Where does Reality TV lie?

Others have already asked whether Reality TV is deceitful. The assumption is clear, that most viewers who watch this stuff know it to be staged, heavily edited, probably scripted in some form and certainly contrived. However, we have been trained by years of cinema and TV production to “willingly suspend disbelief” and what fascinates me is the range and scope of that suspension and how production companies have taken advantage of that. Indeed, whether there is danger in that.

While we know that “Star Wars”, for example, is fiction and wholly contrived, yet we can trick ourselves, for the duration of the show, into believing it is real, Reality TV is purporting to be real, and claims to use Real people in its presentation. It is harder for the audience to say “enough is enough”. It is harder to define what is true and what is not. This might be a special effect that goes completely unnoticed and unchallenged because we are told that the real “deceit” lies elsewhere. Because we are bewitched, charmed, dazzled by the words we are given to describe what it is we are watching, what it is we are welcoming into our home when we switch on the TV.

Reality TV might be such a spectacular “magic show”, such a superb sleight of hand that we are not even sure we have been tricked. The smoke and mirrors is utterly convincing. If we were in the 17th century, we would say we were mesmerized. It is, as was said of Mesmer, our own choice (“nothing comes from the magnetizer; everything comes from the subject and takes place in his imagination”), but the effect is remarkable. We are willing participants in a global deception. We are as “mesmerised” as were the prisoners in the cave and as reluctant as they were to identify what the deceit may be- but we will get to that and to the issue that accompanies it- Plato’s recommendation that a good city practices censorship.

First, we need to break down the trick and locate the artifice. This may take some time and I hope you will allow me a few attempts in the process. (I welcome feedback)

With Reality TV, much of the trick lies in setting up the conceit. The way the show is described is such a distraction in itself that maybe we never see where the real magic is taking place. I find the whole thing frustrating because, just as there is in the magic of David Copperfield or of Penn and Teller, David Blaine and Derren Brown, there is genuine art at work in the construction of these Reality TV shows, but the level of “promotion” and secrecy means that much of what is constructed goes without applause and the people who put in the hard work are never congratulated or praised for what they have achieved.

The language that is used is my starting point to try to untangle this web.

When considering what Reality Tv may be, there are a number of expressions, for example, that defiantly recur. Some of these are peddled by self-serving institutions- the production companies, agents and managers as well as the performers’ union, Equity. I will instace a few of these and suggest what they might actually mean.

  1. Reality Tv shows are a “game show”. This is a repeated claim that is demonstrably untrue. A “game show” would be independently monitored and properly regulated. It would be fair and transparent. Many Reality TV shows are blatantly unfair and few admit any independent scrutiny.
  2. Reality Tv casts are “contestants”. This develops the game show theme but also establishes that the cast as “ordinary people”, not professionals and certainly not performers. While this compounds the illusion that what we see is “real, it also means that they do not need to be represented by Equity, and that any of the rules pertaining to usual TV performance do not apply. This allows for insane and extended hours of filming, often at night.
  3. Reality TV participants are “enjoying” themselves. This is a sort of “holiday”. This claim, often peddled, allows producers to claim that the participants were not working and therefore do not need to be paid. They might receive a “displacement fee” or prize money, but they do not get paid a recognised fee. the fee goes to the presenter who might command a massive payout for what appears realitively little input. The presenter, a recognised face, validates the show and ensures that it is the show and not individual participants the audience remembers.
  4. Dealing with fame and disappointment: this is a routine discussion- that those who complain have a problem with fame. In my personal observation, it is not fame but manipulation by the producer’s agents before, during and after the show that causes the bigger problems. That manipulation can take many forms but boils down to continued, often unreasonable but certainly unforeseen control. As most participants have not got professional support or representation, it is little wonder they are open to protracted manipulation in this way.
  5. Participants “knew what they were signing up to”. Often, this is not the case, but, equally, many participants did not apply as the production publicity claims, but were recruited. In my own case, this happened very fast. I was sworn to secrecy and, therefore, was unable to seek real advice from anyone who knew what these shows were about before I went on the Circle.

Reality TV is often disingenuous about facts- eventually, the truth comes out but it takes time. As in the secret service- there are actually few genuine secrets so it is a matter of finding the magazines and the articles that spill the beans- and putting them together. In the case of “the Circle”, most of the “secrets of the show” have been shared by the producers in a series of articles each targeted at a different audience. There are also a number of podcasts and broadcasts by former participants who feel it is in the public interest to come clean. Put together, therefore, there is little that is genuinely hidden.

