Reality shows are a funny sort of category, as they can cover everything from dating programs like "The Bachelor" to talent competitions like "American Idol" to documentary/informational hybrids like "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" and "Undercover Boss," to celebrity profiles like "The Simple Life" to trumped-up game shows like "Survivor." It's a popular sentiment to hate reality shows wholesale, and I can certainly sympathize, but the truth is that they're hard to dismiss because they cover such a huge spectrum of programming that can otherwise be difficult to categorize. Wikipedia lists ten subgenres, including "Social Experiments," "Talk Shows" and "Hoaxes," but several popular programs don't seem to fit any of them. Is "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" really a home improvement show? Is "Jersey Shore" a social experiment, a documentary, or just an elaborate farce? And where do we put "Candid Camera"?
When trying to draw distinctions, it's easy to get confused very quickly. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Emmy Awards, splits the field between competitive and non-competitive reality shows. I think a better distinction would be grouping the shows by their participants: the talented people, the real people, and the celebrities. By "talented people" I mean those people who are chosen to participate in a reality program because of talents that relate to the show's premise: singers chosen for "American Idol," cake decorators being profiled on "Ace of Cakes," and pretty much anyone speaking to the subject of their expertise on programs like "Antiques Roadshow," or "Dirty Jobs." Celebrities should need no explanation, save that I'll qualify that hosts and judges shouldn't count, since they're part of a program's infrastructure rather than participants, or in the case of documentary shows, their subject matter.
"Real people," by contrast, are people who are chosen to participate in a show because of their apparent normality, people who are meant to represent the common man or woman. Many are unlucky or have daunting personal challenges to overcome, like the participants on "The Biggest Loser," "Supernanny," or "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." If they do have exceptional talents, these make for a more colorful contestant profile when they appear on "Deal or No Deal," "Minute to Win It," or non-celebrity versions of "The Apprentice," but such talents do not generally provide any advantage in competitions. And finally, real people are meant to provide that oft elusive quality of verisimilitude to social experiment and documentary shows like "The Real Housewives of Orange County."
Though all categories of reality show have their good and bad entries, most of my problems with reality programming involve those shows that purport to follow or involve real people, especially the ones that resort to manipulative tactics to sell a picture of reality that is obviously not true to life. The simpler competition and game shows are usually all right, since they're dependably structured to place focus on the contestant's performance, not their personal attributes or backstory. Also, the amount of coaching and prompting of the contestants involved is usually constrained by concerns of partiality and fairness. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "The Amazing Race" are a little stagey, but you don't get the sense that there's heavy behind-the-scenes manipulation going on.
The problems really come the the forefront when you look at the competitions with more arbitrary judging schemes, like "The Bachelor" or "The Apprentice," or the social experiment shows like "Wife Swap." The producers of these reality programs clearly cherry pick footage, coach the participants, and can invent dramatic moments and even whole narrative arcs out practically nothing with a little judicious editing. Reports of supposedly spontaneous reactions being filmed multiple times or presented out of context are common. And of course, the casting for these shows is heavily biased toward photogenic young people, many of them aspiring actors who are often heavily prepped on how to act "genuine" for the cameras.
Of course the talent and celebrity shows are guilty of many of the same tactics, but the people involved are not being billed as your average Joe or Jane, and their shows are not heavily dependent on the reality aspect. The "Project Runway" designers may endure manufactured personal tensions, but the competition is still about designing clothing. And when Kathy Griffin is prancing about town for "My Life on the D-List," it's no secret that most of the events on her show have been specifically set up to give her a chance to react in outrageous ways. She's a performer performing, and there's always a certain degree of self-awareness to the situation. But when real people are involved, it feels exploitative and disingenuous.
Reality shows do not reflect reality, but the ones that pretend to do so never come off well. I don't want to write off the entire category since there have been some honestly ambitious, complicated programs that have used the social experiment angle to tackle social ills, including "30 Days" and "Food Revolution," but these are very few and far between. Rather, when the camera lens looks at real people in most of these shows, it tends to push even the most innocuous personalities to extremes, magnify minor faults to hideous proportions, and present a terribly warped picture even when the portrayals are positive. There's a growing collection of follow-up news stories about former "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" families who ran into financial and legal troubles after getting their new houses, or dating show contestants whose TV-blessed relationships disintegrated once the spotlight was gone.
Look at what happens to the real people whose reality program stints lead to fame. The talented people who are chosen for their talents, tend to become famous for their talents. Real people who become "reality stars," on the other hand, tend to gain notoriety rather than lasting acclaim. Consider the career prospects of "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch or "Apprentice" headliner Omarosa, compared to any of the runners-up on "American Idol" or "Top Chef" or even "America's Next Top Model." Jon and Kate Gosselin may make for good tabloid fodder, but their appeal seems limited to the rubberneckers these days, following the melodrama of their falling out. The only reality star I can think of who has successfully cashed in has been Elizabeth Hasselbeck, also formerly of "Survivor," who transitioned into a conservative commentator on "The View."
In the end, I don't mind the reality shows. It's the real people that are co-opted and transmogrified by them - the "reality" people that I can't stand.