Reality shows are an amazing phenomenon.  Who knew you could take a bunch of talentless idiots with a desire to be on TV, put them together with a camera, and make TV magic?  Oh yeah, I guess Aaron Spelling knew that.

But reality is different.  Reality shows don’t have writers, there are no “scenes”, and the drama is real.  Okay, that was a lie.  But I’m going to try my hardest not to make fun of the shows.  I can cite most of the ones The Sheconomist watches as my experience, which includes The Hills, Jon and Kate, The Real Housewives.

Let’s analyze reality shows from the perspective of a business.  I could make this television drama which employs hundreds of people and requires me to hire and pay actors.  The cost to produce an episode could cost as much as $1 million.  All that for $1.2 million in ad revenue or a profit of $200,000.  Or I could pay a few people a few thousand bucks to over-dramatize their lives and then go to fancy restaurants to complain about their lives.  By the way, we’ll put the name of the restaurant below when they show up and get some more ad revenue that way.  The cost to produce the episode goes down to $400,000 but we still get the $1.2 million in ad revenue.  That’s a net of $800,000.  Easy win from a producer’s perspective.  Reality shows are really cheap to produce compared to traditional TV.

Now let’s look at the typical viewer.  The typical television viewer of reality shows wants drama, people they can relate to, and interesting situations.  They have budgeted a certain amount of TV viewing daily and so they’ll pick the most entertaining shows on when they like to watch TV.  It isn’t that people are really reality junkies, they just like drama, and the idea that these people are “real” makes it more interesting.

While on the topic of “real” let’s address how “real” the shows are.  Jon and Kate are really ending their marriage.  Heidi and Spencer are really married.  Those people on Real Housewives are really that useless.  Beyond that, all you’ve got is a bunch of people that exaggerate their problems for the purpose of the show.  If I asked you 20 years ago if you’d watch a show about a real person who moved to Los Angeles go to restaurants and complain about their friends while pursuing a career in fashion design you’d laugh me out of the room and go watch Full House, which comparatively had substance.

I know The Hills the best, so I’m going to cite the two biggest cop-outs of the show that should spell out exactly how fabricated the drama is.  To make Lauren more interesting, and establish credibility that she knows something about fashion, the show arranged for her to have an internship with the magazine Teen Vogue.  Despite claims that she had to interview successfully for the position, Teen Vogue neglects to mention that the internship was created for her.  The magazine had double-digit growth in subscriptions since the onset of the show.  This is unheard of growth in such a dead industry as magazines.

The second cop-out actually happened during Lauren’s final episode on The Hills.  In a scene someone asks her what she plans to do next.  Lauren responds with some kind of phrasing like “I have no idea”.  It’s perfect for her final scene when she leaves a wedding, alone.  No one knows what she’s going to do now…

…except for the fact that literally 17 days after that episode aired, her first book was published.  Reality shows like this are typically filmed a few weeks before airing, but even given a 60 day window from filming to publishing, she sure as hell knew exactly what she was going to do.

So I lied about bashing reality shows.  But the simple fact is they’re great TV.  People watch them, and they’re cheap to make.  And as much as people hate Spencer Pratt, that kid has done more for blonde facial hair than anyone (I’m thankful) and he’s the king of playing the Hollywood media by being a bigger douche than they are.

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categories: business, media