“DID YOU see that show last night?”
“Of course! It was so funny when he…”
Any avid reality television fan would have had this kind of conversation with a friend. Reality television is immensely popular in many parts of the world. Popular motifs include celebrities thrown into the wilderness, aspiring singers and dancers competing against each other, and even people simply living out their daily lives. This genre of entertainment program has gained immense popularity in Korea. Examples include “Infinity Challenge” which depicts celebrities completing various missions; “K-Pop Star” in which young aspiring stars practice and compete against each other for the grand prize; and “We Got Married” in which celebrities living their daily lives as “married” couples are filmed. All of these aforementioned shows seem to convey the reality as it is. However, things that happen “behind the scenes” seem to cause much controversy.
Behind the scenes
“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” If you are familiar with this phrase, you have witnessed what people consider to be the first reality show. “Candid Camera” was a comedy TV show revolving around actors that put people in funny, embarrassing, surprising, or infuriating situations. The hidden cameras would film people’s reactions to the situation and when the prank is over, the filming staff would show themselves, screaming gleefully, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” With this show’s monumental popularity came the birth of the reality television genre. Although a strict definition of reality show does not exist, as the names of “*Candid* Camera,” and *reality* television suggest, reality shows were initially considered to depict real situations.
However, the definition of reality television and its values have deviated as it gained popularity. In one of his books, Lee Young-don (Program Director, Channel A) describes how reality television is perceived today. He writes, “[Reality television is] a soap opera made more entertaining or an entertainment show dramatized.” As this interpretation suggests, reality television no longer reflects the whole truth. It is staged as in soap operas, but also contains some sense of “realness” to it, as in documentaries. Although this flexible nature of reality television may have attributed to a rise in popularity in recent years, it is this very nature that has caused much controversy. The fact that reality programs seem to portray real situations leaves the possibility for the viewers to believe that every scene on the shows is real, when they are actually staged.
Such an instance occurred with “Family Outing,” a reality show in which in each episode, the cast members visit an elderly person’s house, complete the “things-to-do” assigned by the seniors, and stay for the night. The program had amassed a huge fan-base, reaching the zenith of its popularity on February 21, 2008 with 30% rating. However, in a controversial episode that aired on October 25, 2009, viewers questioned the “reality” of a cast member catching a red seabream, a type of fish that could grow to one meter. In the scene, the fish hook was penetrated into the seabream’s mouth from the outside, something that rarely happens naturally. Not only that, many self-proclaimed fishing experts added fuel to the fire by commenting that the bend of the fishing rod was too slight – a healthy red seabream would normally resist, causing a greater bend on the fishing rod which would be more visible. This controversy has caused many viewers to lose trust in the program. Consequently, “Family Outing” only continued to air for four more months before ceasing production.
“Law of the Jungle” is a reality show that deals with celebrities going into the jungle and surviving in the exotic wilderness. The show films the cast facing extreme situations and overcoming these obstacles in order to survive. This show recently got swept up in a fabrication controversy. The controversy was set aflame when Kim Sang-yu, the representative of The Company Entertainment which one of the cast members is affiliated with, made a Facebook post about “Law of the Jungle.” The post heavily implied that the staff members of the show released captured animals in the jungle, and the cast members would recapture them, as if these animals were wild. Kim Sang-yu sarcastically wrote, “You should go to Central Park in New York to catch squirrels,” only to hastily delete the post soon after. As if this Facebook post planted seeds of doubt into people, many netizens began to dig up more evidence against the reality of “Law of the Jungle.” Amusingly enough, many of the places that were filmed turned out to be rather well-known tourist attractions, despite the fact that the program depicted these places to be the life-threatening wilderness. The unveiling of these facts resulted in drops in ratings and much criticism on the internet.
Incentives to “manipulate”
Korean viewers are highly critical towards shows that fabricate their scenarios. However, despite the public’s distaste of fabrication, the number of controversies does not seem to decrease. To get to the root of this problem, it is important to understand the raison d’etre of reality shows, or even broadcasting stations as a whole. Like any other business, TV broadcasters exist for profit, and commercials are the biggest sources of income. In order to get paid more for commercials, each broadcasting station seeks to increase its ratings. Ergo, to increase the ratings, each show tries its best to fulfill its niche.
As for reality shows, their merit lies in their ability to entertain. To fulfill the demand for entertainment and compete with other shows that air simultaneously, reality shows have to grab the viewers’ attention. One solution that many reality programs opt to is manipulation of scenarios. Suh Sang-hyun (Program director, KBS) asserts that there is not a single reality show in Korea that is not manipulated. He says, “If we were to make a documentary about your daily life without any form of manipulation, it would be extremely mundane. After all, what are the chances of an extraordinary event happening on that specific day of your life? However, if I manipulate a special event into the documentary, it could be a little bit more interesting.” By providing us with this metaphor, Suh wants people to be aware that being “truly honest” is meaningless, as the show will turn out to be insufferably boring.
Time restraints and budget constraints are also the reasons why it is difficult not to manipulate the “reality” in reality television. It is unrealistic for cameras to be running at all times for an entertaining moment that may not happen at all, nor is it financially viable to invest so much in a reality show. The possible danger that the cast members may face is yet another factor to be considered, especially in outdoor reality programs where celebrities are exposed to the wilderness. For instance, if “Law of the Jungle” is really as dangerous as it claims to be, only a few celebrities would be willing to appear in the show at all. Thus, it may be natural for the production crew to provide a safe environment for the celebrities, feigning life-threatening situations for ratings. Essentially, the production crew chooses to direct shows to be full of manipulation for the purpose of entertainment.
Seeking for the answer through different angles
It is paramount to recognize that the reality show directors are in a form of double-bind. They are left with two lose-lose options: if they are caught in the act of manipulation, the program may have to shut down, and if they do not manipulate to make the program interesting, it will have to cease production as well. As a result, to carry out the basic role of producing an entertainment program, the production staff chooses the former option and takes a risk. If caught in the act, viewers would rip apart any show, regardless of how much they were entertained watching it. This raises the question of how one could possibly prevent this from happening.
Choi Yang-soo (Prof., College of Communication) believes that manipulation controversies arise from an ethical fault on the part of the staff members because they are tricking the viewers into believing falsehood. Hence, he also finds that the possible solution to end these controversies is to demotivate the staff members from manipulating. He suggests three possible ways to avoid more controversies in the future. According to Choi, there is a need to educate the program directors and the staff members on basic “filming ethics,” implement harsher penalties for manipulation, and make sure that critics continue to be wary of these manipulations. By using these demotivational strategies, it may be possible to stop any further controversies about reality television.
Unlike Choi who criticizes the production crew, Suh is more concerned about people’s attitude towards reality television as a whole. Suh says, “It is, without a doubt, the production crew’s fault if they distort the truth and portray it as reality. However, people need to understand that reality shows are just entertainment programs, nothing more, nothing less.” It is true that the very purpose of reality television is simple – to make people laugh. It may be the case that as viewers, we are sometimes too critical of a reality show’s realness, or rather lack thereof, even though its ultimate purpose is to entertain. If it is for the sake of entertainment, we may need to be more understanding of small, insignificant details. After all, jokes become funnier with a hint of deception.
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Idealistically, there should be no manipulation at all in reality television; but realistically, this is impossible. Thus, there is a need for both the production staff and the viewers to be careful. On one hand, the production staff needs to make sure that it does not misconstrue an imperative truth; on the other hand, the viewers need to get over the minute details, and remind themselves that the purpose of reality television is entertainment. Fretting over small, insignificant details makes no one happy – sometimes, we need to just laugh it off.