The Difference between Documentaries and Reality TV

Albert Einstein once very popularly quoted Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Little must he have known what would be made of this comment in the movie and television industry of today.

In this paper, we are going to discuss the differences between the two very seemingly distinct genres of entertainment  Documentary films and Reality Television. Now, from the mere names, the two would give an allusion to being of more or less the same genre  a tape capturing reality as it occurs  either with the intent of documenting events for posterity or for providing entertainment on a weekly basis. However, the more one witnesses samples of each, one realizes that the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences(AMPAS) defines Documentaries as Films dealing with historical, social, scientific, or economic subjects, either photographed in actual occurrence or re-enacted,  where the emphasis is more on factual content than entertainment.

They are usually films with a message, films which have something to say about either the social or political scenario of a place or a group of people including opinions of the maker who wants to influence the audience (more often than not).

Reality TV on the other hand is not defined in any universal manner. The Encarta Encyclopedia defines it as A TV show that presents real people in live, though often deliberately manufactured, situations and monitor their emotions and behavior whereas the defines it as Reality TV aims to show how ordinary people behave in everyday life, or in situations, often created by the program makers, which are intended to represent everyday life. The one thing common between the two definitions is the fact that there is little fact in the Reality TV genre.

Almost all the initial work on film and tape can be categorized as documentaries as they did document factual events as they occurred (otherwise referred to as actuality films). However, the term in its present meaning was first used in 1926 by John Grierson to describe Robert Flahertys film on social life at the time in the village of Samoa. Since then documentary film-making has come a huge way with various political commentaries like Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, Las Horas de Los Hornos by Octavio Getino and the very popular Fahrenheit 911 by Michael Moore.

In contrast, the very first Reality TV show status can be ascribed to the hugely popular series of Candid Camera (1948) where the producers placed a camera before unsuspecting audiences and caught their reactions to simulated environments. However, Reality TV as a lucrative television genre came about only in the new millennium with the Writers Strike in American television industry as the producers needed new shows to go on air without the help of writers (Dr. Karim, Reef, 2009). Thus was born Survivor and American Idol. Today Reality TV shows are too many to count covering various topics like adventure, sports, dating, cooking, self-improvement, makeovers, career builders and, of course, the much admired 247 version of Reality TV  Big Brother.

How real is reality  Fabricated Reality
The most basic difference between the two genres being discussed here would of course be how well (or otherwise) each treads the line between fact and fiction.

Documentaries, unlike normal feature films, are supposed to document real events occurring with real people in real situations. This makes it necessary for a documentary to have either one or all of the following real people as actors, interviews of these actors, real footage captured while the event is in process and, of course, sometimes also a voice over narration. They very often stick to basic facts which the film delivers without any fudging of meaning, either intentional or unintentional. Of course, there is a certain amount of scripting, a story line and some re-arranging of sequences, but as Richard Dyer McCann says, a documentary guarantees the authenticity of the result, even if not the authenticity of the materials used for it.

A Documentary also is supposed to contain all facts and no fiction, or as Pare Lorentz puts it, its a dramatized version of factual events. This, by definition, rules out any possibility of a filmmaker reputably putting together non-contextual bits of film to make it appear as a complete picture. Also, he cannot rearrange the footage shot or collected for the purpose of a documentary to imply a misinterpretation of the meaning of the content other than what has been expressly wished by the participants or the subjects.

For example, when making the documentary film The Leader, the Driver and his Wife, the director Nick Broomfield had difficulty getting hold of Eugene Terreblanche, the main subject of his film which was based on the apartheid in South Africa. So he ended up spending most of his non-filming time with the Leaders Driver and the Drivers Wife. Due to this, his insights of the people around the Leader helped him give this documentary a unique flavor with the varying stances which people took and the views which each one presented. He had a complete documentary  all opinions, no judgments.
In contrast to this, a Reality TV Show has somewhat questionable means of collecting footage, sequences rearranged until the original meanings are sometimes lost and no guarantee that the events in the show are in fact events which may have occurred in reality. This is called Frankenbiting by the producers of the Reality TV shows.

Almost all the reality shows stand testimony to this kind of production methods. The facts in all the shows are sometimes nowhere near so and the commentaries and expressions of the people featured in them are edited, often times beyond recognition.

