Art & Entertainment

Once upon a Time in Reality TV 

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This article explores what relation reality TV shows bear to reality and investigates the distortive techniques that are used in these shows to construct a narrative. 

Movies and TV series are fiction. Reality is, well, reality. But is it always this easy to differentiate between reality and fiction? 

There certainly is a grey area, and it is called hyperreality. Coined by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in 1981 in his Simulacra and Simulation, the term hyperreality means “the generation by models of a real without an origin”. Simply put, hyperreality is a representation without a reference.

Think of the world-famous, omnipresent reality TV show Survivor. It is marketed as a simulation of what would happen if people were living on an island, competing for resources and protecting themselves from the dark side of nature. However, in our world, a context in which people who normally pamper themselves with creature comforts daily suddenly switch to living the primitive life on a wild island lifestyle is almost non-existent. Even if we think of a group of people from a sinking ship who ended up on an island like Robinson Crusoe did, their situation is different from that in Survivor, because these folks know that whatever danger they face is real, and that there is no crew member to save them if their life is at risk. Thus, Survivor, as a reality TV show, is supposed to be a representation, yet it does not represent a context that exists in reality. 

Reality TV shows display, therefore, a “constructed reality”, yet even this constructed reality is distorted before it is served to the audience. After all, what producers of these shows need is more views, and editors for reality TV are responsible for ensuring this. There are many manipulative editing techniques that can make a show more entertaining and spicier, and one common technique is executing a “frankenbite”. A portmanteau of “Frankenstein” and “soundbite”, a frankenbite is a clip made through merging clips from different shots in such a way that it seems like a single shot. In other words, editors can take contestants’ sentences out of footage from different times, and place them one after the other to generate a clip that appears as an actual conversation. They can even place words of a contestant from different shots one after the other in order to construct sentences that were never said.  

When playing with words, sentences or conversations prove insufficient, one can always resort to playing with the composition of events. Editors can position scenes that were shot days or weeks apart in such a way that they appear as if they took place immediately after one another. Likewise, they can change the temporal order of events, making coincidental or accidental events look planned or plotted. 

Even though they sound more innocent than the aforementioned methods, cherry-picking quotes or scenes can also be very powerful tools to alter reality with. For instance, you may have noticed that in reality shows, there are quite a bit of scenes in which contestants quarrel or fight, actually, a bit too many. If you think about it, a Big Brother contestant taking a nap would not attract many viewers, but two contestants having a big fight surely will. This is why editors make arguments the star of the show. Fighting may, in reality, be making up a very little portion of the contestants’ life down in the house, but if you cherry-pick all fight scenes you had that week and put them in that week’s episode, you can easily create the illusion that the contestants do nothing but fight all day. 

Deleting scenes or parts of scenes is another trick. For example, let’s say Contestant Joe is a good-natured person who loses it when he is angry. If editors decide to focus on this “losing it” side of his, they can simply avoid putting any footage that explains and justifies his anger into an episode, thus making him look like an aggressive, unreasonable figure. Similarly, if editors would like to make an angel out of actually hypocritical Contestant Jane, they can delete any scene or part of a scene that involves her talking behind people’s backs. If another contestant finds out what she has been saying around and confronts her, due to Jane’s constructed image, the viewer will most likely believe that it is a false accusation. 

Considering all these, it wouldn’t be implausible that, after all, some of the scenes are just scripted. It would also not be implausible that in some shows, by the time the casting is complete, the producers know who will make it to the top three. 

Reality TV is a misnomer, because reality TV consists of fiction. But it also consists of reality. In fact, in reality TV, fiction and reality are intertwined in such a way that it is not possible to find out where one starts and the other begins. Along these lines, reality TV is reminiscent of a currently hotly debated issue: virtual reality. 

Author profile

Cansu Süt is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi University. She graduated in Economics from Bilkent University in 2020. She is passionate about political economy and behavioral economics. Formerly an arts and culture writer at GazeteBilkent, she is an art aficionado and enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages in her free time.

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