5 Ways You Don't Realize Reality Shows Lie
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 ...
The Producers Cast Regular People -- But They Have to Play Characters
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
They Can't Control Everything
At the end of the day, the cast was made up of human beings -- young ones who weren't actors. They could steer us in a certain direction, but it was obvious that sometimes things went ridiculously and frustratingly out of their control.
With Kid Nation, uncertainty was kind of the point -- it was clearly promoted as a lawless "Home Alone Times 40" situation. But since lawyers exist, they were also careful to emphasize how safe we kids would be in their care. They walked a tightrope of promising to show the audience children left to their own devices, while promising equally hard that we wouldn't be left to die in the desert. So I knew we'd be monitored, but the amount of direction we had surprised me. However, that didn't stop several kids from drinking bleach.
"The burning sensation is how you know it's good."
Now, the bleach was hidden in an old-timey container, but I believe it was labeled, and they warned us repeatedly: "There's bleach in that thing, guys." The one kid I knew who drank it was a 14-year-old. He insists it wasn't labeled, but how does a 14-year-old pour himself a glass of bleach and drink it without realizing at any stage in the process "This is not root beer"? Anyway, four kids wound up drinking bleach over the month we were there.
There were lots of scenes that the producers clearly wanted to happen, but we just wouldn't go along with them. For some reason, they kept trying to get me to organize a bunch of other kids to watch me play guitar. I kept saying, "Nah, that doesn't sound like something I'd like to do at all," because even as a teenager, I wasn't that guy. But they hinted maybe a dozen times that they really wanted that "scene." If I was fiddling with a guitar, they'd say, "Oh, maybe people want to watch this! Do you want to show them you can play?" They clearly had a line they couldn't cross in terms of forcing it, so even as they got steadily more pissed off, all they could do was "hint" that I should do it. Over and over.
"Good luck, dude. I don't even own a horse."
My absolute favorite moment on the show in terms of absurdity came when we went on this elaborate hike and crested a hill to see three wigwams with a group of hilariously stereotypical Native Americans dancing around it. The producers said things like "You should join in this dance!" and we'd be like "No fucking way." That's right -- the producers had come up with an idea that even a group of children thought was idiotic.
What Happens and What Airs Are Very Different
Where most reality shows like to boil everything down to just the worst of the worst behavior, that wasn't true of the smallest children on the show -- they actually came off much better than the reality. In real life, they were sometimes temperamental and badly behaved, just like any children of their age. But on TV, you can't see that, because they'll never air an 8-year-old punching a 10-year-old's face (but honestly, tell me America wouldn't have gone nuts for that). We actually had a bunch of scuffles and fistfights they never aired, because I guess they thought that would be a little more Lord of the Flies than the network wanted. It's a fine line.
Likewise, as soon as we were away from our parents, everyone started cursing up a storm, but they cut those lines entirely, rather than just bleeping it out as they normally would (even though there is inherent entertainment value in little kids dropping F-bombs at each other). Remember Greg, the villain of the show? He was the only one they showed on screen being bleeped out, to solidify his status as the troublemaker.
"Let's run the South Park filter over all his dialogue."
And of course, where they couldn't manufacture real conflict among the group, they weren't above fudging it a bit. Perfect example: There's an episode late in the season when I was on the town council, our governing body. Some of the kids had heard me talking negatively about other kids on the council. So, on the show, you see those kids sit in the center of the town and refuse to work, resulting in a confrontation that played out for the cameras. In reality, the second the cameras left, the other kids were like "Eh, it's not such a big deal" and the fight fizzled.
Finally, it came down to the final episode and the prize money. They gave out three $50,000 prizes in the last episode, and I was on the council that got to give them out. We technically had the option to give them to ourselves, but that was never even discussed among us. The production company kept telling us, "Hey, you know you guys can vote the money to one of you," because they really wanted us to at least debate it so they could get that on camera.
"Nah, man. We still have souls."
I'm sure the ensuing fight would've been wonderfully trashy television. But we refused to mention it, because if it had even been brought up, it would immediately have made it to air, and then we'd look like the four dicks whose first impulse was to steal money from a bunch of children (the part where the producers prompted us to consider it would not have made it into the episode). And by refusing to play along, we actually gave the strange impression that people don't automatically stab each other in the back when left to their own devices. And what kind of reality show is that?
I should note that Kid Nation was cancelled after one season on the air.
Related Reading: Cracked also spoke with some survivors of that giant earthquake in Haiti and -- in a no-less-harrowing article -- this male porn star. We also spoke with this lady who grew up as the unwitting accomplice to a mass murder, and another woman who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult. Have a story to share with Cracked? We're right here.