How to watch — and judge — reality TV

How do you decide whether a reality show is high quality or not? How should we rate and evaluate reality TV when considering shows for awards, such as Emmys?

This seems simple: you just watch and decide! But it's not that easy, because so many of reality TV's elements are hidden from our view–or are at least not things we automatically consider and judge.

Most often, we end up judging the content, which is to say, we judge the behavior of the people on the show. That's worthy of discussion, absolutely, though it might not reflect reality at all.

Scripted TV shows are more straightforward to evaluate. All shows, from multi-camera sitcom to HBO mini-series, share the same basic elements: acting, writing, and directing. There's also technical work that's more behind-the-scenes, such as the score, set design, and costumes.

Reality television has some of that, yes, but it's not as clear. Instead of a single director calling the shots on a scripted show's episode, a reality show has producers on multiple levels making decisions, from contestant wranglers on location to story producers who shape what goes in the final episode. And a producer might have crafted an outline for what that episode should include long before production even begins.

Ultimately, there's very little attention given to the craft of reality television, and that's tragic, because there are some shows that are on par with the best scripted television.

How can you tell if, say, CBS' “The Briefcase” is exploitation masquerading as entertainment or uplifting, inspiring television? What leads me to argue that that Starz' “The Chair” was one of the best television series last year, from its perfectly crafted opening title sequence to the way the story unfolded over the season?

The answer lies in deconstructing the core elements that most reality shows have in common. We have to look at the content and beyond that to consider how every part of a show affects our experience watching it.

The 7 Cs of Reality TV

The content
This is what people most often focus on: what's happening, what people are saying, and what they are doing. Of course, that makes sense: it's what the show's producers want us to pay attention to, and probably why we tuned in. We enjoy watching Mark Cuban call someone's scam business a scam on the always-entertaining “Shark Tank” or seeing “The Real Housewives” have lunch and argue about some trivial thing.

What's critically important is that our understanding of the content is carefully shaped by all of factors that follow.

The concept
Reality TV shows tend to live and die by their concepts much more than scripted shows. While all television and art offers more than a mere summary can offer, people seem more willing to at least see how a scripted show comes together. And there's often much more depth. “Mad Men” is about far more than just an ad executive in the 1960s. “Seinfeld,” the show about nothing, encouraged people to tune and in and kept them watching because its performers brought those people to life, using the words that had been written for them by gifted writers.

Reality television ends up hewing much closer to its concept because producers can't rely on writers to craft perfectly layered scenes and moments. Instead, the concept itself has to deliver. Often it does, such as with “Shark Tank”'s multi-millionaires investing their own money in entrepreneurs, or “Naked and Afraid”'s naked strangers struggling to survive in a hostile environment for 21 days.

When we hear the concept for a reality show, we might reject it without seeing any footage. That was my feeling when I first read about CBS' “The Briefcase,” which gives two families $100,000 and asks them whether they want to keep it or give it away to another needy family.

Sometimes the concept might seem questionable but the execution is exceptional, as is the case with Lifetime's “Hoarders” or A&E's “Intervention.” Both shows are about intervening in the lives of people who are struggling with very real disorders and diseases, and doing that on television seems like it might be a bad idea. But both end up taking their responsibility to their subjects very seriously, helping them while also engaging and informing their audiences.

The context
The environment where a reality show takes place is critical to understanding its content. The context is often created by the producers. For example, think about “Survivor,” which has its contestants play a game while living outside with minimal food and water. The stress of that very real but still artificially constructed situation weighs on the contestants physically and emotionally, and can affect their behavior.

Sometimes the context is exactly like it would be without cameras. “An American Family,” the first true reality series, just followed a family in their own home and in their day-to-day lives. The show that it inspired, MTV's “The Real World,” had a far more constructed context–a fancy loft in New York City – but just filmed whatever happened inside that context.

It's important to think about what has been created by producers.