In Reality shows, it is often a given that the situations are contrived, planned and manufactured for maximum audience impact. This situation is then acted out by people who often have predefined roles and lines to be spoken. On top of this, the show is then edited to maximize this effect and bring in an all new meaning to unimportant words. In television, it is often said, reality is created (Dollar, Steve, The Sun, 2007).

The show The Simple Life writers have confessed that the star of the show, Paris Hilton was often fed lines and made to act in certain ways to ensure that the show was engaging enough ratings (Poniewozik, James, Times Magazine, 2006).  Somewhere, just like a normal TV show, a reality show is compromised on these very lines  ratings

Sensationalism  Ratings and more Ratings
Today Reality TV is a term synonymous with sensationalism. If it is not sensational enough, it will never get the ratings which are required by the production houses and the television stations. If there are no ratings, then there is no show.

This reason has been the culprit for the near complete eradication of reality from Reality TV where, today, participants and even insiders openly claim to these shows having writers. Reality shows are scripted before shoots, dialogues are fed to the actors and sometimes, they also have a storyboard session to discuss scenes (Poniewozik, James, Times Magazine, 2006). All this for the sake of being sensational enough to drive up the ratings.

Jeff Bartsch, one of the editors of the popular reality show Blind Date, confessed to using extensive editing to make his episodes look more sensational and attracting more eyeballs, or as they put it, to make it more juicy (Poniewozik, James, Times Magazine, 2006). You can really take something black and make it white, Bartsch says. Even on the show Laguna Beach, one of the editors later admitted to enhanced editing to make a platonic friendship look like a sizzling relationship (Poniewozik, James, Times Magazine, 2006).

This practice would be an absolute no-no in the documentary filmmaking genre. The makers have to be ever sensitive to the basic criterion of a documentary  documenting of real events. In the documentary the Thin Blue Line by director Errol Morris, released in 1988, the events leading upto the conviction of Randall Adams have been documented to the best knowledge and ability of everyone involved and this helped bring about a revolutionary realization among the public, that the sentencing, may in fact, have been erroneous.

However, we should refrain from thinking that all directors and documentary filmmakers adhere to such stringent standards of filmmaking. One has to simply recall the case of Marc de Beaufort and his documentary, The Connection. This (apparent) documentary about a drugs mule who travelled from Columbia to Britain with bags of heroin in his stomach has been accused of misusing footage, creating footage and unethical editing (BBC News, 1998). The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger confirmed that these occurrences were not unique. He admitted that there was constant pressure on the filmmakers from production houses to come up with exciting, glamorous stories and to cut corners. Even the director, de Beaufort, later admitted to using techniques like enhanced editing and other devices to make his film to represent reality (BBC News, 1998).

For example, the cast and crew made two journeys, which had happened at two entirely different times in the year seem like one journey, and one location in a city seem like two separate locations. As a result, the people saw it as a very different film than what it really was. Later investigations then revealed that the mule who swallowed packets of heroin was not heroin at all. It also revealed that the plane ticket for the mule from Bogata to London had been paid by du Beaufort himself (BBC News, 1998).

As a result of all these startling revelations, the status of The Connection as a documentary becomes somewhat unsuitable. And as such, it becomes what most reality shows are today, a pretentious commentary on prime time reality.

Methods and Methodology  purity of means or of ends
It is said that a method of making a documentary is a statement in itself. Various documentaries of the bygone era have sculpted out the various documentary making methodologies like the Cinema vrit, the Kino-Pravda, the French New Wave and so many more. In recent times, Michael Moores Fahrenheit 911 has managed to do the same by mixing a directors personal interaction with the audience in filmmaking.

The reality TV genre also, in its own way, has various methodologies of creation. Some of them have a game show method, where some have a dating method, some have makeovers while some have unreal environments. All these are different methods of capturing reality for these two genres.
However, if we take a single example, that of the method of an undercover journalist, Donal MacIntyre, and his undercover work which he did on the Chelsea Headhunters would provide us with a different insight. MacIntyre spent two years in the company of the football hooligans to cover their work and their misconduct. His work was so thorough and extensive that he ended up collecting enough evidence to be able to convict one of the members of the group, Jason Marriner to a six year prison sentence. His work and the documentary resemble one word very strongly  and that is gritty. The entire film is shot with hidden cameras and microphones, therefore the image or the sound are never too clear but at the same time this succeeds in giving the audience a feel of the environment and the film. His images are often grainy and the sound is often faint with subtitling for some of the undecipherable bits.

