Belaboring Reality

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

In season one of The Simple Life, the apparently soulless Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls French kiss the local boys, ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ‘ol grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to. The Simple Life seems to offer a Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).

A Marxist parable? Not exactly. The “working class” Ledings have a big house, an above-ground pool, and at least one nice car. They aren’t poor, they just have working class tastes. The show is really about Nicole and Paris, so it is hard to glean many details about the Ledings, but one has to wonder how Fox found these farmers who seem to have no giant machinery, let their chickens breathe fresh air in outdoor coops, and manage a large farm without any hired laborers. Didn’t agribusiness wipe out this Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some years ago? Altus, Arkansas, it seems, is a Southern working class Stars Hollow, the fantasy New England town of The Gilmore Girls. Both towns feature quaint pie contests and sack races, but in Altus the locals are likely to sport mullets and beer bellies.

As on The Gilmore Girls, the little private dramas of The Simple Life are wedged in between public dramas at work. Though TV has pictured the workplace for years, reality TV is the first genre to emerge that is obsessively focused on labor. Indeed, it seems that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into labor on a reality show. On The Apprentice, participants construct business strategies, and the effort displayed is often mental. On the other hand, their labor also has a physical dimension, as contestants are often asked to pound the pavement and do grunt work. (Also, one cannot fail to notice the labor of self-production on the program. Contestants put together special outfits to catch Trump’s eye, and the taut female participants have bodies that are the visible result of labor in the gym.) Notwithstanding The Apprentice, on most programs the “work” demanded is not the kind of thing one would normally be paid for. Often, the labor is emotional: participants on The Bachelor are working really hard to make someone love them.

In real life, your job involves stacking things on shelves, balancing ledgers, plugging information into a database, or cleaning people’s teeth. But on TV your job is to cheat on your girlfriend, pretend to be a millionaire, eat slimy bugs, pretend to marry a jerk, lose a ton of weight, or live with fellow washed up celebrities. If you do your job well, you can win a million bucks, or a Chapstick contract, or the chance to be on other reality TV shows. In regular jobs, the people who work the hardest don’t necessarily advance, but if you do your job on TV, your effort is often rewarded. Moreover, in an information economy where manufacturing has been sent overseas and where minimum wage service jobs are among the few remaining jobs that require rigorous physical activity, reality TV is one of the few places where you can do hard physical labor for big bucks—if you win, that is.

The roots of genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama date back to radio, but reality TV is a bit of generic puzzle. It may contain moments indebted to soap opera, and offer a sprinkling of cinema vérité pastiche, but it is really a new genre. Though reality programming might seem to have some kinship with game shows, game shows have never been so labor-intensive. In fact, before the money pots increased in the 1980s, shows like What’s My Line? and Match Game were more about clever banter than actually winning prizes. The sly quips of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are sorely lacking from the gotta-get-things-done (or die) work ethic that drives the competitive reality programs.

The heroines of The Simple Life lack this ethic, of course. The saddest illustration of this occurs at the Sonic fast-food restaurant, where a young manager desperately tries to get the girls to do their work. In other episodes, the older, self-employed male bosses have the option of firing the girls (after telling one of them “you’re a real screw-up!”), but the fast-food manager knows that these nubile, lazy screw-ups are jeopardizing her own job, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She works hard but has no money; Nicole and Paris do no work, are rich, and enjoy wasting money. Can anyone hear Thorstein Veblen shouting, “see, I told you so!” from the grave?

The Simple Life

The Simple Life baldly reveals the shaky foundations of the American myth of class mobility. Unlike on the competitive shows, where merit is rewarded, here doing a bad job brings no real punishment, and people who work hard do not necessarily advance. It seemed to me as I watched it that the show’s underlying moral message was that hard work was better than slacking off. After all, it ends with the sympathetic Ledings saying that they hope the girls have benefited from the values the family has tried to teach them. But I cannot help but fear that many viewers find this about as convincing as Jerry Springer’s “Final Thought,” a tacked on moral that does little to mitigate the rich-and-lazy-and-proud-of-it ethos that has preceded it.

Given reality TV’s relentless focus on work, one might naively imagine a behind-the-scenes team of empathic laborers creating the shows. The BBC’s scripted faux-reality show The Office, for example, obviously springs from an impulse of proletarian solidarity: only writers who have endured the proverbial boss-from-hell could create the monstrous David Brent. Alas, American reality programs do not spring from a similar impulse. For, in theory, reality TV has no writers. Instead, videographers shoot endlessly, and editors then step in and collaborate with “story producers” or “story editors” (actually writers) to attempt to create dramatic tension, a Herculean feat that often requires the addition of goofy sound effects, voice-overs, or music (a recently heard ditty on Strange Love: “He’s a jester, she’s a fox. She likes smoking, he likes clocks.”). According to a Washington Post article, the story editors “use the expression ‘frankenbites’ to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.”

