Kai Hibbard was a contestant on "The Biggest Loser" in 2006 and now calls the show "a fat-shaming disaster that I'm embarrassed to have participated in." Its premise is simple: Obese contestants compete against each other to lose the most weight over a period of time. But slow and steady reduction is not what the producers are after. Once they arrive at the ranch (where the show is filmed), contestants have to work out five to eight hours a day. "There was no easing into it," Hibbard told the New York Post in 2015. "That doesn't make for good TV. My feet were bleeding through my shoes for the first three weeks."
The show's creator Dave Broome and many contestants strongly deny the allegations. However, other participants have supported Hibbard or accused the show of other nefarious activities. So what's the truth? It's hard to know. Filming a reality show can be a tricky business.
In 2015, some 750 unscripted shows (a category that includes reality TV) aired during prime time on cable television alone in the U.S., compared with 409 scripted shows. Reality television — which debuted in the 1970s with the PBS project "An American Family," really caught fire when "Survivor" first aired in 2000 – and is still going strong [sources: Dehnart, Callahan]. Networks love them because the costs are much lower than those of scripted shows (no big name actors or scriptwriters to pay).
And viewers love them too. Millions of people regularly tune in to reality television for entertainment and excitement and though we know there's not a lot of reality in "reality TV" we're probably not aware of the lengths some producers will go to get the results they want. Here are 10 lesser-known secrets about filming reality shows, just in case you're thinking of trying out for one.
Think the hardest thing about a reality show is getting on? It might actually be summoning up the courage to sign the contract. Most, if not all, reality shows make contestants sign ginormous contracts which take away most of your rights. On "The Biggest Loser," for example, past contestants say they had to waive rights to their own background story. Competitors on "The Voice" have to sign a contract that allows the show to falsely portray them, and potentially expose them to embarrassment and ridicule. Oh, and you can't sue after you've seen the hatchet job on TV. These stipulations, by the way, are common in most reality show contracts [sources: Callahan, Pop Dust].
Most also have clauses not allowing you to speak negatively about the show or disclose anything about your experience, even after it's over. In 2010, contestants on "Survivor" faced a $5 million fine every time they broke the show's confidentiality agreement. And don't think you can negotiate such clauses away — unless, perhaps, you're a celebrity or have similar clout. The courts will typically uphold these contracts. So don't count on a sympathetic judge to rule in your favor if you suffer physically or mentally afterward, or are simply unhappy with your portrayal [sources: Hare, Dehnart].
Yay! A reality show is interested in you. You just need to fly to L.A., New York or some such locale and go through the final casting process, where the show's producers will whittle down the potential candidates to those who will actually make it on the show. It might sound like fun — a week or two away from home — but you may be confined to a hotel room for most of the time, unable to use the Internet or even make phone calls. Contestants on "The Bachelor" say you have to stay in your hotel room during the casting process, and also during the week leading to filming. A past contestant on "The Biggest Loser" says not only was she placed in a hotel room, but staff took away her hotel key card [sources: Callahan, Rees].
Sarah Monson, a casting expert, affirmed to Film Industry Network that people who advance to the final casting round are likely put up in a hotel, where they're instructed not to speak with anybody, even if it's idle chatter that has nothing to do with the show. Besides meeting with network big-wigs who may grill you, you'll likely have to undergo mental, physical and drug testing. For some, it can be a lonely, exhausting process.
So maybe the producers will make you look like a schemer, when you're really a nice person. What other tricks do they have up their sleeves? More than you probably imagine. One former producer of "The Bachelor" told The New Yorker that her job was to get jilted contestants to cry. To achieve this, she'd tell women who were about to be dumped that they were actually going to receive a proposal. Later, after they'd gotten the boot and were, naturally, stunned, she'd join them in the limousine that carried away dumped contestants and start crying at the women's disappointment (thanks to dabbing a cut lemon or jalapeño in her eye to help produce real tears), which often caused the women to start sobbing, too.
A 2008 contestant of the Australian version of "The Biggest Loser" told News.com.au that during the taping of his series, there were no weekly weigh-ins as the show portrayed on television. Instead, contestants dieted and worked out anywhere from 16 to 25 days before being weighed in, although they had to state for the cameras when they stood on the scale (a fake scale, no less) that they'd worked "really hard that week."