As a result, what we get from an undercover documentarian work of a journalist is enough to bring in justice  a virtue very highly rated in our world. On the other hand, there are hidden cameras and hidden microphones which are used solely for the purpose of capturing a person in an involuntary act before the camera. This purpose behind this kind of an expos is not justice or righteousness but pure, perverse entertainment. A hidden camera is a very dangerous object if in the wrong hands, but in the hands of TV producers it is worse than a hand grenade. Taking something as simple as the example of Candid Camera where the hidden cameras worked to capture people being played pranks upon to the recent Undercover Boss, where hidden cameras take stock of the work environment, no unsuspecting person would like to be spied upon for another persons entertainment, yet Reality TV makes this possible, thereby bringing disrepute and, undoubtedly, ratings to the flourishing genre.

The Gremlins  Feeding the Beast
Paul Watson, the director of Rain in My Heart says that there are gremlins within everyone. The only difference is how different people deal with them. For example, if one is to take the case of the documentary Rain in My Heart by Watson where he directed 4 alcohol addicts during the rehabilitation process of each one for a period of a year, he saw and understood how different people give in to the different pressures which one is faced with in ones life. His commentary on the addiction that four people initially give in to and then fight with is heartrending in the most poignant way because one sees that life does not end where you would often wish it to  and that others still go on afterwards. With no scripts and no lines being fed to the actors there is hardly any breathtaking drama or overdone histrionics. What there is, is a long wait for life to either move on or end. He stays with his camera with people at their absolute worst for more than a year and collects little pieces of observation of human beings who have, more or less, murdered themselves (Watson, Paul, BBC News, 2007). This is reality  the non-television one.

Watson had often during the making of the film been asked if he was making a Reality TV and faced a lot of opposition due to peoples perception of Reality TV. He had no control over the unfolding of the events and thus just had to hope that he was at the right place at the right time. In spite of what he saw day in and day out in the rooms of the rehab centre, it never quite got easy for him. He would go to work each day wishing that it became better but after witnessing the deaths and the dying, it never quite did (Watson, Paul, BBC News, 2007). This feeling of helplessness and regret for the waste of human life as well as the sympathy and sensitivity of the director shines through his camera lens and the screen and one feels all these emotions with pity, remorse, hatred, anger and a little vulnerability (Watson, Paul, BBC News, 2007).

Compare this to a Reality show like Survivor or Big Brother  both have extremely high  ratings and have been duplicated the world over with phenomenal success. As one watches this, however, one realizes that there is no real sympathy on the part of the maker towards his participants. He is there to sell his product  his ensemble of living human beings  to the highest possible ratings This feeling also permeates through to the audience who do not sympathize with the people on the show but enjoy their discomfort, and often, their miseries (Dr Karim, Reef, 2009).

More often than not, dramatic scenes are often demanded by the producers to attract eyeballs. As a result, there is little that the actors can do but oblige. They throw things around, they call each other names and they either become the innocent of the villains. There is really no balance of human emotions in such situations, more often than not because balance does not sell (Poniewozik, James, Times Magazine, 2006).

As Watson very aptly puts it, It seems information, like honesty, slows the entertainment value, a view that can only please contemporary Chief Executives of TV channels, Members of Parliament and, of course, wannabes. He says that today, the reality TV audience laughs not with but at the people on TV, they do not empathize with the people in it and also prefer gimmicks and lies to truth and insights (Watson, Paul, BBC News, 2007).

Voyeurism at its Legitimate Best
Television has made the audience addicted to a form of voyeurism which supersedes all seemingly ethical display of human exhibitionism.

Today, Reality TV preys on this emotion  to show as much previously unseen, unfelt and unheard naked drama and unprotected emotions on screen as possible (Watson, Paul, BBC News, 2007). A variety of shows are based on this very sentiment. Shows like Big Brother, where people who have had no previous connection are all placed in a simulated environment where they have to stay locked away for three odd months and where they are then given tasks to perform so to be able to give rise to a reason for conflict and misunderstanding, take advantage of this audience need to see another human at his worst to somehow feel that there is worse out there (Dr. Karim, Reef, 2009).  The human being today has reached an emotional saturation level so deep that he hardly seems to mind the occasional emotional bursts of another human being, and in fact, enjoys them, as the soaring ratings of these shows would suggest.