The premise that the people on reality shows are real translates into one thing as far as producers are concerned: free labor. These are regular people, not actors with SAG cards. And once you’ve gotten rid of unionized actors, why not get rid of the unionized writers? In fact, it is rare for any of the workers creating reality TV to be unionized — not the directors, not the carpenters, not the camera operators. The Screen Writers Guild has made reality TV central to its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but has had no success in attempts to get reality writers unionized. These young workers have lower salaries than Guild members, no health care, no pension, and, of course, they don’t get a writing credit for their work, since no producer wants his show tainted by a credit acknowledging that stories are managed and banter is often scripted. The shows have much shorter shooting schedules than regular programs, so writers typically work 12 to 18 hours a day, but they tolerate such conditions because reality TV is seen as a steppingstone to better gigs for young writers. Willingly overworked, and desperate for a permanent job with benefits, these kids would be perfect candidates for The Apprentice!

In fact, I have a great idea: how about a reality show about workers on a reality show? I can imagine how the networks would respond to my brilliant pitch: “You’re fired!”

Image Credits:

The Simple Life

Please feel free to comment.


  • Christopher Lucas

    Call the COPS – TV likes cheap labor

    We all enjoy talking about television as representation, as narrative, as policy, as technology, in other words, inside the familiar, inclusive conception of “culture.” What about television as work?

    Hendershot makes a great point. Reality TV does offer great benefits to producers for pushing unionized cultural workers to the side and thus being extremely profitable. But this isn’t a new lesson. Producer John Langley realized it nearly 20 years ago when he created the show COPS for Fox, using what he called “video verite,” and scored the hat trick of dubious cultural labor practices: police officers and alleged criminals as performers, a lot of non-union local crew, and editors writing mini-action movies out of miles of (often de-contextualized) raw footage.

    Langley started out with bulky ENG cameras, but the mode of production has only gotten easier over the years. Now workers in the feature film business (including my area of interest: cinematographers), who used to feel safe from the corrosive combination of new technologies with new genres and new way of producing, are feeling threatened: longer hours, fewer benefits, falling pay scales, and the list goes on.

    James Hay wrote about TV and politicians pimping our ride. Is Reality TV pimping our work as well?

  • Roger and Me as the ur-reality show?

    In terms of the “generic puzzle” of the reality show, Heather’s piece left me wondering if some of the filmic tropes of reality shows might be traced back to Michael Moore’s Roger and Me: those moments when Moore sticks the camera in the face of executive party-goers, or interviews an under-employed colorist. There’s something about the fascinating awkwardness of those moments: camera running, people stammering as some absurdity of social class or power falls into view, like a horse crapping in the street during a parade.

  • the reality of reality

    It is a travesty that reality TV show writers are not paid their proper dues. Part of this disregard definitely does come from the fact that producers don’t want to acknowledge their show is not real. But at this point, who are they fooling? I think most of us, even the less savvy TV viewer, know by know that what we are seeing is constructed. Even producer Mark Burnett admits he hates the label of “reality TV”, a term which the media has thrown onto his shows and one in which he can’t possibly live up to.Where I differ is on the treatment of “actors”. The people on these shows, with the exception of shows like Cops, willingly seek out the spotlight. I have no more qualms about not paying a reality actor than I would about not paying an interviewee in a documentary. In a perfect world, all the money saved would go back to those who do the real work, but of course, that’s not “reality”.

  • Christopher Lucas

    Roger & Me

    The tropes of Reality TV have many ancestors, of course, but I’d add to Roger & Me (1989) the earlier incarnations: PBS’s American Family and Wiseman’s docs: Titcut Follies, High School and Law and Order (!) among others. Perhaps even Primary, the Robert Drew doc from 1960. The Real World seems seminal for adding suds to verite, it premiered on MTV in 1992 (produced by Bunim/Murray, who also do The Simple Life).

    But there does seem to be a difference between those earlier projects, which were quirky anomalies in the media-sphere, and the new regime, which is network-driven, cost-conscious, ubiquitous, and obsessed with a kind of bizarro comparitive sociology.

  • Writing Reality

    The discussion of the role of writers on reality TV brings to mind one of the most interesting & entertaining manifestations of reality TV culture: The Joe Schmo Show. While in many ways a cheap parody of reality TV, both seasons of the show highlight the genre conventions and formulas of reality TV better than any scholarly analysis might accomplish.

