding couple. If I were the casting producer, I would definitely not pick the desperate-to-please, manic, giggling girl. Unfortunately, I’m not the casting producer. I’m the girl.
A study from Riddle and J.J. De Simone found that people who watched reality television of the surveillance docu-drama variety (as opposed to competition shows) were more likely to believe that relationship drama is normal and to overestimate the amount of bad behavior—such as gossiping—that women engage in.
Similarly, people who watched makeover shows were more likely to endorse plastic surgery. Dating show viewers tend to overestimate the amount of alcohol consumption and sexual activity involved in dating. While there’s a causation vs. correlation problem in these studies, it’s hard not to let what we see as real affect our perception of what is real. “There’s a reason to suspect that it’s affecting what people think is normal,” Riddle says.
IN COLLEGE, A FRIEND and I stood in line for three hours outside a pizza place to audition for The Real World. There was nothing normal about that line. We never even made it into the audition room, leaving sometime after a bisexual High Times model told us all the details of the time she had to flee naked from her abusive ex-wife, but before she started giving sex advice to another applicant, who she had nicknamed The Virgin.
When my sister and I applied for Bear Grylls’ show we were given follow-up questionnaires. Donna loved us. She loved us even more after we filled out our 20 pages on three items we’d bring to a deserted island, three words our partner would use to describe us, and three things that we were scared of. Everything was in threes. My answer to the last question: “I fear over-eating chocolate and spending too much time being pampered at spas. Feel free to include these as challenges in the show.”
In truth, I fear everything: spiders, snakes, the dark, large animals, falling rocks, strange men, being alone, being in crowds, the hollow emptiness of being judged not worthwhile enough as my life slowly passes me by. But I didn’t think this is what they were looking for.
The producers called us, twice. They invited us to come in as VIPs to an audition. This is reality TV. There would definitely be a blond female duo on the show. There would definitely be siblings looking to reconnect. We could fill both of those roles.
In the storefront it becomes increasingly clear that it will not be us. I can’t stop muttering under my breath. I interrupt people. I carry on my own side conversations. I swear repeatedly—a network TV no-no. Like me, please like me, I think, but I can’t control myself.
Why do I care what this stranger thinks? Did reality TV do that to me or have I done that to myself, stressing over how many Likes my Facebook status gets and who favorites my tweets? “I think reality TV neatly anticipated the rise of so-called social networking sites on which everyone has their own reality show,” Andrejevic says.
When you are rejected from reality TV it is the absence of notification that notifies you. You are, simply, not worth watching. The 7 p.m. deadline comes and goes without a phone call to tell you that they want you, that people would turn on the TV for you. When you are rejected from reality TV it is not because you lack the educational qualifications for the position; there are none. It’s not because you can’t perform the job functions; there are none. When you’re not picked it’s simply because you’re not interesting enough or pretty enough or exciting enough. You’re not enough.
I become obsessed with why we aren’t picked, with what is wrong with me. I have to know why Donna doesn’t want us. I want to know what specifically I did wrong, which joke crossed the line—there were many. I want constructive criticism, an explanation. Really, I want to know that it was all just a mistake, that of course I’m good enough for TV, that what my mom always told me is true.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. “People put up a fight,” Weingrad says.
Eventually, I give in and email the producer. I apologize for being insane. She encourages us to make a video. Maybe we can wow them, she says, and get a second chance. But Weingrad told me that’s what they always say.
We make a mock two-minute video filled with fake training montages and set to the soundtrack from The Karate Kid. We think it’s hilarious. We never hear from Donna again.
The show eventually airs with 10 couples, all genuine and heartfelt, all “just happy to be there.” There is a blond female duo. There are siblings looking to reconnect and father-daughter pairs and engaged couples testing their relationships and earnest long-married couples hoping to re-spark romance. We are not them. We are not enough for a show that gets only one season and virtually no viewers. We are not even worth not watching.
People watch reality TV for a lot of reasons: entertainment, connection to a community, aspirational living, voyeurism. In a 2003 study in the Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society Jan Jogodozinski hypothesized that reality TV is a reaction to the sense that in the “world everything is constructed, nothing seems real.”
“[Reality TV] is more real,” Weingrad says. “Acting feels fake and phony to me.”