Let’s stop saying all reality TV is scripted and/or fake: it’s not

As usual, 11 Points, by my friend Sam Greenspan, is spot-on in its observations, this time with a fantastic list of the 11 Most Tired Cliches About the State of Television. The cliches he identifies are obnoxious and need to go away; I’m especially tired of people complaining that certain networks are no longer true to their names.

But I strongly object to the seventh point–or at least, the phrasing of its explanation. Sam writes:

“Reality TV feels too scripted.” That’s because it IS scripted. For some shows, there’s just a rough outline with producers pulling the strings to create a story. For some shows, there’s an actual script with dialogue. But it’s all scripted, one way or another. I’m always surprised when people don’t know this. It’s like the Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy of television.”

I wish that item had said something like “All reality TV is low-brow trashy crap,” because that is an inaccurate cliche. However, saying “it’s all scripted” is simply not true. What is true is that it’s all produced, but there’s a big difference.

Yes, an increasing number of shows are planned and controlled and even written, but there are many shows that still focus on the authentic things that happen in a real or artificial context. This summer alone, we’ve had Naked and Afraid, The Freshman Class, and 72 Hours, for just a few examples.

All reality shows are produced–and, for that matter, so are documentaries, and news broadcasts, and talk shows–and that can affect how authentic and truthful they are. This site derives its name from the fact that we are not watching an unfiltered feed of real life on most reality shows, but instead a constructed version of it, even if it takes place in a real-life context.

Production of a reality show is a craft that can produce anything from unwatchable, unethical shit to outstanding art. And there is a huge difference between producing a show and scripting/faking a show. That means there’s a lot of gray area, and one show can be perfectly authentic and true to reality in one aspect that another show totally fakes, and vice-versa.

I’ll agree with Sam that way, way too many shows are over-produced now, so depending upon what you watch, it may seem like all reality TV is scripted. Networks want cheaper shows and don’t want to gamble that nothing might happen if they just film people for a period of time. Producers are left to do everything from pre-planning season-long arcs to feeding contestants dialogue, creating conflict that wouldn’t exist otherwise. I don’t like those practices and want them to stop, but I know that there will always be degrees of production and inauthenticity in reality TV.

I think we need to stop calling shows that are over-produced “fake” or “scripted” unless there is evidence that there is actual deception or scripting. Instead, let’s have conversations about how exactly shows are produced, with the help of cast and crew members who can help advance our understanding of how what we see on screen was constructed.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.