Eight Things You Don’t Know About Reality TV

Think you know everything about your favorite reality shows? Think again. Andy Dehnart, a reality TV expert and founder of reality blurred, shares eight things you don’t know about reality television.

1. Cast members sign restrictive contracts

Read the Survivor contract, the Big Brother contract, or The Real World’s contract and you’ll see what cast members agree to before the cameras ever start rolling. That ranges from being inflicted with “severe mental stress” to allowing a TV network to register their name as a domain and use it forever.

2. Cast members on competition shows don’t go home, they are sequestered

When people are eliminated from reality competitions, such as Top Chef or Survivor, they talk about going home. But they won’t return to their homes and families until the show is finished filming; instead, they are sequestered. That keeps the cast in one place in case they’re needed again, either to return to the competition or as a jury, but it also prevents others from learning the outcome of the show, because the whole cast returns to their normal lives at the same time. If you want to know what Top Chef’s sequester is like, read about one cast member’s experience.

3. Winners don’t always get the announced prizes

The reward for being on a reality show is often quite large, but some shows don’t quite deliver on their promises. For example, NBC’s summer competition America’s Got Talent promises $1 million, but pays that out over 40 years, so it’s only worth about $375,000 today. The Fox series Hell’s Kitchen has promised its winners “head chef” positions, but they have rarely taken such a position.

4. Editing is everything

Every reality show is edited; there is just too much footage and too little time to show it all. Plus, we like to watch narratives unfold, so editors and story producers pick and choose what to show in order to develop a story. They can do that ethically or unethically; unethical editing includes creating brand-new sentences from someone’s dialog, which is known as “frankenbyting”. For a comical take on how editing and production work, watch this video.

5. There’s all kinds of product placement

It’s no secret that companies pay to have their products featured on TV shows, including reality TV. But did you know that even cities and states pay to have their location featured? For example, New Orleans and Louisiana paid $375,000 to host filming of Top Chef this summer.

6. A lot of work is involved in producing a reality series

Many talented people work on reality series, from expert camera operators who capture flawless shots in high definition to audio engineers who make sure we hear everything. A show has to be conceived, planned, cast, shot, and then edited, and each component is a huge undertaking, even for smaller shows.

7. No one agrees what the phrase “reality TV” means

People often assume all reality TV is fake, but that’s not true at all. Even a show like Duck Dynasty, which is essentially a sit-com, is complicated because the characters are real people living their real lives–in addition to acting out scenarios set up by the producers.

In reality, reality TV includes everything from shows that lie to viewers about what they’re doing and showing to pure, raw documentary-style series that are as close to reality as a TV show can get. But the phrase “reality TV” is used to describe all those shows. To see how one of those more documentary-style shows is made, read this behind-the-scenes experiences on Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars”.

8. Reality TV really has value

Because reality shows usually feature real people in real-life scenarios facing real consequences, they have a lot to offer us. They can be both entertaining and educational. To find out why I think reality TV is so important–really!–watch my TEDx Talk.

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