The Blurring Lines of Reality Television and Documentary

Today, we live in an information-driven, digitized, media-crazed world of constant overflow of entertainment. With growing technology that has enhanced smartphones, tablets, television viewing, computer programming of all kinds, and even car rides—media entertainment is easily accessed at one’s fingertips and mere disposal. This You Tube-generated, social media-motivated society, where hundreds of thousands if not millions of videos are uploaded daily on the web, prompts a whole new approach to television, film, and video. Through entertainment and education an entirely new paradigm of reality begins to occur in our thinking and interpreting the modern world. The concept of reality and the very way reality is viewed has shifted within a generation that often has a tendency to confuse, conflate, and even manipulate the dissemination of truth and what exactly is going on. One clear example of this shift in thinking occurs in reality television programming and documentary filmmaking where blurring lines, sub-genres and gray areas of documenting realty with a video camera are still being defined.

Reality television, a 21st century phenomenon, has grown to unprecedented and unanticipated scale with a popularity that covers a wide range of viewers and demographics. While the genre of documentaries—both in television and film—have grown over the years in the past two and three decades it has yet to reach the level of scale of reality television consumption in terms of popularity and dollars grossed. One can argue that humanity—if not just the Western world—has reached the crossroads in understanding and interpreting “reality” via the camera. Such a crossroad affects how people perceive and understand reality in an information-driven, digitized, media-crazed world designed for mass consumption and entertainment appeal. Since television, film, and video production play a significant role in all of our lives to some degree it’s important to re-evaluate what reality is and how it should be understood if not consumed by mass diverse audience members. On a minor but relevant note one may even argue that reality television has added tremendously to a celebrity-driven culture where popularity and the ostentatious lifestyle is more favored than intelligence, education, and Truth (with a capital T) itself.

Reality television is defined as a genre of television programming that documents unscripted situations and actual occurrences, and often features a previously unknown cast. The genre often highlights personal drama and conflict to a much greater extent than other unscripted television programs such as documentaries. The genre has various standard tropes, such as what is termed “confessionals” used by cast members to express their thoughts often in a sit-down, interview-style set-up where the subject of a show addresses the camera, which often double as the shows’ narration. In competition-based reality shows like “American Idol” “The Biggest Loser” and “The X Factor” there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of immunity from elimination.

Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity. Much of the criticism has centered around the use of the word “reality” itself, and such shows’ attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred often to the appeal for entertainment. The question arises whether the attempt at reality television programming is an actuality of nonfiction. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not present reality in ways both implicit (participants being placed in artificial situations) and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, the acting out of scenes, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. The staging or re-staging of scenes and scenarios in reality-style by producers is often considered as “soft-scripting”, which in many ways plays an affect toward what reality is and how it should be conveyed.

One can easily argue to much greater extent how documentaries whether they are classified into subgenres like docudrama, docutainment, docu-series, and so on can have the same tendency if not tenets of reality television like unscripted situations and the documenting of unknown participants. In classical understanding of documentary films there are modes to documentaries that can be referenced as sub-genres which include: Poetic, Expository, Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, and Performative. Each of these modes and subgenres “play” with reality for the producers and directors through editing, scripting, and documentation much to the same degree as the makers of reality television content.

Where the crossover of reality television and documentaries begin to show difference is how much power the producers, directors, and makers of a particular show, programming, or film give to reality itself. Documentaries often is a compilation of sit-down, expert interviews with cinéma vérité scenes, b-roll footage, and archival material of video (or film) and pictures all for the attempt to tell a story or deconstruct a social issue. Cinéma vérité is a key focal point in understanding how directors/producers of documentaries approach their work. Here, the film crew simply follows a story and its important subject(s) in real-life scenarios often with the impulse that the story is too strong, important, interesting, and fascinating to tamper with in any editorial proclivity. This approach demands a level of honesty and integrity for reality in the literal sense. The cinéma vérité approach is the most compelling act in a documentary to validate its attempt at documenting reality in the nonfiction sense. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil Truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema—mainly without a narrator’s voice-over. Documentaries can also be detached with the conflating definition of reality television by documentary filmmakers’ and their teams’ ambition in covering something and someone in-depth. It can be argued that reality television fails if not excludes itself in digging deeper from the surface of a subject matter and the people involved. Morever, the very tenacity at “entertaining” target audiences differs in degrees and value for producers of reality television and documentaries.