In contrast to this, the documentary by Henry Singer, The Falling Man seems to uphold all the values, sympathy and humanity which would be required to deal with a subject as delicate as the very popular but very controversial photograph of a man jumping  falling off the Twin Towers in USA during the 911 attacks. First it all looked like falling debris. It took three or four to realize They were people, says James Logozzo, one of the people working in the Twin Towers (New York Times, 2001). The photograph by Richard Drew when it had first appeared in the American newspapers had raised a huge public outcry because people thought that the moment that was captured on camera was too frail and vulnerable at the time to be exposed to the shocked and traumatized citizens of the country (USAToday, 2002).

Several hundred people jumped to their deaths that day and the picture captured was of one of them. The photograph, they thought was too personal, too painful and too voyeuristic. It said too much of a dying mans desperation and his choice of death. Ultimately, they were choosing not whether to die but how to die. Nobody survived on the floors from which people jumped. (USAToday, 2002).
When you watch the documentary, you feel like a voyeur as you see the photographs and listen to the retellings of the people who saw it. Yet there is no perverse sense of pleasure in such voyeurism. Nobody would enjoy a sight like that. Sympathising with the people who fell, yes, but watching it for entertainment value it is not. As Watson puts it, a documentary is not about voyeurism, it is about recording hell (Watson, Paul, BBC News, 2007).

I didnt capture this persons death. I captured part of his life. This is what he decided to do, and I think I preserved that said the photographer Richard Drew. (Howe, Peter on Richard Drew, 2001).

Fame and Fortune
One of the many reasons that people participate in the gruesome Reality TV shows is their want, sometimes need, of fame and fortune (Dr. Karim, Reef, 2009). For some, Reality TV shows are a way to attain their 15 minutes of glory, for some its a ride up on the social ladder whereas for some its the need to be in the public spotlight. These desires of a commoner to become a celebrity are very nearly met by the reality shows. They have a great deal to offer any participant  instant fame, straight shot to recognition and a chance to make a name and a career in showbiz. However, these perks do not come without a heavy price to pay, and more often than not, these prices are too high for a normal person.

Today, viewers can tune in to Reality TV shows to see chefs become the next Iron Chef, dozens of women pandering to the whims of one man for a possible proposal of marriage, couples guzzling down live roaches and bathing in a vat of rats to win cash, and to see people undergo plastic surgery to become attractive. It is all available today in the name of entertainment. Dr. Karim suggests that despite common misconception, it is not always a basic lack in a person that makes him want to be famous (although sometimes this is the case) but a simple wish of someone to have a career in the glitzy streets of showbiz. Reality TV shows provide an easy entry ticket for this class of people.
However, this is not the best way to go, warns Karim, as the participants often experience grief, humiliation, shame and hedonism at the worst and withdrawal effects at the very least when the show, or the participant, go off air. After being subjected to 247 camera scrutiny, the sudden loss to seeming oblivion affects the mind and body of several participants, causing many of them to develop behavioral problems and one to even commit suicide (Dr. Karim, Reef, 2009). It is no wonder, he says, that nearly every couple on a reality series  Britney Spears and K-Fed, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Hulk Hogan and Linda Bollea, for example  have split.

When comparing this to the documentary by Molly Dineen called Geri made in the year 1999, one sees captured on tape the aftereffects of immense fame and fortune which have been showered upon some people who suddenly lose the fame. This documentary, made on the life of Geri Halliwell, ex-Spice Girl immediately after the band split outlines the initial three months of Geris withdrawal from fame through Dineens camera (Geri  through the looking glass, BBC News, 1999). What she recorded were interviews of Geri as she reminisced about her golden past, shared her unfulfilled dreams of fame and fortune and some footage of the family members of Geri, dispensing advice.

However, more important than all of this were her recordings of Geri as she moved from being a confident, vivacious, famous pop star to being a shy, nervous woman, lacking in confidence, the symbolic poor kid at school  (Geri  through the looking glass, BBC News, 1999)

Although she also captures Geri in some heartwarmingly sweet moments, what mostly comes on screen is a woman in withdrawal and trying to come to terms with life as a normal person  without the spotlight. Brilliantly done, this documentary captures to perfection Geri in all her transitional moments. This is what Reality TV participants must feel like, one could assume, once the cameras are off.