    Better yet, the second season (alas not available on DVD yet) featured the intrusion of reality onto the hoaxers, as one of the Schmos figured out they were being played. The scenes of the writers attempting to script this reality, coupled with the blogs of the writers on the Spike TV website, rank as one of the most pleasurable and enlightening moments of television in years! One of the few times that the mechanisms behind “reality” became the subject of the shows themselves. Check it out if you can find it…

  • Documentary Vs Reality TV

    Both Chris and Tom Streeter’s comments prompt the question: what sets reality TV apart from “documentary”? Is it the seriality (which let’s the soap opera-like stories develop, and makes tournament-like competition possible)? Or perhaps it’s the contrived situations that the characters find themselves in that defines it. Its almost as if by establishing this phony venue for competition, the narration/producer effaces its voice for the rest of the show – it just set things up, and the real people in the show took take of the rest; whereas with most docs, the situations are real, and the narration/director’s agenda is clearer.

    I wouldn’t say that “The Simple Life” let’s lazy rich people off the hook – doesn’t it imply that their lack of work ethic is tied to their intolerable personalities? In other words, the punishment for being lazy isn’t being poor; it’s turning into an a-hole who can’t form any real bonds with any “real” (read: working class) people. This is the message that other reality TV depictions of the wealthy seem to push.

  • Bryan Canatella

    Reality TV= controlled reality

    Elliot provided a good point about the distinction between Reality TV and the documentary. A documentary usually has a purpose other than entertainment, one of informing or sending a message or for pushing social change. Reality TV doesn’t document reality directly, instead it documents a constructed reality which has been carefully planned. Usually the premise of the show will yield predictable results. Reality TV producers rely on natural human tendencies to go through risk and possible humiliation for a chance at winning a prize or money. In a show like “the real world” on MTV, producers pick a group of people who will naturally display tension (one gay man or one african american in a group of white individuals, etc) and rely on the sexual tension between young people to write the show itself. They don’t know EXACTLY what will happen, only that something interesting within their desired framework will happen. The more reality TV develops, the better the strategies for producers to control reality becomes. The most interesting reality TV is the kind that most resembles a narrative, with building tensions and morals and characters that change. As reality TV pushes more toward placing narrative elements in “reality”, we must question, why this label of “Reality” tv?

  • Reality TV’s delusion of Ethics

    The Simple Life is a perfect example of a television show that fails to recognize the importance of work and contradicts the saying that “Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.” Often the labor shown on television is emotion, as in The Bachelor, or mental labor, as shown within The Apprentice. With the prevalence of reality shows, the true toil and labor associated with success is skewed. The article made a great argument in showing that when individuals in reality shows do a bad job, they are guaranteed no punishment. This is a huge distortion compared to true reality. Because reality shows are so popular, the images of snobbish, lazy, ignorant, rich girls paint an almost surreal image of something that is desired. The majority of the population looks at these feign reality shows and desire success at a small cost because that would entail not putting in substantial effort. In contrast, a documentary often depicts a scenario in which people are shown more in a true light rather than just for the purpose of entertainment. Reality shows are always going to have a more negative impact as far as representing circumstances in which people are bettering society. This is because economics comes first in the entertainment industry before ethical values. Documentaries are more successful in being directed toward a particular audience with a specific goal in mind. Reality shows will continue to dilute the true nobility of a blue color job and diminish the real value of hard work, while documentaries often grasp the real character of individuals in order to more appropriately define character.

  • The Death Rattle Of Intelligent TV

    For some time now, the majority of “successful” television shows have been somehow connected to the reality TV genre in some form or another. I think we should be troubled by what this says about the state of American culture. “The Simple Life” not only represents the most insipid, shallow, and unintelligent television now available, but (in its two main characters)it is also indicative of the those same qualities in people. The fact that shows like this keep popping up is damaging on two fronts. The first of these two fronts deals with the viewing public that watches these shows, dumbed down to an unimaginable extent, making this kind of drivel palatable. The second front deals with the irresponsible networks whose executives are either too stupid or too greedy to attempt to come up with something creative. Not only is reality TV the worst form of television, but it erodes ethics, morals, and the mindset of those who watch it in one fell swoop. Nevermind the fact that some of it is as scripted as any sitcom currently airing. Hendershot makes a great point, stating that reality TV offers an alternate plane of life from actual reality. I would argue that it not only does just that, but it also subverts our current reality, working on fulfilling a hidden agenda which one can only assume is going better than planned…

