Nobody thinks reality shows are like documentaries, following regular folks around to observe their daily lives (what real people get into that many screaming arguments in one day?). But the people involved aren't just actors reading a script, either. The truth is somewhere in between, and much, much weirder.
We spoke to Michael Thot, who wound up on one of the strangest reality shows ever conceived as a kid. He was one of 40 children between the ages of 8 and 15 picked for the 2007 show Kid Nation, CBS's attempt to stage their own Lord of the Flies:
The idea was that these children would be left alone to run an abandoned town in the New Mexico desert, to hopefully disastrous results. It was a crash course for Michael in the deeply strange world of reality TV, in which he found that ...
#5. The Producers Cast Regular People -- But They Have to Play Characters
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If you've ever wondered how you get yourself cast on a reality show, in my case, they just showed up at my door. I was not an actor, and in fact I'd never been interested in child acting at all. I was a member of a music camp in Seattle, and I played in a group with some local musicians. I don't even know how CBS heard of this camp. A producer apparently wanted one of the kids in their reality show to be "Kid With Long Hair Who Talks Like a Hippie and Plays Guitar," so they contacted this camp and asked if anyone met the criteria, like they were calling around to pet stores looking for a certain kind of hamster.
"We dig the bandanna, but can you sign a waiver so we can get him a Phish tat?"
They were pointed in my direction, and after contacting my parents, they sent me a huge packet with a couple hundred pages of questions and waivers. The thrust of the questions was mainly whether I'd be OK with being recorded around the clock (we were kids; it's not like they could force us to stay on the show at gunpoint if we decided we wanted to bail out). But they asked political questions, too, presumably getting a sense of what each contestant would want a utopian society to look like, to get a good mix of (conflicting) personalities. And, just to make sure they would wind up with a group that would in no way live in harmony with each other, they advanced us to another round of testing.
All of the potential cast members -- a few hundred of us -- were gathered in a Santa Monica hotel. We weren't allowed to talk to any of the other kids, because they wanted to preserve the moment of us all "meeting" for the first time on the show (that "no socializing" rule was immediately broken, by the way). There they had us do psychological profiling -- I literally had to talk to a psychiatrist. In the beginning, the goal of the questions seemed to be to figure out if we could handle the stress of doing the show, but once I passed that hurdle, they started asking questions about how I handled conflict. Not that they only wanted confrontational assholes -- presumably they weren't trying to get us to murder each other Battle Royale-style. They wanted good guys and bad guys.
"Don't worry, we won't force them to kill the fat kid. Maim, maybe ..."
They clearly wanted me to be the hippie peacemaker kid -- that's specifically what they had come searching for, after all. And since I wanted to be on the show at that point, I very much tried to push myself into the role. Which brings me to ...
#4. You Find Yourself Playing a "Character"
At the hotel, I noticed that everyone who showed up fit into some archetype -- there were kids there who looked like they'd come from the inner city, kids with cowboy hats, and of course me with my long hair and flannel shirt. In the promo for the show linked above, you'll even hear a sound bite from a girl saying, "I'm a beauty queen, I don't do dishes!" Everybody had a broad, stereotypical role to play, and once the cameras rolled, we were all happy to go along with it.
For example, I had my "defining moment" in the first episode, when I dramatically stood up and made a speech to try to calm some big argument:
Maybe this sounds cynical, but part of my motivation for speaking up was "It makes sense for my character to speak out now." So I stood up and did my speech, and the associate producers lavished praise upon me. This is what most people don't understand about reality shows, when they talk about them being "fake" or scripted -- they don't have to script it. We're on camera, we're doing a TV show -- even children know to self-censor and come up with their own bits to make themselves more interesting. We all want attention and to play along -- if we didn't, we wouldn't be there.
"... and that's the third time I wrestled a Kodiak bear."
So where I had always assumed reality shows were from top to bottom a farce, including written lines or staged scenes, there were none for us. Instead, they just gave us a nudge -- they knew how to get the most out of our "characters."
Let's take Greg, the "villain" of several narratives in the show. He was a hard-working guy, but an elegant choice, because when people tried to help, he'd just bitch at them for helping "wrong." Once he was pushing a cart and this little kid came up and offered his help. Greg let the kid try it, and when the boy failed, Greg said, "See, you're useless!" From that point on, the producers knew to put him in places and situations that would exacerbate that aspect of his character.
Look at this, and remember every slow guy in front of you at the self-checkout counter.
And since the producers make it clear that it's the angry reaction they want, well, that's when you find ...
#3. They're Shameless About Creating Conflicts
The point of the series was that we were supposed to be alone to the maximum extent that a bunch of adults could leave a group of children alone in the desert without becoming felons. But there were plenty of associate producers who were willing to tell you what you did on camera that they liked. Each AP had their own camera crew, and sometimes they'd find you and say things like "So-and-so is arguing with so-and-so at the saloon right now. That sounds interesting!"
"You and I have wildly differing interpretations of that word."
If you expressed no interest in joining the fight, they'd let you go, but would get all passive-aggressive on you first ("I guess Michael's too cool for school today" or some similar dig). It was negative reinforcement -- they weren't mean or cruel, but they'd let you know if you weren't being a "participant." Meanwhile, they carefully arranged our social groups by separating all 40 of us into four "districts" -- presumably to breed competition and conflict. Hey, it works in the Harry Potter universe.
But even then, periodically they would find that we were getting along too well, and they'd have to induce something for us to fight over. One episode's premise was that we had too much trash. So, the night before, they carted in garbage and threw it everywhere, because that's what we got for not being filthy enough on our own. Clearly this was an episode idea they'd had from the beginning, and they'd probably figured it was a safe assumption that a bunch of kids couldn't keep their own town any cleaner than their bedroom floor. Instead, we wound up with a bunch of reality show producers dumping trash everywhere like they were performing some kind of living metaphor.
"-- then like five crying Native American guys popped up out nowhere. It was awful."
Also, it was made clear that we could go home whenever we wanted (see: producers not wanting to go to jail, above), but we eventually figured out that they intended this to be a central plot point and source of conflict -- a surefire way to get cameras interested in you was to start wondering aloud if just maybe you needed to go home. See, then you'd get consoled by all the other kids and have a very dramatic, TV-friendly moment. Kids started doing it all the time, so much that they stopped airing those scenes.
But despite all of the attempts at manipulation ...