Reality TV Not So Real

Fear FactorI hate reality television for a number of reasons. The first is a worker’s complaint: there is far less use of writers. (But don’t kid yourself: reality shows use writers just as game shows—which are just the oldest form of reality shows—use writers.) Another complaint is that all reality shows depend upon producers working behind the scenes to enhance the reality. Thus: reality shows are anything but reality. Yet another problem is that despite the writers and the producers, very often nothing actually happens on these shows. And thus they depend upon the editing and music departments.

Voice-over with low, somber strings. “Will Tim’s right testicle fall off?” Close-up of Tim. “Ouch!” he exclaims. The strings build. “Find out when we return.”

Or something like that.

I have long wondered why people would publicly humiliate themselves by going on reality shows. Friends have suggested that the real attraction of participating in these shows is the money. But they think this because they don’t understand that acting is a winner take all market—one in which those at the top make huge amounts of money but the rest make very little. To give you one example, when Robert Downey Jr. was down and out, he was paid only a half million dollars to star in the first Iron Man film. But after the success of that movie and Sherlock Holmes, he was paid $12.5 million for Iron Man 2 (a much worse film).

How much do people get paid for being on a reality show? According to AskVille [Amazon link dead], participants make between $750 and $5,000 per episode. For fulltime shows where the cameras are around all the time, the pay is normally $750 to $900 per week. Obviously, these people are not getting rich. Stars get paid more, of course. Donald Trump got $100,000 per episode for the second season of The Apprentice.[1] Celebrities on Dancing With the Stars can make up to a quarter million dollars if they last all the way to the end. In general, stars (and that’s pretty broadly defined these days) make between $10,000 and $25,000 per episode of any given reality show.

So if it isn’t the money, why do non-stars go on reality shows? I think that Will Wilkinson nails it: vanity. And there is a real problem here: it makes us look a lot worse than we are.

Reality TV selects for vain, emotionally volatile extroverts. Fear Factor doesn’t prove that, as a general matter, Americans will eat bugs for money. It proves that Americans who won’t eat bugs for money don’t show up at casting calls for Fear Factor… [I]t does suggest that America contains a huge number of vain, emotionally volatile extroverts.

I still think it speaks poorly of us that we watch this kind of stuff. But it is no worse than the parade of outrage that we get 24/7 on Fox News. Sure, the entertainment providers make matters worse, but there is something deep inside us that wants to gawk at the worst that we are.


[1] With $100,000, I could pretty much retire—that’s the kind of life I lead. But this kind of money shows without a doubt that Trump is lying when he says he is a billionaire. He would have to do The Apprentice for 500 years to make a billion dollars.

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