Reality TV VS. Documentary

13 Mar

After last week’s class discussion regarding the different modes of documentary, I’ve found myself contemplating whether there is any similarity between this new-age phenomenon of reality television and documentary. As a reality-TV addict, I often wonder about the line between the two, which as time goes on, becomes increasingly blurred.

Firstly, I think it is important to realise that both forms thrive off the depiction of ‘reality’ or ‘truth’. In documentary, this ‘truth’ is usually uncovered through the process of observation or interview. However, many contemporary documentaries often overlap with the idea of reality television in some way. Reality television, like documentary, aims to present unscripted situations or actual events. They also cast everyday people over professional actors. Despite this factor, there are several key differences which must be noted.

I believe the main difference is that reality television, whilst it presents a facade of ‘reality’, often veers to the fictional or staged. The form of reality shown in reality television is highly influenced or modified in some way. For example, participants are often put in an abnormal setting that they would not normally be found in – just think of Big Brother or Survivor. Even the pressure of cooking in the ‘MasterChef Kitchen’ is different to that of cooking in the relaxed atmosphere of one’s own home!

Participants in reality television are sometimes coached or told to act in certain ’scripted’ ways by segment producers. Furthermore, editing and post-production techniques are employed to create the illusion of reality. If you think of the MTV program ‘The Hills’- this is supposed to follow and document the real lives of several girls growing up in Hollywood. However, it is quite clear that most of the drama is scripted.

Finally, reality television seems to be much more commercially concerned than documentary. The purpose of reality television seems to be to sensationalize normal situations in order to attract a wide audience and thus gain advertising dollars. That said, many could argue that documentaries such as those by Michael Moore, use sensationalist elements to make their point clearly. However what both reality television and documentary do have in common, is the fact that they are usually cheaper to produce than scripted drama. We all know money makes the world go round, and I think this is the key reason why networks are incorporating so many documentary/reality formats into their schedules… and will continue to do so!


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