The Scary Truth About Reality TV On 'Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know'

On this episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, Ben Bowlin, Noel Brown, and Matt Frederick dive into the unreal world of reality television. While we all know reality TV isn’t quite as spontaneous and organic as the producers would like us to think, there is some “stuff they don’t want you to know” about the genre and the potential effects it has on our society, our psychology, and ourselves that are worth looking into. Reality television is older than you might think; many of us probably trace its origin to MTV’s The Real World from 1992, but in fact, reality TV has its roots in the 1940s with prank shows like Candid Camera and contests like Queen For a Day. The Real World was more of a “paradigm shift” for reality shows, putting strangers together in a common living space who had the most potential for discord and drama.

The open secret, if it’s even a secret at all, is that the discord and drama of reality shows is often manufactured by the producers, with cast members either willingly participating in it or being manipulated in various ways off-camera to engineer strife. Confessional-style interviews are frequently “Frankenbited,” or edited together in such a way to make it look like someone said something they didn’t actually say. But the genre doesn’t just include hidden-camera type shows like Real Housewives; it also encompasses dating, cooking, talent, and survival competitions, makeover shows, weight loss shows, quiz shows, transactional shows like Pawn Stars or Storage Wars, or peers into previously unknown corners of the world, like ice road trucking. They’re often aspirational (“Hey, I can grout a bathtub, too!” Noel jokes), or provide a look into a world to which the average viewer could never hope to belong. 

But the true conspiracy behind reality television isn’t the doing of a shadowy cabal of producers; it’s not even really intentional: Ben compares it to Mickey Mouse enchanting the brooms in Fantasia. He didn’t mean to flood the workshop – it was just the unforeseen but natural consequence of his actions. Similarly, reality television, originally just a cheap and easy way to make a lot of money and entertain a lot of people, has become a chief vehicle for propaganda. These shows hold up a version of society we’re all meant to conform to: Weight loss shows enforce ideas of what an acceptable body looks like; dating shows push the idea that no one can be truly happy alone; even talent competitions implicitly argue that your talent is only important if you can also look good doing it. More than that, it pushes competition over collaboration with winner-take-all contests. There are some good things about reality TV, certainly, but do they outweigh the negatives? Hear the entire fascinating story of reality TV and the fears for our futures because of it on this episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know.

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