Just How Real are Reality TV Shows?

When Jason dumped Melissa for Molly on the "After The Final Rose" show following ABC’s “The Bachelor,” it wasn't just Melissa who smelled a rat. Many viewers reacted as if they had been suckered into a reality TV Ponzi scheme. The blogosphere was dense with hot-blooded commentary, mostly involving the word “rigged.”

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was still dancing on “Dancing with the Stars,” he said in an Facebook post: “The producers play games to get viewers and don’t disclose the (voting) numbers. If they disclosed the numbers, it would be less of a game, but still suspect. If tomorrow, they claim I’m in the bottom 2 dance teams, including viewer votes, I believe that’s an outright lie.”

Wozniak did end up in the bottom two, but by then he'd backtracked, calling himself a “heel” and a “loudmouth” and apologizing for questioning the show.

But the seeds of reality discontent have already been planted, spouted, raised to full growth and pruned for display. Perhaps only cockeyed optimists believe reality shows are completely on the up-and-up; then again, maybe it’s just the most suspicious conspiracy theorists that believe every detail is as meticulously planned as an episode of “CSI.”

Yet it could be that there is a middle ground that is most akin to the semi-improvised “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which an outline for a plot is prepared, but where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

“Certainly, reality TV is a very manipulated format where the basis of it is that real people are put into unreal situations to create a story,” said J. Rupert Thompson, a director and producer who includes “Big Brother” and “Fear Factor” among his credits.

“As soon as they get into an unreal situation,” Thompson said, “one could argue that it’s scripted, because the situation is created by the producers. What makes it so compelling is that you never know what a real person’s reaction to an unreal situation will be. That’s why you get such great stuff on reality TV.”

But do viewers care if their shows have been, say, artificially enhanced?

“I think there are both types out there,” Thompson said. “I think some demand credibility and others just want to be entertained. I think the educated viewer knows what reality TV is and what it has become.”

Call it ‘partially scripted television’
Ray Richmond is on a crusade. The longtime television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, who now blogs about entertainment and pop culture at manbitestinseltown.com, said he has been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to have the term “reality television” switched to “partially scripted television.”

“It started with the first of the new reality generation, that being (1992's) ‘The Real World,’” Richmond said. “While ‘The Real World’ isn’t fully scripted, participants have maintained that there was meddling by producers — denied by all involved — to stir the pot and ratchet up the soapy conflict.

Reality shows shoot many more hours of footage than what can be shown in a 30- or 60-minute program, leaving editors to splice together selected footage in order to tell a certain story.

"The editors have grown to become the new storytellers, altering sequences and the course of events and contextual elements to weave together a story that’s radically different from what went down," says Richmond. "And as more than one person has pointed out, is it possible for people on ‘Survivor’ to starve to death when there’s a junk-food-laden craft services table just outside of camera range?”

But does it matter? Among the top 10 shows in Nielsen ratings for the week of March 23-29, two installments of “American Idol” and two of “Dancing With the Stars” ranked in the top six. Clearly, people watch, despite the turmoil over what’s real and what’s not.

Some parts are real: No one is dancing for Steve-O
“I think people do care whether their favorite show has been tampered with,” noted Lynette Rice, who covers television for Entertainment Weekly. “Every year, fans of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ threaten to boycott the show because they feel ABC manipulated the votes and the wrong D-level dancer won. Despite this, viewers still show up in droves, because when it’s said and done, there aren’t producers out there manipulating Steve-O’s legs while he’s fox-trotting. He’s doing it all himself.

“Not everything about reality shows can be manipulated.”

Yet Richmond remains highly skeptical. He feels that despite the popularity of reality shows, the public is being sold a bill of goods. If he’s correct, expect more controversies to come.

One surfaced recently, when the New York Daily News published a story claiming the final four on "American Idol" had already been chosen by the judges (meaning viewer votes meant nothing).

That story would seem to have been disproved just one week later, when Alexis Grace, a contestant listed among the supposed final four, was eliminated, but the controversy lives on. One reader posted to the Daily News' story: "Of course Alexis was voted off. After this article, American Idol had her voted off."

Richmond doesn't see things becoming any less murky in the future. “We can expect that more and more reality shows will be scripted, albeit unofficially," he says. "It’s important to keep in mind that almost nobody involved with these shows will ever acknowledge the wizard behind the curtain. There is almost an element of collusion on everyone’s part, or a code of silence, to never let on, lest the pot of gold disappear.

“What they are doing on these shows is taking a kernel of fact and using it to construct a multi-pronged piece of fiction in the guise of truth and actuality," Richmond said. "This makes for a product that’s not only mislabeled but disingenuous and deceptive.”

Still, the reality TV police aren’t cracking down, fans are tuning in, and studios and production companies continue to rake in moolah.

And Entertainment Weekly's Rice doesn't see reality TV vanishing any time soon.

“The bottom line: reality shows — especially the gold standards like ‘Survivor,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘American Idol’ — remain more popular than ever because a) no one’s come up with better ones, and b) a lot of scripted TV out there is just not as entertaining," she says. “Until someone creates a really good comedy that will have me laughing harder than I do at ‘The Bachelor,’ I’ll keep tuning into the best Rose Ceremony ever!”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com

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