  • I agree with Hendershot’s argument that reality TV is a new genre. The shows definitely wouldn’t fall under genres such as sitcoms, domestic comedies, or soap operas. The Simple Life is probably my least favorite reality show because of the “Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).” From the episodes I have seen, Paris and Nicole disrespect the values, rules, and morals of the people they stay withand work for. Not to mention the younger generation watching the show seeing, as Abigail Jones put it, “the images of snobbish, lazy, ignorant, rich girls paint an almost surreal image of something that is desired.” Talk about a show providing quality role models.It seems as though nothing about Reality TV is “real.” I don’t understand why the shows are given a title containing the word “reality”. According to Webster’s Dictionary, reality is defined as “everything that actually does or couldhappen in real life.” I think the only “reality show” that was truthful in it’s title is the “Surreal Life.” People/ celebrities running around accomplishing unimaginable tasks to win large sums of money…Yes, that is a perfect example of things that might happen in real life. Especially since the “actors” are being followed around by cameras, of course you can expect to doand say things that they would in everyday life right. Wrong. It’s just one huge facade. Everyone knows that the shows are scripted, yet we still watch them. The Real World, for example, is not reality! Being put in a really awesome place to live for 6 months with 7 strangers, partying all time, without having to worry about bills, traveling for free, getting free merchandise. Although I can’t lie, I found this show to be entertaining. The people are picked so that some of their personalities clash and everyone either ends up fooling around, arguing, or both. My “final thought” is Reality TV benefits the producers, writers, and technical staff in that it is good experience for people wanting to break through the business and ”free labor.” Also, the cast members or contestants on the shows get to be on television, possibly win a lot of money or as Hendershot mentions, and be on another reality show.

  • Paris and Nicole: Please Don’t Come to My Work

    Heather Hendershot brought up a good point in her article when she addressed how the reality T.V. craze is affecting REAL people. Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie’s antics on the Simple Life are not just harmful to the minds of the impressionable people watching the show, but also to the people who actually have to put up with them on the show. It’s true, the tormented manager at Sonic could have gotten into serious trouble for the poor service that I’m sure was offered by the girls. And for what? So teenage girls can learn how to act like slutty, mindless, snobs? I certainly don’t think it was the manager’s choice to have them come to her job either. I saw an episode where Paris and Nicole came to Austin to help the Round Rock Express baseball team. It was just a big paid ad for the franchise, and I don’t think the lower level employees of the team had any idea what was going on. What people don’t realize is that every time these girls get into a random hyper girl pie fight, some poor janitor is left to clean up the mess off camera. And I don’t think he is getting compensated for his extra work by the people of FOX.

  • Chris Marquard

    What’s Next ?!?!?

    Sadly enough a hotel empire, record label, record, book, and all the money she could possibly waste weren’t enough. She had to go and do it and she did. She had to get a cheesy reality show so that she could show her off her new outfits to half the world every week. Sad part is, America tuned in. The Simple life is just one of the many attempts to create a “new” reality show that had not yet been done yet. I think we are at a point where we can start to classify reality TV as its own genre. I think the huge onslaught of tons of different reality based shows has forced us to categorize them into their own group together. America has always been a sucker for low level shows or the predecessors to the whole reality phenomena. Shows like the Real World, Cops, or Americas Most Wanted tells us that. Its sad that now in the industry it is all about the money not the art of what film or story they are trying to create. Money has always been a factor, yet with reality TV, producers and creators are being innovative with creating a show that they wont have to pay people. If they put real thought, effort, and dedication into it, the money will follow. It should not be the other way around. I am desperately waiting for this reality craze to end so I can laugh about it when it airs right after the “boy band” segment on VH1’s why I loved the millennium. In short, I think this is just another TV fad and if a network really wanted to be ahead of the game they should create a new show, not simply try and figure out how they can twist a current reality show around and call it their own “new” show. I can’t wait till reality TV comes to an end…