Perhaps the worst trick employed by reality show producers is something they call frankenbiting. That's when producers pull bits and pieces from one person's conversations and edit them together to create a new, totally false, sentence or sentences. You can tell this may be happening when a contestant is talking directly to the camera, but then the camera cuts to someone or something else while you still hear her speaking [source: Crouch].
On some reality TV shows, contestants often get teary-eyed at being away from their loved ones for so long. On "Survivor," for instance, there's usually at least one competition per season where the reward is a letter or video from home, or even a visit from a loved one. Of course, most contestants will be eliminated before the show ends, so they'll get to see their loved ones soon enough, right? Not necessarily.
Reality shows want to keep the outcomes secret, and if half the cast was running around back home, it would be obvious who had already been eliminated. So many of programs whisk off the week's loser to a secret, secure location. One "Project Runway" contestant reported to Tubefilter that producers sent her to a nearby apartment, where she hid with the rest of the designers until the competition ended. Cast-offs in "The Amazing Race" are sent to the show's Elimination Station, a resort-like spot where all of the losers must hang out and chill until the show ends, even if that means a month or two. In fact, Elimination Station was a web series.
Andrew "Cosi" Costello, a 2008 contestant on Australia's version of "The Biggest Loser," said that during the Christmas holidays, the crew and producers left for 10 days to be with their families, while contestants stayed at the show's group home with a security guard and supervisor. The staff allowed everyone just one five-minute call to their spouse or partner on Christmas Day. Ouch. But as Costello philosophically told News.com.au, "I signed up for the TV show so I can't really complain."
Teresa Giudice of "Real Housewives of New Jersey" said in an interview with Deadline that the show's producers didn't script her infamous table-flip, which she performed in a fit of rage. No, that was her idea. That comment hints that producers may have made it clear they wanted action and drama on the show — hardly unusual for a reality television show.
But drama isn't simply the result of production cues to cast members. A former contestant on "The Bachelor" told The Daily Beast that the booze flowed freely, day and night, to get contestants "more talkative, more sensitive." And probably less inhibited. And with filming lasting all night, at least in the beginning, it's no wonder people are emotional on the show.
What about all of those misty eyes so frequently seen on reality television? Some are undoubtedly spontaneous and real, while others are forced and fake. Costello of Australia's "The Biggest Loser" said producers got in contestants' faces, continually asking questions such as, "Do you miss your kids?" to induce tears. It worked; Costello said he cried, and more than once [source: News].
Think you'll be able to rake in the big bucks if you're lucky enough to land on a reality show? Sometimes. The winner of "The Biggest Loser" gets $250,000, while the last one standing on "Survivor" gets a cool $1 million. According to a 2016 article in "Business Insider," finalists on broadcast competitions (like the ones we just mentioned) earn $50,000 to $1 million per season, while non-finalists take in $15,000 to $35,000. Not too shabby.
But when you're talking cable television, the figures plummet. If you're a bit player on a cable reality show, you could earn $1,500 to $3,000 per episode or absolutely nothing, except to have your expenses covered. Celebrity judges and hosts are another story and may be paid in the millions [source: Nededog].
And just in case you do manage parlay your TV time into some real cash with side projects or endorsement deals (Bethenny Frankel from "Real Housewives of New York" created Skinnygirl Cocktails and sold it for $100 million) you may find that your contract requires you to share your profits with the show's production company or network [source: Etter].
The witchy woman, the hunk who's a player, the middle-aged man who always flies into rages — these may or may not be the contestants' real personalities, because sometimes reality show producers ask contestants to fake it. One anonymous producer told Reader's Digest that once he cast a contestant as a villain, while in reality she was a sweetheart. "As producer, I sat her down and said, 'Listen, you were cast in this role. If you want to make good TV, if you want the series to come back and make more money next year, then you need to play along. If you don't, you're going to be cut out entirely.' It worked."
In "The Hills," a reality show that followed the lives of several young women living in L.A., former star Audrina Patridge said initially, much of the series showed true events. But as time went on, it got more "unreal." One of the more memorable episodes showed Patridge fighting with fellow star Kristin Cavallari over heartthrob Justin Bobby at a party. "I actually had to leave early for another event, we were there for about three hours and they were like, 'You can't leave until you and Kristin get into a fight," Patridge told the Daily Mail. So they manufactured one to get it over with [source: Zhao].
Reality show fans are often suspicious when a not-that-talented person keeps making the cut and advancing, or when a popular — or unpopular — person remains on a show. According to Hollywood blogger Nicki Swift, producers of "The Bachelor" sometimes step in and decide which lucky girl will receive that season's rose if by doing so they will make the show more compelling. But things like that typically don't happen on competition series such as "The Amazing Race."