However, there is a bigger issue about whether the show itself and its sister shows across the Reality TV genre are promoting a wider lie. I believe, for instance, that “the Circle” was a magnificent Gettier problem– in other words, an example of a “justified true belief” that is, nevertheless, based on a deception. We are also touching on what Plato dealt with when he discussed the allegory of the cave in “the Republic”- the perception of an illusion which we mistake for reality. In the cave, there are puppeteers who control the deception just as producers and the “Voice of God” manage the activities of the performers on Reality TV. But, in the case of Reality TV, there is a second level of deception because it is not just the performers who are deceived- it is also the audience at home that are now the prisoners locked into a madness- or better still a magic because they are bewitched by the shadows on the wall and insist that what they are witnessing is demonstrably real. It is engaging. It is enjoyable. The characters on screen are making genuine decisions. They must be held responsible for their actions. Hence the social media hate mail and all the nonsense that follows.

It is apparently real, people appear to be making genuine decisions on screen over a period of a month or so, but if it were genuinely real it would be dull. We willingly suspend disbelief, we willingly accept the artifice and the management in order to be amused or distracted.

This would be good enough if that is as far as it went, but it has the power, the potential and, recently, has demonstrated that it has the will to undermine our moral values- think of the trailer for teh most recent series of “the Circle” –what would you loose to win.

It is promoting values that were once vilified as sinful. It promotes egotism and hedonism as postive, it rewards deceit. It salutes greed and assumes this is a norm.

Is this in itself wrong?

There are a variety of falsehoods. The first is the outright and constructed lie. The second is the unintentional mistake – an untruth at best, and the third is fantasy. But there is another way of looking at the problem and that is to ask about the degree of damage or harm caused.

We live in a society predicated on deceit. Accepting a constructed hierarchy is a form of deceit as, indeed, are the fables of Santa Clause. Even a game like chess is deceitful. Poker even more so. The legal system works on a from of deceit where one party stands against another and both construct arguments that may be riddled with known lacunae- it is for a jury to judge which account is accepted as truth. There is also the thorny issues of fiction and religious belief. All of this is discussed in Plato, particularly the error of “the poets” who present as truth something they know to be scurrilous and vapid. They present corruption or fake values as laudable because it is the behaviour of the gods, those we revere as famous, those we have set up as icons around our temples.

What Plato wishes to censor might be the very stuff we celebrate at the Oscars and the Olivier awards- the theatre of performance, but I think that is not his target. We have to remember that one of Plato’s greatest dialogues takes place at a dinner party following a drama festival and one of his companions is the comedy writer, Aristophanes. I cannot imagine, therefore, from what happens in “the Symposium” that Plato really intends to outlaw theatre. Equally, knowing what happened to his hero, Socrates, I cannot imagine that Plato has genuine religion in his sights. I think he is thinking of some other, more subtle deceit and I believe that Reality TV, in its present form, fits the bill very well. Reality TV, in its present form is something Plato would have judged pernicious.

If Plato were to be alive today, I imagine he would have identified fake news or fake advertising as a credible target as well. These go out to deceive- to suggest that something is true or beneficial when the film-maker knows very well that is not the case. Paid endorsements for something that is worthless – this is about misleading the public in a way, for instance, that political broadcasts are not. We may not agree, after all, with what Mr Farage says, but we cannot doubt that he and his followers sincerely believe it. There may be a case for denying him airtime, but it is not, I think, the same case that Plato is making. Mr Farage is not peddling deceit. And that is the issue at the heart of the debate both about Reality TV and about fake News. It is central to Plato’s plans for censorship. Plato is talking about stopping wilful deceit and stopping those who take advantage of the public. I wonder if the same issue lies at the centre of what I find worrying about Reality TV. Presenting something as true when it is not- feigning values that we do not have, displaying the sort of fake sentiments that would merit awards for an actor, but pretending this to be real, promoting a life-style that is wholly unattainable and fairly corrosive. And calling it all genuine or “Reality”.

This comes very close to the charge that Plato has against the poets- that we promote a “hero” in Achilles, a man who is flawed and whose behaviour falls short of the noble standards to which we should aspire. The problem is not that Achilles’ story is the wrong one or that it would be out of place on the stage, but that it is now used as a quasi-religion and presented as truth, or as “Reality”. The problem, I suggest, is that we cannot see that it is just a piece of Theatre. Achilles actions may influence others because those actions are presented as “real”. Achilles, in other words, is the first “influencer” and Plato thinks he should never have been awarded a blue tick.

I am inclined to agree.

