Making a reality show isn't as simple as pointing a camera at a person and hoping he or she is horrible. There are a lot of tricks and manipulations that producers use to make douchebags and handbag design more compelling. There's an argument to be made that no one should think about reality shows-- either turn off your brain and enjoy them or brag about how you don't own a TV. Fair enough, but thinking too much about stupid shit is kind of my thing. I also like drinking with people who make reality shows and asking them questions about their job, so this article is much closer to journalism than the sarcastic philosophizing and absurdism you might be used to. Also, be warned: After you know about these techniques, you're going to see them everywhere.
I know some of you are already in the comments section saying, "Everything on reality shows is fake!" That's because you're an idiot and you figure the only way to hide that is to declare how difficult you are to trick. Well, not only do we know, idiot, but you got tricked anyway. Reality shows are mostly real, and the parts that are fake aren't scripted so much as they are set up to happen. For example, when a live skunk invaded the Daisy of Love set, that had nothing to do with the migration patterns of Burbank skunks. That was some terrified production assistant dropping a skunk out of a sack and running. However, the three men who beat it into a trash can with a pool cue while wearing their underpants ... that was real. Who could plan that? Who would plan that?
Let's imagine for a second that reality shows were totally fake. Say you're a TV producer who wants to set up this elaborate lie to make a show for slightly less money. Not only is that needlessly complicated and unethical, but would you really put the Kardashians in charge of the grift? Between the three of them, or six if you count Khloe, they've brought the Armenian literacy rate down to 14 percent. If you handed them a stack of script pages, they'd probably ask you when they started making tampons that small.
Yes, it was a little phony that Hulk Hogan's wife suddenly decided to adopt a baby chimpanzee after cameras started following her family around, but that was just giving reality a little shove to make it more interesting. If you're filming Hulk Hogan, it'd be kind of stupid not to make his wife have an ape, right? I mean besides Brooke, of course. No one in their right mind would script a show with that cast. Could you even deal with the logistical nightmare of making a scripted program starring Hulk Hogan and a chimpanzee? Please? No, I'm really asking. I even made this since I can't stop thinking about it:
Adding havoc to a person's life and hoping you get footage of them losing their mind isn't necessarily fake. It's more li-- actually, hold on. This concept ... it's everything my brain has ever wanted to think about:
After watching Top Chef: Just Desserts, I now know why gourmet cupcakes taste like gay people have been crying on them, but when I s-- OK, this is the last one, I promise:
What I was saying is that when you're done filming your reality stars, you're probably looking at 600 hours of uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. It might be unethical to start messing around with something marketed as "real," but if you put that boring footage on TV before it's been edited, you're the worst. That's why editors have devised a number of ways to nudge reality in the direction they need it to go.
One trick you may have seen a thousand times and never noticed is conversational audio cues. They're like a laugh track on a sitcom -- your brain is really only trained to notice them when they're not there. They can be anything from a cymbal tap to a record scratch to a swelling of music, and they're added later because no one in these scenes is a performer. Normal people don't always do a great job at delivering jokes or expressing emotions or transitioning between ideas. Little sound effects make the viewer subconsciously feel like he or she is seeing something they're supposed to, and not simply eavesdropping on a boring conversation. Take a look at all the clicks and beeps that have been added to this awful discussion on the show Wicked Fit:
Another technique used a lot is the fake reaction shot. You saw it twice in the clip right up there. The fake reaction shot isn't necessarily a lie-- sometimes it's used to make a line seem more outrageous. Add a double take to a bad joke and suddenly it kind of works. However, a fake reaction shot can also be used to completely manufacture drama. For example, women, especially the kind who sign up to do reality shows, sometimes playfully call each other bitches. It doesn't mean they hate one another; it's kind of like how black people are allowed to say "government cheese" in a joke. However, if an editor cuts off the music track right after one girl says "bitch" and splices in footage of the other girl looking surprised, oh shit. Things just got real.
Fake reaction shots are pretty easy to spot once you know what you're looking for. Did one person suddenly get blurry? That's because they had to digitally zoom the footage so you wouldn't see that it was taken from a different location or time of day. Are the store and street signs behind them backward? That's because they had to flip the frame so the person was gasping in the right direction. Or you can simply do the math. When the Wicked Fit lady was talking, did it cut to four different people and a group shot? And since it did, does six seem like a reasonable number of cameras to follow a fat chick around while she talks about fitness? Hell no. The catering budget alone would bankrupt the Style Network.
As you can imagine, it's not unheard of for a producer to give some direction to reality performers. This is a delicate issue, though. You're not dealing with improvisational actors. Reality stars are only good at two things: self-promotion and warning doctors about the dangers of conceiving children in radioactive bathrooms. The Flavor of Love producer can't pull Pumpkin aside and say, "OK, in this scene I want you to act extremely frustrated and then spit in that scary muppet's mouth." That kind of magic can only come from a person's heart.
There are much more subtle ways in which reality stars are manipulated. If you've ever watched The Bachelor, you've probably seen a woman get eliminated, thank the man for the opportunity to compete for his dong and wave goodbye to everyone. Then, seconds later, she's screaming at a camera about how she can never love again and everyone is a slut. What happened? Is it really that big of a deal that a man wanted to sleep with someone more than her? Judging by most women on the Bachelor, that has to happen every time they stand near a 7, a funny 6 or a sure-thing 5.
Here's what happened to that woman: Between the time you saw her walk away from the house and the time she sobbed her manic goodbye, someone pulled her aside and took a psychological shit in her brain. There's a secret technique used by reality producers to turn a calm and reasonable woman into a wreck-- you act like the craziest plot twist in the world just happened and she needs to explain it to you. It goes something like this:
Producers also do a lot of coaching when it comes to picking a show's winner. It's no coincidence that on any dating, fashion or cooking competition, a close finish always go to the more interesting contestant. Who cares, though? There's nothing more subjective than cuisine and what aging musicians will sleep with. Selecting the perfect sex partner for Flavor Flav is pointless because hobgoblins don't care how pretty their meat is, so long as it screams when they bite it.
If you're making a reality show without the money shot of a woman being destroyed, you can help direct your stars toward disaster with something they call a "guided conversation." It's more or less what it sounds like. For instance, only a stupid camera crew hovers next to Chris Knight and Adrianne Curry all day and hopes they stop playing Facebook games. A smart one says, "Hey, I heard you guys are having trouble with your marriage. Let's sit you down over here and film you talking about it. That's right. Yes, fight for me. Wait, why are you stopping? Oh, it's because I'm masturbating?"
Producers aren't the only schemers, either. Almost every scene on Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been set up by the Kardashians themselves. If Kourtney is going to tell her father that pirates hijacked a shipment of their co-branded ovarian tanning spray, the first person she calls is the camera crew. Not only to be there for Bruce Jenner's reaction, but because it takes a team of workers two hours and a half mile of rigging to change the expression on the Olympic legend's face.