In simplicity, reality television and documentary can be best understood by its very name and title. Documentaries, in fact, document a storyline, subjects of a suggested narrative, a social/political issue, and the historical veracity of something or someone. Documentaries are thorough, comprehensive, in-depth, and motivated in informing rather than just appealing to audience members. Reality television is programming and content that is of reality not simply realistic. Scenarios, storylines, events, and subjects in reality television shows tend to be nonfictional and real. However, content remains on the surface of addressing people and their stories in an appealing and entertaining way. Reality television focuses more on drama and conflict in human situations and scenarios while documentaries focuses more on research, information, and documentation of human situations and scenarios. The conflation of reality television and documentaries comes from both genres’ work in subjectivity. As it may be overlooked documentaries are not immune to subjectivity in the production and post-production phases. The best documentary filmmakers do in capturing a storyline impartially is to provide both sides of an issue and all voices to a subject matter for a debate where viewers then decide the Truth. Reality television works strictly in subjectivity with the participants on camera agreeing to come together in scenes and “act” accordingly in tempted if not manipulated scenarios such as reunion shows after a season’s end, singing in front of judges for a music performance competition or even being weighed in front of a trainer for a target goal to be reached.

Time will tell how reality television content and documentaries will continue to evolve in the near future probably based on audience members intrigue and interest in what’s going on especially as both genres prove to be cost-effective to produce. In a radical view reality television may be a genre in filmmaking similarly how documentaries expanded from film to television a couple of decades ago. One of two things for sure will occur in these gray areas of documenting reality through video. One, if mass markets for media consumption leans toward distraction and emotional impulse reality television will continue to grow in market appeal and entertainment value. Or two, if mass markets for media consumption lean toward being more informed and educated through researched information and documentation all with the serious intention in knowing what is going on documentaries will grow in mass appeal and interest.

One thought on “The Blurring Lines of Reality Television and Documentary

  1. Ted

    Hi Adelin,

    Fascinating and very important discussion. For me, reality-based programming is simply fiction borrowing some documentary techniques – great films like Battle of
    Algiers and Roma Citta Aperta would also fall into this category, so it is not a pejorative connotation, per se. However, it has become so because so much reality-based programming today is manipulative and deceptive , and these programs have as much to do with documentary as staged gladitorial combat. Staged events have always been the demarcation line for documentarians since the days of Dziga Vertov and Kino-Eye. Vertov himself proclaimed that staging was out of bounds, although he was known to stage things when he had to – just like most documentarians. The documentary genre consists of a number of conventions, and nothing is etched in stone. However, when blatant staging is discovered, and that staging has resulted in what appears to be a complete fabrication in the guise of documentary, then there is often a justifiable uproar. Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH was a notorious example – Flaherty was clearly imposing his own theatrical vision upon the life of the eskimo and calling it “documentary”. F.W. Murnau’s TABU was an interesting contrast, since it had many of the elements of NANOOK, but had no pretensions of being a documentary. It was just a theatrical film shot on location wth local talent. In this context, Leni Riefenstahl’s ” TRIUMPH OF THE WILL is an interesting case. In spite of her many denials, the film is recognized as a classic example of totalitarian propaganda techniques, but is often mentioned as a “documentary”. Those who do so may be unaware that Riefenstahl filmed the previous year’s party congress as a dress rehearsal, and then spent a year
    planning camera positions and shots. ( both versions are on YouTube!) In addition,
    Riefenstahl clearly had unlimited access to the event with Hitler’s blessing, and probably had the power to stage whatever she wanted. As a result, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL would fall into the category of industrial film, rather than documentary. This does not lessen the technical achievment; however, one cannot compare a big-budget commercial to a documentary.

    The distinction becomes more blurred in the case of AN AMERICAN FAMILY. Here, Alan and Susan Raymond tracked the disintegration of an American family in classic cinema verite style.I worked with Alan and Susan, and know them to be dedicated practitioners of cinema verite in a day when cinema verite was almost a religion.
    However, as HBO film about the production showed, the producer was less scrupulous, and was ready to create drama for the sake of the almighty television ratings. In the process, he had crossed the line into reality-based programming. And when he started having an affair with his female protagonist, there was no coming back! 🙂


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