The illusion of reality television

Reality television is in many ways a fiction

The front door of a white, expensive-looking house with pillars and balconies.
Source: Flickr

When the first series of reality show Made in Chelsea aired in 2011, it was clear from the beginning that the heart of it was the relationship between two young Londoners, Spencer Matthews and Caggie Dunlop.

Between them, their conventional good-looks and blasé affluence became the distilled essence of the show. He was a bad boy socialite, as much a charming womaniser as he was caught up by other women’s charms, a Restoration rake stuck in Belgravia; she was the vulnerable, uncertain girl-next-door, someone from his childhood who suddenly reappears as a beautiful adult. Her re-entry into the Chelsea bubble disrupts his relationship with his long-term girlfriend, and throws the whole series into a drawn-out will-they-won’t-they arc of constant romantic deferral. The plot is perfect – part fairytale, part realism, all performed against the backdrop of the mansions of Knightsbridge. But doesn’t it all sound a bit too good to be true?

Made in Chelsea is a reality television show, but it admits to being a ‘structured-reality’ television show. The true nature of Spencer and Caggie’s real-life relationship cannot be truly known, by virtue of the fact that nobody’s relationship can authentically exist in the public eye. But its depiction on the show cannot be the truth of it. For one, nobody can make genuine, heartfelt declarations of love with cameras shoved up close and a whole crew of directors, producers, and engineers leering round; for another, by claiming to offer a ‘structured-reality’, the show effectively concedes to the fact that it hires scriptwriters and story developers to construct the ‘reality’ we observe; they admit to using television magic to conjure illusion.

The great irony of reality television is that it is, of course, an illusion. The creators manage to construct this pretence in two ways. On set, producers are able to contrive circumstances that allow them to control the content of the show.

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For example, in the Love Island house, books and televisions are banned. The contestants’ phones are taken away from them, and they are instead given ones that are disabled from the internet. As it turns out, great television isn’t made by letting people watch it all day. It’s easy to imagine how this absence of mental stimulation cultivates an atmosphere of cabin fever, one in which tensions are raised to fever pitch and pack mentalities doggedly persist, when there isn’t a great deal else to do. Ironically, it’s the absence of activity that makes the show as voyeuristically entertaining as it is.

But when they have the footage, the producers then have to construct a narrative for the episode in the editing room. In the moment of filming, what happens can be manipulated to some extent through persuasion, creating high-pressure environments, or penning contestants in, but humans are still humans – they’re still prone to responding contingently, to behaving erratically, or simply to offering very mundane content. In order to make the show feel cohesive, well-structured, and logically episodic, the editors must work to construct narrative threads throughout each episode, whether it be that of conflict, romance, or failure.

Reality television is, then, in many ways a fiction. They tell us they are depicting something akin to an authentic reality, but flatten and stabilise the randomness and contingency of actual life, while refusing to overtly acknowledge the authorial voice behind it.

None of this manipulation would really matter if the content was actually fictional. But real people are implicated in this process, and their representations on national television won’t always help them when they leave the villa, or step back into the world of work.

Narrative arcs in reality television follow the tropes of folklore – good vs. bad, hero vs. enemy – and so those who are demonised in the editing process have their reputation soured. In an age of internet trolling and hyper-awareness about online reputation, this depiction isn’t easy to come out of. For all those celebrities who feed off of this gossip for their fame, like the Kardashians, for example, this concern is perhaps no issue.

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But for the average person thrust into the limelight, they will come out of reality television with bucket-loads of baggage that has been amped up by producers, dissected by the Twittersphere, and dumped unceremoniously on their CV.

The fact remains that people still tune in. People will happily block out that which disrupts their illusion, when the illusion is far too much fun to bother becoming disenchanted with.

It seems it might all be too good to be true – but it’s also too far good to ignore.