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Developing Factual Ideas

Field Guide to: Reality TV

In reality programmes, a group of people carefully cast for the greatest diversity and conflict, are put together in a situation constructed entirely for television. This is a much-maligned genre, but it is extremely popular with the much sought after younger audiences that advertisers want to reach.

What sets reality apart from pure entertainment formats, is that viewers learn about human nature from the trials and tribulations of the participants, who are usually placed under an extreme amount of emotional pressure. Seeing how people deal with aggression, rejection, confrontation and disappointment is not only emotionally involving, but allows younger viewers to witness these highly charged situations from a safe distance and then discuss the subsequent consequences with their friends online.

Some programs, such as the Real World (MTV) are largely observational. A group of young people live together in a house for several months and the audience sees them dealing with various rights of passage associated with leaving home for the first time. The series has featured difficult subjects such as eating disorders, prejudice, AIDS and sexuality.

More commonly, there is a clear format and a competition element, with people voted out by the group or the audience. The prize might be money or a job contract.

Competition reality shows have a serialised format, that is, each episode is designed to be watched in the order the producers designed it to be. It is expected that viewers will be drawn in during the first episode and then return each week to see what happens until the final show’s climax, therefore they demand greater commitment from the audience.

· Beauty and the Geek (The CW / E4)

· Joe Millionaire (Fox / Ch4 –chk)

· Big Brother (Ch4 / CBS)

· Survivor (CBS / ITV)

· I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! (ITV / ABC)

· Hell’s Kitchen (ITV / Fox)

· Project Runway/Project Catwalk (Bravo / Sky One)

Reality programming traditionally attracts a young female audience, but savvy producers have managed to draw in reality-shy men with business-focused reality formats, such as, The Apprentice (NBC / BBC1) and history-reality formats such as Bad Lads Army (ITV) and Frontier House (Ch4 / PBS).

In nearly all cases, the environment to which the participants are subjected becomes an integral part of the show, usually acting as antagonist – a creepy-crawly-ridden jungle, an all-seeing house, a 1950s army boot camp.

Sometimes the environment seems to be on the side of the participants –a millionaire’s mansion, a gorgeous London landscape, an idyllic wilderness – but this often turns out to be a cruel illusion, as the environment makes life difficult for the contestants during tasks or challenges.

Explore more factual TV formats:

Constructed documentary

Presenter-Led Documentary Series

Character-Driven Documentary


Drama Documentary .

Point of View Documentary

Immersive Documentary

Observational Documentary Series

Factual Entertainment



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