Way Too Many Words Spent Categorizing Reality TV

Snow was up to my belt. And my car was stuck. What else was I supposed to do but watch Top Chef?

I decided to take reality TV and categorize it. I can’t believe I ended up doing this. All I really wanted to do was rail on terrible television, but it ended up turning into this. Kinda sad actually. Anyway, I’ve been snowed in for three days. I found it wasn’t “reality” TV I hate –just bad TV. There are lots of programs that are “reality” programming that are enjoyable and well made. What I can’t stand is the wave of cheap, non-union* written programming that came about in the past decade. Anyway, take a look. I might have gotten some of this wrong – and I’m pretty sure a lot of the categories could be interchangeable – but I don’t care.

*Yeah. Non-union. There was a writers’ strike. Remember that?Reality TV’s popularity was an unintended by-product of the networks’ union busting.

Game Show

Cash Cab

Fear Factor


Traditional Game Shows


Wheel of Fortune

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

Weakest Link

Price is Right

Other than content, there isn’t much difference between newer game shows and older ones. The only real standout is Cash Cab. The more up to date “reality” element here is that the participants did not decide to get on the show – they were randomly sampled. Therefore, one assumes they wouldn’t have as much coaching*. Furthermore, most camera shots are from inside the cab, which one would assume is easily covered for all angles.

*As happens in all other game shows and, I assume, most “unscripted” reality shows.


Modern Marvels


How It’s Made

Nature Programs



Really? You enjoy watching people suffer?

All of these shows border on the traditional documentary. I see the above shows as documenting something rather than engineering it. Certainly there’s some of that here – especially in Intervention and Hoarders. Some of that goes on in your traditional documentaries though. There are elements of this in some other shows – like Pawn Stars and Storage Wars. However, those usually have more scripted conversations and staged encounters.

Random Host-Driven Experiential

No Reservations

Weird Foods

Other Travel Shows


Dirty Jobs


Man vs. Wild

I wanted to put these in Documentary, but there’s too much engineering going on here. Clearly, in each of these cases you have people doing pre-planned and staged events. However, the fact that it’s pre-planned and staged is understood. The experience the participants have in the event is what we’re looking for in addition to the outcome, which we assume isn’t predetermined.

Science Experiment


Big Brother

The Amazing Race

The Real World (?)

Sometimes competitive, but not judged in a traditional sense. The appeal is based more on the interaction between contestants than the skills they possess. However, skills come into play. The surroundings and scenarios are understood to be set up and the participants’ actions and interactions are what attracts the viewer. It’s borderline sociological study.


Does anyone actually idolize any of these people? Does anyone even know who they are?

American Idol

America’s Got Talent

Dancing With the Stars

America’s Next Top Model

Project Runway

Top Chef

Cupcake Wars

Cake Boss

Judged in a more traditional way – with a panel or numbering system. The main focus of the show is not the interaction between contestants but the skills they put on display. Cupcake Wars is the natural conclusion to over-dramatizing relatively normal tasks. Cupcake making in no way should ever be compared to war. I think we can all agree on that one.

Slice of Life/Work

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

Ace of Cakes

American Chopper

Pawn Stars

American Pickers

Auction Hunters

Storage Wars

Ice Road Truckers

Deadliest Catch

Axe Men

Storm Chasers

Apparently we are so interested in buying storage units at auction that our viewership demands two shows devoted to it. America, we're all to blame.

Focused more on the task than the people. At its worst this is manufactured reality, but at best is closer to documentary. The biggest difference between this and documentary is that the mechanics of the work could actually be explained in a few hours of time. You could imagine any one of these jobs being summarized on Modern Marvels or Mike Rowe doing the job itself on an episode of Dirty Jobs. The way this becomes a TV show is that they focus on characters and differences in interactions. While the personality of the host(s) is important, the focus of the show is the work.

For example, they don’t make same cake every time on Ace of Cakes and they buy different things every time on Pawn Stars. There are also different problems that arise outside the normal routine of work during each episode of Deadliest Catch, IRT, etc. Still, personalities play a big part in these shows along with manufactured events and drama and day to day work.

Manufactured Reality/Slice of Life Personal

More analogous to Scripted, Professionally Acted Shows. Cheaper though. When you watch these shows, it’s the equivalent of getting an Indian person when you buy something made in China… or Alabama.

The Osbournes

The Hills

Jersey Shore

Keeping Up With the Kardashians

Girls Next Door

Lorenzo Llamas’ Show

Gene Simmons’ Show

The Surreal World

John and Kate Plus Eight

Sarah Palin’s Alaska


Ladies and gentlemen, the logical conclusion to Ronald Reagan's America.