Competition shows are subject to strict federal rules and regulations, many of which came about after the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Back then, several of the popular shows, including "The $64,000 Question" and "Twenty-One," routinely helped certain contestants win. When the deceit became known, the public was so outraged Congress stepped in and outlawed the rigging of any game or competition show.
While the law was aimed at traditional game shows, a former "Survivor" contestant sued on those grounds in 2001, saying producers unfairly booted her off the island by interfering with the voting. In 2013, a star of "Storage Wars," a show which involves professional buyers bidding on the unseen contents of abandoned storage sheds, sued the show's network and producers, alleging they hid valuable items in some of the sheds to make the show more interesting. Both cases were settled. One legal expert said the quiz show statute didn't apply in these cases because no real intellectual skills are required to win on these shows. However, most competition shows play it safe by employing a compliance expert who makes sure all contestants are competing on a level playing field [source: Etter].
Say it ain't so! Regular people are so colorful, why in the world would a reality show use actors? Reasons undoubtedly vary, but it's not unusual for actors to portray "regular" people on some shows. Viewers initially thought "South Beach Tow," a Jennifer Lopez production that debuted in 2011, was a true reality show about the Tremont Tow Truck company's more interesting encounters. It's actually a scripted show, with actors re-enacting real events. And some insiders stress that the actors "dramatically" re-enact incidents that are "only loosely based" on real-life events [sources: Peckerar, John].
It's no secret to fans that many of the contestants on both "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" are professional actors or models, often dubbed "mactors." Lynne Spillman, the shows' head of casting, has openly admitted this in various interviews, saying that while the shows receive tens of thousands of applications, the vast majority of applicants aren't deemed a good fit for the show. In addition to using mactors, at least in its early years, "Survivor" recreated some competition scenes with body doubles to get better shots [sources: ABC News, Dehnart].
So by now, we know that a lot of things on reality TV shows may not be what they seem. But what if their entire premise is a lie?
Like those house hunting shows. Caitlin Bussmann, who blogs at Rant Lifestyle, said neighbors of hers signed on to a HGTV show about choosing a new home. During the show, her neighbors visited three potential properties before selecting one. The thing was, the couple had already purchased a new home before the show began. "They emptied their entire house," she wrote, "let the grass overgrow and walked into it pretending they had never seen it before, even though they owned it. They visited two other homes for the heck of it. Most people on these shows have already bought a home and are just doing it for the kicks."
Cooking shows are often faked as well. Andy Dehnart, creator of Reality Blurred, wrote on Today.com that the chefs on "Iron Chef America" face few surprises before preparing their dishes in front of the cameras. "The chefs aren't completely surprised by the secret ingredient because they have been given a few possible options beforehand. And on the day of the challenge, they can probably figure out which ingredient it is based upon which shopping list has been purchased for them. The matchups are also planned in advance, with challengers choosing their opponents weeks earlier."
As the saying goes, "Reality bites!"
HowStuffWorks talks to Caroll Spinney, the man behind the 'Sesame Street' characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969.
Author's Note: 10 Secrets of Filming Reality TV Shows
Well, this article really burst my bubble! I first got hooked into reality television with millions of others back in 2000, when "Survivor" debuted. I have never missed an episode — not sure if that's a good thing to admit — and have added "The Amazing Race" and "The Biggest Loser" to my can't-miss reality repertoire. In the beginning, when I heard rumbles of producers tweaking a few things, I didn't believe it. But over time, I realized it was true. And I was O.K. with it, since I assumed the bulk of the shows' content was real. Now, I'm rather amazed at how much tinkering goes on. Recently, I began watching some house-hunting shows while at the gym, and got hooked. But now that I know those may be totally false, I refuse to watch anymore!
More Great Links
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- Alexander, Iain. "Tips From Prime Time Reality TV Casting Expert Sarah Monson." May 30, 2012. (Aug. 15, 2016) http://www.filmindustrynetwork.biz/tips-from-prime-time-reality-tv-casting-expert-sarah-monson/14903
- Bussmann, Caitlin. "15 Hidden Secrets From Your Favorite Reality Television Shows." Rant Lifestyle. May 29, 2015. (Aug. 11, 2016) http://www.rantlifestyle.com/2015/05/29/15-hidden-secrets-from-your-favorite-reality-television-shows/
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