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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Does it matter if “reality TV” is fake?

House Hunters

Apparently the HGTV reality show House Hunters has been outed as a fake, but so what? Haven’t we known all along that reality TV is nothing but a put-on?

Andy Dehnart at The Daily Beast thinks it matters:

Labeling a television show as “reality TV” represents a contract with the audience that the program has consequence to its real-life cast members. A network is saying to its potential viewers: This show will affect real people, whether they are people who are just like you or are fun for you to mock. Whether cast members are competing for $1 million or just being filmed in their daily lives, their experience in front of cameras has an actual impact on them.

The bottom line is simple: The people on our screens can be affected, and we can be affected by them. That contract, that promise of consequence and authenticity, is what causes people to tune in, to tweet about the show, and to generate ratings and advertising dollars.

As engaged and moved as we can be by the characters in Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Girls, or Parks & Recreation, we know their characters aren’t real. The actors aren’t in jeopardy. They’re people who make headlines and usually go on to other projects. They are not at risk of being killed, as are the people featured on—and people who film—Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, for example.

When viewers are lied to about what really happened when a reality-TV show was filmed, the contract is broken.

Dehnart’s reasoning is a bit weak, and doesn’t convince me. Marcelle Friedman at Slate has a better explanation of why — in the case of House Hunters, at least — the deception is truly problematic:

Showing houses that aren’t even for sale at prices divined by its producers, House Hunters is presenting dangerous misinformation about the home-buying process and deleting all of the accompanying complications and consequences. It’s turned what is actually a messy, frustrating, often dead-end process into a seamless (and perhaps necessary) path toward fulfillment. What’s more, it seems likely that viewers use the prices, locations, and home criteria discussed on the show as barometers for their own house hunts because the information is presented as fact.

If viewers are looking to reality shows for actual information to put to use in their own lives — as opposed to merely getting a vicarious thrill or schadenfreude-ish snicker out of the antics of celebrity fools — that does seem to be a problem.

What do you think? Does it matter if “reality TV” is fake? Does actual authenticity matter more with some reality shows, such as House Hunters, than others, like Jersey Shore?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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