That includes how much the crew interacts with the cast. On NBC's new series “The Island with Bear Grylls,” the cast is literally on their own, filming themselves and living on a deserted island for a month. On “Survivor,” the cast is in regular contact with producers, camera operators, audio engineers, and others. But they also don't ever see the hundreds of people working to put the show together behind the scenes, from catering to the art department.

The cast
Reality television exists to watch real people in real situations. As we've discussed, sometimes those situations are inside artificial contexts, sometimes not. But what matters more than anything else are the people who the cameras and viewers focus their attention on. Reality TV shows live and die by the strength of their casts.

We can ask all kinds of questions about the cast: Are these people who sought out the show? Or were they approached by producers because they have an interesting story? Why did they agree to be on the show? Are they people who are on reality shows all the time and are just seeking fame? Or are they just naturally capitalizing on their popularity? Is their behavior authentic, or are they faking things–either for attention or because they've been directed to by a producer?

The contract
The contracts reality show cast members sign before appearing on a show can be daunting, pages and pages of legalese.  Just look at the “Survivor” contract or the “Big Brother” contract.

Contracts are often not public, though some have been revealed over the years by journalists. But that's all the more reason to ask what the production company and network is asking of its participants. Some of those things are basic and standard, like appearance releases and disclaimers; some contracts for competition shows specify rules. Others have really specific demands of their cast members that may or may not be fair.

Is this a show that prevents its cast members from talking about how the show was made? Are they hiding something? Or just being prudent? Does a competition show follow its own rules, or do its rules allow it to do whatever it wants?

The crew
These are the people who do the bulk of the work on a reality show. There are dozens of jobs and hundreds of people who can work on a single show. Some are obvious, like the camera operators, who might frame shots in interesting ways or place cameras in unexpected places (just watch during a “Survivor” challenge for the creative camera placement).

Others are people whose work we see constantly: the stage design for “American Idol,” the theme song that precedes “Survivor,” the aesthetic of “Catfish” with its pop-up Facebook bubbles. There are producers who wrangle contestants, people who design challenges, artisans who craft set pieces, lighting designers who establish mood. So many people, all of whom can affect how we experience a reality TV show.

The cut
How a show is cut together is absolutely critical. It affects everything. What you see on television isn't a raw, uncensored feed, which would be boring. (Just tune in to the “Big Brother” live feeds for a regular example of how uninteresting it is to watch reality show contestants waiting around.)

So, the editors' job is critical. But when we say “editors,” we usually mean a bunch of different people. First, there are those who do the technical work of assembling the episode. There are also loggers, who type every single thing cast members say and do, creating a searchable database for editors and story producers to use. Most importantly, there are story producers, the people who decide what narrative arcs to follow and/or construct from the footage. They might be directed by a reality show's executive producer or showrunner.

The work of all these people is super-challenging – imagine taking hundreds of hours of footage and trying to produce 43-minute episodes from it. Their work is also subject to ethical transgressions. Editors can “frankenbite” sentences, creating fictional sentences by cutting together fragments of other sentences, and constructing a brand-new reality.

Usually, all of this takes place far away from the on-location production, and the people who star on a show have no idea what will end up in an episode until they see it on television. I argue that cast members should be allowed to at least see footage first in order to offer feedback.

That has happened. “The Chair,” for example, allowed its stars to review rough cuts of the footage and offer notes to the show's producers about what they didn't think was fair. The producers took some of those notes and ignored others. That's atypical, for sure, but also gives the cast a say in their portrayal.

They're the ones who will be affected the most by what's on screen. If the show is just capturing and presenting their actions and behavior, that's fair; if the show is faking things and sensationalizing others, that's not.

Photos, from top: (1) from left, Ryan Seacrest on “American Idol” (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP), Bear Grylls on “The Island” (Chris Haston/NBC), Josh Scott on “The Briefcase” (CBS); (2) Shane Dawson and Cherami Leigh on “The Chair” (Starz); (3) Nick Fradiani in the season 14 finale of “American Idol” (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP); (4) Sierra Dawn Thomas and Jeff Probst on “Survivor” (CBS)