Reality TV.  What is it?  No one seems to be able to nail it down with a definition or create a solid distinction between it and other genres, i.e. documentary.  It seems like whatever suggestion you put forth is rebutted by some show that breaks the mold but still is generally considered ‘reality TV’.

I hit the online dictionaries in search of that elusive definition for reality TV:

– said reality TV is a genre of television programming in which ‘real life’ people are followed in a situation, game, etc.”  If this is the case, then how do we separate it from documentary, which too follow ‘real life’ people in a situation and sometimes even games?  From this definition, you can’t.  Sorry, you fail this time.

– Cambridge online dictionary:
“Television programmes about ordinary people who are filmed in real situations, rather than actors”.

For starters, Cambridge, you’re forgetting the whole sub genre of celebrity focused reality shows: Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Being Lara Bingle, Hogan Knows Best.  Do these celebs count as ordinary people?  Also, reality TV often uses actors.  Take the show Punk’d for example, which generally has more people acting than not.

Secondly, unless one considers the situation of a minority of farmers being surrounded by a majority of potential wives at a random farm in Australia with an army of camera crews filming the on goings – or other scenarios of this absurd nature – a ‘real situation’, then the definition again falls short.   Creator of Survivor, Mark Burnett, has admitted to this unreality common to the genre: “I tell good stories. It really is not reality TV. It really is unscripted drama.”

But even this unscriptedness has a question mark over it.  Reality TV shows generally employ a team of writers to dictate the narrative of the show.  If they want the fat girl to have a fight with the hot girl then they compose a scenario in which this will happen.  While the writers may not control every word coming out of their mouth, ‘soft scripting’ has the ability to make people behave in a way entirely different to what they may usually.  Other shows have been caught red handed going so far as to hand a cast member a line to say on camera.

According to screenwriter, Daniel Petrie Jr., “We look at reality TV, which is billed as unscripted, and we know it is scripted. We understand that shows don’t want to call the writers writers because they want to maintain the illusion that it is reality, that stuff just happens.”  Even just putting a camera in someone’s face has the capacity to change his or her behaviour.  Aaron Barnhart writes in his article How reality TV took over prime time, “In recent years filmmakers increasingly conceded that their work was subject to what they call the Heisenberg Principle. The idea, adapted from quantum physics, is that the very act of documenting reality — just flipping on a camera — disturbs and thus alters it.”  Defining reality TV as following people in ‘real’ situations seems far, far off the mark.

The online English dictionary tries to find a way around this ‘real’ error that Cambridge makes by defining reality TV as a type of television programming which aims to show how ordinary people behave in everyday life, or in situations, often created by the programme makers, which are intended to represent everyday life.”

Thus, it debatably makes it through a loophole by saying that a person eating a bucket of live cockroaches is intended to represent everyday life – perhaps in the way that it shows the triumph of the will over fear…  But still, it’s pushing it.

Personally, I found Urban Dictionary’s definition rather accurate:
A truly saddening development of modern media. Programming which lacks any redeeming social, intellectual or moral value but is nonetheless poignant in a macabre way due to the reflection it offers of a rapidly declining western culture. Primarily watched by mindless, brainwashed Americans who are long since bereft of any intelligent thought or recognizable human values.”

This derision that is so common to reality TV could be argued to be a defining factor of the genre.  James Poniewozik writes: “If there is one thing that reality TV fans generally agree on, it’s that they should be ashamed of themselves for watching it…  Arguably, the most widely agreed on definition of “reality TV” is “non-fiction television of which I personally disapprove.