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How much ‘real’ is in your reality TV?

Not even Simon Cowell could answer that one with a snippy sound bite. The short answer is: much more than is typically given credit.

Reality TV doesn’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story, but here’s something that is true: A common misnomer is that reality TV participants are often manipulated and coerced into doing things they’d prefer not to. I can assure you this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Participants are almost always willing to do whatever it takes to make entertaining TV. (A quick disclaimer: I am currently directing the the series Holmes Makes It Right, which airs in Canada on HGTV (whose parent company owns Global News.)

For the purposes of this article I’ll break reality TV shows down into two categories:

  • Format shows: Shows airing in different countries but produced in local versions that run for a set amount of episodes. Each episode contains a vote-off mechanism with the series leading up to an ultimate winner, such as – Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. All these shows have one thing in common; ordinary people, pitted against each other in extraordinary or created situations.
  • Character reality shows: Series that have no vote-off mechanism and contain real characters living their apparent, real lives. These include Duck Dynasty, Keeping Up With The Kardashians and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Orange County and Vancouver.

Reality TV shows tap into our psyche in one of three categories (or variations from each depending on the show), and producers know this:

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  • We attach ourselves to a character(s), become invested in their plight and ride right alongside as they experience their frustrations, joy and hopefully have the realization of their grandest dream(s).
  • We deplore and snicker at the characters. Through this public collective judgment we are momentarily gifted reprieve from our own occasional monotony.
  • We find the characters and their lives aspirational. They live lifestyles we covet. For 30 or 60 minutes we escape our mundane existence and are transported into their extravagant fantasy land.

Casting is everything when it comes to reality shows. Producers and directors not only look for monstrously obnoxious, opinionated, Snooki-esque personalities, they also have to consider how they will interact with others. Reality television usually attracts people who desire attention.

I’ve sat through hours and hours of tapes reviewing potential contestants, and sadly, there’s no magic formula when it comes to casting decisions. I use my gut. Am I drawn to this person? Are they easy to watch? Are they fearless and open to the show’s concept? If it’s “yes” to all the above, then they’re in the short pile. From that point, depending on the show, they’ll then come in for an audition and on-camera testing. If the producer and director like them, they’re in. Sometimes the network will need to approve the contestants. This again differs from show to show.

In a way we all have this skill set. We use it every day. If you’ve ever planned a seating arrangement for a wedding, organized a trip away with friends, or even a dinner party; the recipe for a fun-filled evening is a mixture of characters who excite and entertain.

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Unlike scripted drama, reality producers and directors are rarely assured their cameras will capture the drama their insatiable audience craves, so certain drama-instigating techniques are employed. For instance the producers of The Bachelor will pick which contestants go on the two-on-one dates. They base these decisions on the contestant’s chemistry, or perhaps complete lack of. Drama can come from both positive and negative situations, and in high-stakes reality shows producers look for a balance of both. Producers have also been known to pass on information to contestants that they know will trigger reactions.

Let’s not forget this is harmless entertainment. Just because these are real people, or rather, non-actors, it doesn’t mean these shows should adhere to the same journalistic standards of documentaries. Reality TV is not handcuffed to any professional moral standard, or code of ethics. We as an audience have relaxed our expectations towards the reality in reality TV. These are simply tools of entertainment and the best producers and directors never forget that.

Survivor – Cagayan, with its season premiere on Feb. 26, marks season 28 of this reality behemoth, and Big Brother Canada is launching its second season debuting March 5. These two monolithic reality series have sustained the attention of the public because season after season they continue to hone their specific formulas. They’re both unabashedly unapologetic and transparent about the premises, challenges and processes each series employs to push everyday Johns and Janes to/and beyond their limits.

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WATCH: Meet the Season 2 houseguests on ‘Big Brother Canada’

The cast on these hit series may want to be on TV, and the environments in which they exist may be entirely man-made, but when you next curl up under a blanket and treat yourself to a dose of guilty pleasure, consider a shift in perspective. After feasting on two hours of Statham/Stallone or Schwarzenegger-type fantastical film feats you don’t protest, “Wait up. That’s not real!” You sustain your belief. You allow yourself to be entertained. Reality TV isn’t all that different. Sure, they’re not actors delivering lines, but they are people who have a willing desire to entertain you.

You want to watch, and they’re happy to dance. So sit back and enjoy the show with a clear conscience. As we say in show business, “No persons, or animals, were harmed in the shooting of this series.”

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