This was originally pitched as being more documentary than slice of life – that they would focus on the beauty of Alaska. Definitely wasn’t. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the producers were the same as Jon and Kate Plus 8. The only executive producer I could find was the same guy who produced Survivor and The Apprentice.

Little People, Big World

Orange County Choppers

19 Kids and Counting

The only one who has a claim to fame outside of this show is the one with the big butt. She released a homemade porno. Oh, and her step-dad was an Olympic swimmer or something.

I think the differences in quality here depend on the acting ability of the hosts/participants. The “reality” on Keeping up with the Kardashians is hard to believe because the people on the show are not good actors. They’re not even good people – they look fake and got famous because one of the daughters had sex on camera with a D-list star.

Mike Rowe or Anthony Bourdain might be better actors, which is why they’re more believable. The key difference between Dirty Jobs and The Hills, however, is content. There is clear content on the former. Mike Rowe is doing different jobs and showing the details of them. On No Reservations, Bourdain is going to different places, eating different foods. In both cases, they make those things entertaining by being charming, insightful and funny.

Slice of life shows are completely different. They make themselves out to be following someone or some group of people and documenting their crazy lives. Problem is, no matter how famous you are your day to day life isn’t that exciting*. When something exciting does happen, what if the camera doesn’t catch the right moment? Maybe they don’t catch your reaction. A good example is from Little People Big World. They make a trebuchet for flinging pumpkins, which is awesome. Unfortunately, it malfunctions and seriously injures the youngest son and a family friend. The cameras didn’t catch it though it was by far the most dramatic and action-packed moment in the show.

*Generally it goes something like this: Sleep, eat, shit, drive, work, drive, eat, sex, sleep. You can mix those things up, but they’re mostly boring or non-FCC compliant.

So how do you make the show exciting? Script it out. I have an ex-girlfriend who watched the Hills. I watched it once*. It was instantly obvious that reality played little role in making the show. First, they sound like bad actors. I spent plenty of time watching late-night Cinemax and Showtime in mid-90s, so I know what it sounds like. Second, the shots are staged. You would need a ridiculous number of cameras and cameramen to cover someone all day long. You need to know exactly where they’re going, where they’re going to stand, etc. Otherwise you run the risk of missing action or participant’s reactions. You also might miss what they say. That’s why on some reality shows they have to subtitle – because the actors – sorry, participants – get out of range of the sound booms.

*I also broke up with her soon after.

Yeah. This shit will get you dumped, ladies.

I like some reality programming. I got into Survivor for a bit. It was well-done and reminded me of a more entertaining sociological experiment. Right now I enjoy Pawn Stars. The pieces that are brought in and their history are interesting. I don’t enjoy interactions between the employees. I very much enjoy documentary-type shows like Modern Marvels and Unwrapped but don’t care for Hoarders or Intervention. Mythbusters is brilliant. The two main hosts are charming, funny, and intelligent. It’s very well produced, and the science content is good, if not comprehensive.

I’ve really gotten into Top Chef, which doesn’t surprise me. As a kid, I watched cooking shows obsessively. It’s a well-done show, and the drama quotient is usually at a minimum. The chefs have talent, and the judges don’t get too dramatic for effect. Oddly enough, I enjoy Project Runway. I have no interest in clothes, but enjoy it in the same way as Top Chef. It’s a group of talented people being creative and coming up with a finished product. The personalities on the show annoy me far more than those on Top Chef, but the content is somewhat similar.

No surprise: I can’t stand the “slice of life” shows. They don’t feel genuine because they’re mostly staged. They aren’t interesting either. Even when they manufacture scenes and drama, the result isn’t entertaining. These are boring people who usually don’t have jobs or anything going on in their lives. Most of them are famous for being famous. Maybe their parents did something interesting, or maybe they had sex with a D-List celebrity, filmed it, released it, and got famous. Whatever the case, they have no talent . If they do, they certainly aren’t showing it.

Mostly, I hate that they promote a vapid, empty lifestyle that encourages young women to be selfish sluts and young men to be… well… selfish sluts. They glamorize superficial, unintelligent people. Maybe these shows are popular because people see themselves in them. Maybe it’s validation of their terrible lives. Since these “famous” people don’t do shit and are horrible people, it makes them look better. Or maybe not. Maybe they just allow people like me to be indignant and fill time that would have been better spent reading a book.

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2 Responses to Way Too Many Words Spent Categorizing Reality TV

  1. Matt Rob says:

    You left out the greatest genre-bender in reality television history, a cunning blend of game show, scripted reality, a judge/legal show, Man or Astro Man?, and Michael J. Nelson.

    I am of course referring to the cultural juggernaut, LET’S BOWL.

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