Reality television became a popular genre of TV programming in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Its often-low budgetary requirements made it a lucrative format for television networks and producers, while providing escapist fare to millions of viewers worldwide. These are the pros; the cons of reality TV are seldom examined. Behind the scenes, the growth of reality TV has influenced business trends that do not favor writers, actors or other entertainment professionals. In front of the cameras, reality-show participants have been the victims, and sometimes the perpetrators, of trickery and deception.
For much of its history, prime time television programming emphasized scripted shows employing professional actors and filmmakers. A notable early reality show was Candid Camera, in which pranks were played on unsuspecting subjects who were filmed with hidden cameras. In the early 1990s, the cable network MTV produced The Real World, the first highly successful reality show. Other networks copied the formula of placing non-professional performers together in artificial environments and filming the results. In the 2000s, shows like Survivor and Big Brother became international ratings blockbusters, leading to an explosion of reality programming.
By 2004, major TV networks in the U.S. and other countries were developing numerous reality shows. This diverted funds that had previously gone to professional writers and actors, illustrating one of the major cons of reality TV. Creators of U.S. reality shows, sometimes called “show producers,” were not eligible to join unions, which could guarantee benefits and residual payments when their shows went into syndication. In 2006, the show producers of the hit series America’s Next Top Model went on strike, claiming that they were effectively writers, since they created situations and coached participants. The show’s owners, including model Tyra Banks, summarily fired them; as they were not protected by a union, the show producers had no legal recourse, discovering the cons of reality TV for themselves.
In 2007, the entire Writers Guild union went on strike, demanding that reality show producers should be allowed to join. The writers argued that this would create a level playing field, since networks and producers did not pay union rates to show producers. The resulting strike was a disaster, illuminating yet again the cons of reality TV for entertainment professionals. Producers and networks simply aired more reality programming, canceling scripted shows and laying off writers involved in the strike. The union was forced to make numerous concessions, and reality show producers were not allowed to unionize.
Other cons of reality TV include scandals involving onscreen participants. Cast members of the 2004 reality dating show There’s Something About Miriam launched a lawsuit after learning the beautiful woman they had courted on camera was actually a transsexual. The infamous “balloon boy” hoax of 2009 was perpetrated by former reality-show participants who had hoped to parlay the publicity into a show of their own. The stunt backfired, and the couple was fined and imprisoned. The following month, a couple participating in another reality show bypassed White House security to sneak into a state dinner with President Barack Obama, resulting in a well-publicized scandal.