The Message
Whatever may be the genre or method of making a documentary, one thing that it almost never fails to have is a message  an opinion  trying to be put across by the maker of the documentary to the viewers. Be it a social commentary or a political stand, a quest for justice or an expos of the unjust, almost every documentary has a soul of its own, a message that is sometimes subtly, sometimes vehemently, passed on by the maker to the audience.

From Battleship Potemkin to Fahrenheit 911, the examples of political commentaries in film have been many. Hundreds of filmmakers the world over have tried to make their stance clear and awaken the public with the use of film. Similarly, when one sees the documentaries on human life, social films with a social message it seems to resonate with something inherent in ones nature because one always remembers that the source material is real.

One such example could be the documentary Capturing the Friedmans by debutant documentary maker Andrew Jarecki. When he started out, he wanted to make a documentary about party clowns, one of whom was David Friedman. What he ended up doing was putting to film, and from there to the public memory, a story of the Friedman family. The normal seeming family of two parents and three sons was badly ripped apart when it came to public knowledge that the father and a son were child molesters. What we see in the film are self-shot footage of one of the sons, interviews of the mother and one brother and the police officials, lawyers and parents who were involved in the story when it occurred.

One aspect which shines through in Jareckis filmmaking is his impartiality to both the sides, the Friedmans as well as the Court which had ruled against them. He narrates the story and all the evidence related to the incidents with no biases, letting the audience decide whether anything untoward did genuinely occur. As a result, he is ambiguous in certain places, but leaves enough scope for the audience to be able to draw conclusions of their own, or at the very least question a previously unquestioned judgment with impartiality.

But wait, for a subject that had raised such hue and cry when it was exposed to the public, why would one want to make an impartial film He makes the entire film impartial to deliver one message  that the Friedmans could have been innocent. Or at least if not innocent, then not as guilty as they were made out to be. He maintains throughout the making of the film that the people involved in the case were not guilty of the charges levied against them (Edelstein, David, 2003). Of course he later changes this statement to one of ambiguity and letting the audience decide during the marketing as it is a better promotional line (Edelstein, David, 2003).

This one stand, and this one film, changed the way the Friedmans were seen  making them not sin free, but at least lesser villains. Today, David runs a successful entertainment business, free from the burden of the past. Such has been the impact of the social message of one filmmaker.

As opposed to this, a Reality TV show hardly ever has anything significant to say. There is hardly ever any political message or social commentary in the business of Reality TV Entertainment. The producers usually look for maximum ratings in minimum time, thereby compromising any potential these shows could have of having a positive impact on society. Reality TV is usually associated with frivolous, gimmicky antics and histrionics indulged in by the producers to maximize visibility. As a result, this has at the worst, a negative impact on the audience, and at the best, no long term impact at all (Dr. Karim, Reef, 2009).

Is there any real difference
So what is the difference between the two Perhaps the difference is the way in which this is accepted by the media and the public.

One truth which cannot be denied in this day and age is that everyone somewhere is running behind money and fame and everyone fudges the truth a little bit to suit what they like to call enhanced viewing or in simple terms, artistic exploitation.

Today, Reality TV is openly acknowledged in the media as being hardly real but does this discredit it as an entertainment medium Not really. Similarly, documentaries today are seen as factual descriptions of real events but are hardly ever purely so. The only line of distinction between the two, possibly, is how far each can stretch the truth.

Documentaries would have a lot less leeway in terms of misrepresenting the facts as it is still seen as a medium of journalism and authentic documentation of authentic events. If someday this definition changes, the restrictions might reduce, but more or less, people expect documentaries to be real. Those which do not match up to the standards set, like The Connection, are discredited by the public as being farce. This definitely does not make for good ratings. So, even from the point of view of getting good ratings, documentaries would have to be authentic. Albeit, they would take much longer to make and would be difficult to come by.

Thus, its cheaper cousin the Reality TV thrives in the entertainment business. As long as not sold as authentic, Reality TV (as incorrectly named as it may be) will definitely continue to attract eyeballs, due to the simple reason that people will never stop craving seeing others at their worst. Call it sadism, if you wish, but for human beings today, this is an inexplicable need. Reality TV which was seen as a fad in 1949, a phase in 1990s and a chapter in time at the start of the millennium is an entire epic just starting to be written.

John Lennon once very popularly quoted Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. Little did he know


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