Last year my husband and I had the opportunity to take on a kitchen remodel on a little show called “Renovation Realities” on the DIY Network. When one of the producers called to let us know our audition tape was good enough to get us on the show, we were absolutely ecstatic. I immediately started scouring the internet for deals on white shaker cabinets, butcher block counter tops, and a farmhouse sink. My new best friends were IKEA, Craigslist and Habitat for Humanity.
I should have been looking up how to disconnect a dishwasher and install that farmhouse sink, but those were details that could wait.
Jake and I learned a lot from the show – teamwork, communication, the importance of a reliable babysitter when you’re on national television (we learned that the hard way).
We also learned that while reality television is entertaining…it isn’t real.
Okay, go ahead and tell me you already know this. For whatever reason, I didn’t. While some shows are blatantly manipulated, I imagined a renovation show would be straight forward.
Our producer was quick to say, “This is the most ‘real’ reality show out there.” Alright, we were not dating twenty-five people simultaneously while being romanced over dinner in Irish castles and helicopter rides like the “Bachelorette.” Nor were traveling at warp speed from Moscow to Lisbon as contestants in the “The Amazing Race” seem to do; but even on a renovation show there can be some manipulation.
Manipulate Through Editing
What the viewer sees on television is a tiny fraction of what actually takes place. Not only is there a great deal that takes place off camera, there is an unbelievable amount of footage that ends up on the cutting room floor. Take our episode for example: we shot for over four days,but the show is only twenty minutes long. When taking into account breaks and interviews, the show represents less than 5% of what was shot.
The other thing that editing can do is manipulate context. This isn’t journalism, it is entertainment, and there is no ethical requirement to be true to context. Let me give you just one example.
My husband and I were removing our vintage 50’s stove top when we found yards of electrical tape wrapped around the wires. You should know that my husband and I had virtually no DIY renovation skills. I can paint and that’s about it. We had absolutely no business taking on a renovation show like this one. Had we known what we were doing, we would have cut the wires immediately. Instead we tried to unwrap yards of old, sticky tape. After several minutes we decided to take a break. The crew charged some batteries, Jake gave an interview, I gave an interview and an hour and half later we went back to filming. After a few more minutes of working on the tape, we decided to cut the wires.
When the show was edited together, there was a running clock on the screen showing what time it was when we started and what time it was when we finished. Looking something like this:
To the viewer at home it looked as though we were messing with this tape for over two hours. Jake’s father was yelling at the television screen in disbelief.
Should we have cut the wires in the first 30 seconds? Sure.
Did it take us two hours to figure that out? No.
I use to watch people on reality television that would have meltdowns, and think to myself. “If this is how they act on television, than how do they act off camera?”
This is a completely unfair assessment. Now when I watch reality television and see a girl break down in tears on the side of the road or watch a guy storm off, throwing his mic on the concrete and refusing to do another interview, I have nothing but compassion.
Many reality shows are designed to create an extremely stressful environment to add drama. Participants are often isolated from family and friends so there is no support system, there are usually unrealistic time restraints, and more often than not there is an incredibly challenging task that the participant is suppose to accomplish.
This alone would be incredibly stressful.
What I had not anticipated was the stress of being in front of a camera. Not only did I feel like every facial expression was under a microscope, but there is a strange psychological reaction that occurs when you are struggling or feeling helpless, and there is a crew standing by simply…watching.
No word of encouragement.
No offer to help.
Worse, there is an underlying sense that the more Jake and I messed up, the better television it made. So when Jake and I inadvertently flood our basement (because I never did look up how to disconnect a dishwasher), there is a crew standing by and silently high-fiving each other as we have now handed them some great footage.
There is nothing natural about that dynamic, and I must admit I had my own little meltdown. Fortunately for me it was NOT caught on camera.
Manipulate Through Acting.
Finally, there are times when the producer of our show straight out asked us to act.
The majority of our interviews were authentic, but sometimes lines were fed to us. Ever think a reality show contestant is really funny, or really judgmental? They might just be repeating lines the producer gave them.
For most people, getting catchy lines from a producer might seem inconsequential, but for myself, I had a real issue with being unauthentic. Sure, it was just a line in a show. It wasn’t hurting anyone.
But it wasn’t ME. The poor producer really struggled to understand my reasoning, but she picked up quickly that I wasn’t gonna play.
In the end, I went along with having our family “act out” an ending. Jake had four days to shoot before he had to go back to work. For the producers, going back to work wasn’t a very “visual” way to end the show, so they were looking for an alternative. Jake had seriously injured his back and I had been fighting a cold for two days, so we acted out a scene where both Jake and I professed that we were too sick to go on. Our poor Sofia didn’t understand that Jake and I we were just acting for the show and she started crying because she didn’t want us to quit. She was afraid we were never going to have a kitchen again and cried some real tears, poor thing.
Shortly after, the crew wrapped, flew back to Tennessee, while Jake and I went back to working on the kitchen…for the next two and half months. Over the next several weeks there were a lot of dishes washed in our bathroom sink and meals cooked in our microwave in the living room. We made plenty more mistakes, and Jake and I decided this was our last time living in a renovation, especially with four small children.
That being said, this show was an unbelievable experience that I am incredibly grateful for. We would have never remodeled our kitchen if we hadn’t been on “Renovation Realities;” and now Jake can install a dishwasher, move electrical wires and retrofit a $20 vintage dresser into an adorable sink vanity. We went from our cramped, retro kitchen to the farmhouse kitchen we ABSOLUTELY LOVE.
At the end of the day, reality television may be entertaining, but it isn’t real.