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Do You Care if Reality Shows Are Real?

Do You Care If Reality TV Is Real or Not?

It's pretty commonplace today to hear griping about the amount of truth in reality TV shows that are supposed to be "real." The Hills has been under particular scrutiny for what elements are scripted, but the issue extends to many other shows as well: Fans tend to cry foul when contestants on American Idol actually have professional singing experience or when the designers of Project Runway seem to be chosen for personality rather than skill. But the outrage never really lasts — the shows are still immensely popular, and it's not like anyone's breaking the law.

So it's interesting to look at today in contrast to the '50s, when the rigging of a popular game show called Twenty-One was a major scandal. (Remember the Robert Redford film Quiz Show? It's based on this.) I got to thinking about it again because the contestant responsible for the fake-out, Charles Van Doren, has written about his role in the scandal for the first time in 50 years. It's a funny reminder of how far we've come in terms of how much fiction we'll tolerate on "real" programming. I didn't quite realize how crazy this scandal got back then — there were Congressional hearings!

Compared to the outrage over the rigged game show that occurred decades ago, there don't seem to be many consequences for faking on TV nowadays. Is it because we just don't care anymore? As long as it's entertaining, do you need a show to be really real?


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