I think that the values that have emerged in “Survivor” and the latest series of the UK “Circle” are detestable- I think that the message these shows now put out – that we are permitted to do all manner of wickedness in order to win- is wholly wrong. I also think that, as the Persian poet Rumi says, ماهی از سر گنده باشد نه ز دم “the fish rots from the head down”. It is a well-attested proverb in modern Turkish (Balik bashtan kokar) and Greek (Το ψάρι βρωμάει από το κεφάλι); it is also a sentiment Plato would have accepted-and it divides into two concepts: 1) that wickedness is linked to power and 2) that a good person does good deeds and conversely a bad person does and encourages bad deeds… We can judge people by what they do and we can trace the source of their actions. A bad leader not only leads badly but also behaves badly. That is the lesson we can learn from the histpory books in the bible and from the great plays of Shakespeare- In this case, we know the message is wrong (“what would you loose to win”) because the production companies also mistreat the performers. Wrong-doing, in other words, is literally woven into the narrative by wrong-doers. Wrong-doing is encouraged by production. And we, the audience, are also are caught in a spider’s web of deceit and nastiness and may be encouraged ourselves to imitate the show and participate in the spirit of wrong-doing. So, when a participant on at TV Reality programme says or does something suspect, we should look to the production company and hold it accountable. We should certainly not assume that what is said are the words of the character we see on the screen.

Of course, all this grim analysis does not mean that good cannot come from bad. It can. And equally, just bcause a performer on a TV show says something nasty does not mean they are bad, or even that the production company is wholly corrupt. It simply means the values that are being promoted are deeply worrying and have the potential to cause harm. More than that, we do not know how these seeds of wickedness will manifest. Certainly, they lead to misery and self-destruction – this can take years to arise but I would certainly hold that the recent death of Nikki Grahame is linked to her first appearance on “Big Brother” and to the way that particular show exploited her anorexia. But equally, at this stage, it is difficult to predict the impact that shows like “Survivor” and “Circle 3” might now have on the wider public. They send out a signal that greed is acceptable and that makes me anxious not just for today but for the future.

So much for the negative.

At the same time, these shows hold a mirror to the values we ouselves promote and they seem to me to be a way to record some of the things we consider important in our lives today. Reality TV has taken on the role that was played by soap opera in the 1980s and 1990s but with this caveat- that Reality TV, by the way it is promoted today, has the chance to stimulate more of the worse behaviour it both portrays and encourages. It recalls the language of Homer- this is how the gods behave, this is how heroes act- and why Plato felt that the poets legitimised corruption and so should be banned in a perfect society. But it goes further: Reality TV sanctions that behaviour by telling us that it is acceptable, it demonstrates it has benefits- all the way to the bank but it paints an unfiltered view of how ordinary people behave. This, it says, is normal. This is Reality! This is acceptable.

This is the lie, and it must be firmly challenged. If Reality TV cannot clean up its act or if our Governments continue to turn a blind eye because of the revenue these powerful companies bring in, then we must consider other options and we must also hold those who support them to account for the misery and death that Reality TV brings with it.


In response to Jack below, there are various forms of scripted show. I certainly was unaware of any script while I was on “the Circle”, but it seems to me, particularly from looking at some of the language used on recent shows that there is vocabulary and story arcs that seem to be comon and suggest a format if not a script. As we can be prompted, encouraged and on occasion, I am assured (though I do not believe I was ever fed lines to say), fed lines to say by the “Voice of God”, I think it is probable that various scripts lay underneath each day’s filming. A good example of this sort of scructire might be a page from an MTV show called “Geordie Shore” which certainly suggests that any spontanety is “structured”. The union Equity makes a distinction between what it calls “scripted reality production” and “a game show”- it apparently represents performers from the former though not the latter. It is difficult, of course, to ascertain which shows qualify.

There are also, certainly scenes that are reshot. I am not sure whether this qualifies as performance or reality. Equity was clear in a recent letter that this is no element of “performace” in a “game show”. I wonder in that case whether scenes of me doing Greek dancing in the kitchen qualify as part of the said “Game Show”. I am inclined to think not though arguably scenes of all cast memners dancing during the Oktobest fest may well qualify as a part of teh “Game Show”. It is very debateable and it is disturbing that unions, management and production pick up such charged and dismissive language.

In response to SamB, I agree wholeheartedly and it is shameful both of the TUC and of (British) Equity with whom I have been discussing this matter for a year, that no proposals have been forthcoming. If someone is working, they are entitled in principle to union representation but in this case, none is possible, though many of the runners, and production staff are represented by BECTU as was clear when the Guardian/ BBC reported about incidents of bullying in Studio Lambert over “Gogglebox” and “the Circle”.

This is the Statement BECTU put out in response at the time:

It is also signifiant regarding union representation that the General secretary of Equity, Paul Fleming, insists on using the terms “Game show”and “contestant” as well as isolating the term “performance”. This is what he apparently said on 27/04/21, ‘he received no money for a professional “performance”, and contestants were selected from members of the public, not from professional talent.’ I would dispute his inverted commas as well as his Oxford/Harvard comma.