Reality Check on Unscripted TV

Who can escape reality TV — unless you turn off your television, hide your computer, and let the batteries run down on all your TV-viewing electronic devices?

Reality TV is either a good guy or a bad guy, depending on whose opinion you prefer. To some, there's little reality — and even less dignity — to putting people in weird, awkward situations and having other people peer in on their human interaction. Others are glad to have something more real than scripted performances to watch and follow.

Getting real with "unscripted" shows

Individual personalities, egos, and instinct come into play in a reality show — right before and after the commercial break. After all, TV can't exist without skillful edits, advertising, and ratings.

Before the term "reality television" took hold at the turn of the 21st century, most broadcasts were recognized as scripted. Performers memorized and rehearsed lines, with directors pointing them here and there to make the right moves for their audience's enjoyment.

Movies, live stage, and lots of TV still perform with people assigned to specific roles they're expected to carry out. Reality TV introduces the sense that everything's happening without anyone interfering — sort of like having a parent who never insists on you following a direction.

What's "reality" really about?

Behind the scenes in reality TV, lots of people are hard at work to make viewers buy the action. Some of the messages come across the screen as

  • It's okay to do whatever it takes to be the last person standing  cheat, fake, lie, backstab, play dumb, manipulate. Winning is everything.
  • Bad attitudes and good sportsmanship may require some coaching to bring out the most intense moments for a top-rated episode.
  • Privacy's not protected. What you say and do is wide open to clever editing and a sometimes less-than-adoring public.
  • You may be able to cash in on your 15 minutes of fame, if you do or endure something so outrageous or amazing, your name lives on beyond the run of the reality show.

Reality TV isn't new. Back in 1948 — long before Big Brother, Survivor, The Bachelor, Fear Factor, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Project Runway, Amercia's Next Top Model, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and Cops — a creative genius introduced Allen Funt's Candid Camera.

What could be wackier than people put right in the middle of surprises in their everyday comings and goings? Would they laugh or get mad? Would they play along or push people away from their uncomfortable situations? Would the pranks play out for great TV?

Candid Camera had a long run, and other shows like it followed to make unscripted TV a reality.