  • Paris Hilton’s Greatest Promotion

    I feel it is important for me, a lover of reality television shows, to put in my ten cents on the reality of a reality show such as The Simple Life. I own both DVD’s (Season One and Season Two) of The Simple Life. I loved watching this show because it was so campy, and I thought that it cleverly poked fun at itself. Everything about the show was carefully orchestrated to enhance the career of Paris Hilton. Not only did the first season of The Simple Life air directly after One Night In Paris was released worldwide, but it also happened to help Miss Hilton take advantage of her wild popularity and show off some of her people/acting skills. This reality show took advantage of a classic tale: The Park Avenue Princess forced to live and work in a working class environment — stripped of all her riches and freedom. Because of this, it was clear that from the beginning the writers of this show had an distinct idea of the kind of story they wanted to portray. I’m sure that they thought to themselves, “Hmmm….how many different ways can we show how out of touch with reality these girls are? How obnoxious can they be? And how many situations can we put them in that will make them look like idiots?”This show also came out around the time that there was a perceived backlash to the infamous “career” of Paris Hilton. People were beginning to ask themselves, “Why exactly is this girl famous?” After all, she had done absolutely nothing to earn the fame that she had received, and the time was ticking away for her to prove that she had some talent to merit her enormous fame and fortune. This is why The Simple Life was a perfect show for Hilton to appear in. People wanted to see her doing normal/All-American activities, and were anxious to see how she handled living in a reality so different from her normal one. Unfortunately, what the audience was seeing each week was not exactly reality. They were seeing a show that further promoted the image of Hilton. Many an episode featured Paris prancing back and forth in front of the camera in various skimpy/expensive outfits showcasing her thin tanned physique. Nicole Ritchie played the role of Paris Hilton’s sidekick. If you watch the show you will notice that Ritchie is the one who often causes most of the trouble. She is the instigator and the bigger trouble maker. She is the one who pours the bleach on the pool table, smashes Paris’s pie, and lies to the adults. I believe this does not have anything to do with who Nicole really is, but more likely is another device promoting the image of Paris. If it is Nicole who causes the trouble, then Paris comes off looking sweeter, more innocent, and basically more likeable.If you want to enjoy a show like this one, you have to watch it not for glimpses of reality into the life of an heiress, but for what it really is-a promotional device that is entertaining, sexy, and PRE-SCRIPTED. Once you accept this, then it is easier to swallow the disregard that Paris and Nicole show for the people that they encounter, and the clear dividing lines that are drawn between the rich and the poor. Nicole and Paris are not trying to teach you a lesson (documentary-style) they are trying to entertain you. And they know that sex and money sells, especially in America. After all, that is the only thing that made Paris Hilton an icon in the first place.

  • Still a game show?

    Reality TV shows are still just game shows. Yes, they do draw different elements from a select few different TV genres, but resting at the core of many reality TV shows are contestants working to achieve a grand prize. When reality TV first reared its ugly head I believed it was just a fad, that it would pass with the days but it survived and now consumes more air time than ever before. I have to admit I do like to watch Fear Factor, I find it oddly compelling; I guess it’s my dirty little secret. Yet, many Americans find the genre to be entertaining, there is something satisfying about watching “real” people at “real” moments, even if it was just edited together buy some underpaid, nonunion, “writer.” The one thing that really separates reality shows from game shows is the broad, expansive ability of reality TV cover new ground. Reality TV stretches to places game shows could only dream of going.Simple Life is an example of this feature known only to reality TV. The shows “contestants,” Paris and Nicole, aren’t working toward a monetary grand prize. What the show essentially does is confront the two ends of the social spectrum and examine the differences in their lifestyles. That doesn’t sound like a game show to me. Who wins? Simple Life seems to be the exception, though.The game show roots of reality TVs hyper-blended genre formulation seem to be the predominant convention of the shows, at least for most of them. It is with this game show background that reality TV will grow to showcase many different forms of labor, whether it be the labor of love or eating bugs native to Madagascar, as some type contest.

  • Pingback: FlowTV | Teaching Television, or What I’ve Learned From Flow

  • Pingback: FlowTV » Celebrity Nepotism, Family Values and E! Television

  • Big Brother is Still Strong

    It’s interesting to see how the potential for alternative voices in reality TV, like that of Pedro Zamora in early 90’s Real World episodes, has been carefully controlled so as to squash the perceived threat. They learned their lesson: produce the episodes in advance, so you can edit it to perfection. The problem is, this way doesn’t satisfy. I was so excited when I discovered The Apprentice. The characters seemed charismatic, intelligent, and I was fascinated to watch their relationships develop and grow. The Apprentice eliminates authenticity from the equation and forces a supposed rivalry and drama. Of course, I realize that this is the point of soap opera reality TV shows like Mr. Trumps, but nonetheless, it sends strong messages of fear. Whether you know intellectually that it isn’t “real”, doesn’t overcome the implied messages and ideologies being pushed aggressively under the surface. This is the way life is: there are the haves and the have nots. The have nots are victims. You must all be in constant competition with each other if you want to succeed in life. There’s nothing surprising about these messages, they’re only a recreation of our reality, after all. Ultimately, the question of the potential for counter publics in reality television or the importance of them seems trivial. Despite the fact that we all get excited at displays of camaraderie and rebellion, like those of the Big Brother cast who were planning on leaving the show, we’re too caught up in the drama that the show creates. If the cast walked out, it wouldn’t be long before you changed the channel. Whats next?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *