The Real Reason You (Still) Watch Reality TV | WIRED

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On day one of shooting season five of Love Is Blind, a junior staffer walked into the control room and told executive producers Chris Coelen and Ally Simpson, who oversee every aspect of the popular Netflix dating series, that there was a problem. “There’s two people who know each other and appear to have had a relationship of some sort,” the staffer said to them. In the show’s short but relatively iconic run, this was a first.

Coelen and Simpson’s initial instinct was to send the participants home. “We said, look, the essence of the experiment is that you get to know someone without knowing anything about them in the material world,” Coelen told them. “We don’t know how we can keep you here.” The show, which attempts to pair 30 men and women together over the course of seven weeks, testing their compatibility and emotional endurance with the sole intention of getting married, is bound by a contract of mutual anonymity upon entering the first phase of the experiment, where daters chat intimately in walled-off pods unable to see one another. The producers reached a compromise, and both contestants—Lydia Velez Gonzalez and Uche Okoroha—were allowed to stay under one condition: their previous romance would remain a secret until one of them made a genuine connection with another dater.

When it is revealed, in episode four, that the pair have history, the show, like several of its genre contemporaries—The Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules, Selling Sunset, and Love Island—enters uncharted territory: It is no longer about what is solely happening on the screen, it is also consumed by the drama surrounding it, in the real world, where contestants are not their TV characters, as they appear to be, but people who must live, like us, with the consequences of their actions.

With each new season, the allure of reality TV is what’s happening on the show as much as what’s happening outside of it. Reality stars are now also beholden to a larger information economy, a phenomenon of fandom and media that operate like e-tabloids. Similar to BallerAlert or TMZ, the mission of this network is to steer, and often dictate in blunt terms, conversations we have around fame, influence and reality, and our relationship to the truth of it all.

Every show worth texting your friend about is now part of the hype machine, an unofficial network of blogs, fan podcasts, social media posts, message boards, newsletters, and general group chat gossip that coexists alongside, and in conversation with, a reality star’s storyline, tracking lies or perceived deceptions.

Maybe a contestant wasn’t happy with how they were portrayed, and wanting to have the final word on the matter they go live on Instagram (which is what Uche Okoroha did in the aftermath of his appearance on Love Is Blind). Perhaps a plotline didn’t add up. Exactly how did Heather Gay get her mysterious black eye during a cast trip to San Diego? One subreddit had theories. Or dine on any of the dozens of podcasts dedicated to the Housewives—and sometimes hosted by Housewives themselves, like Reasonably Shady or Namaste B$tches—which often toe the line between speculation and sincerity.

This expansive and always-expanding web of information brokers extends across all corners of the internet and media. In 2019, the Instagram account @smotherdisfake detailed what was believed to be fictitious aspects of sMothered, the TLC mother-and-daughter series. There are also Substacks like Hunter Harris’ Hung Up, devoted to weekly pop discourse about Succession and reality institutions like Survivor. “It doesn’t work without awkward scenes meeting drunk, judgmental friends, it doesn’t work without two awkward cast meetups, not just one,” Harris wrote about Love Is Blind. “It doesn’t work with just one successful wedding, especially when those two people are happily married.” Harris’ point being: We’re here for the mess, and blogs like hers play into the eddy of discourse that make shows like Love Is Blind a phenomenon, even when critics don’t find a season especially compelling.

“The experience of watching these shows, like looking in the mirror, is interactive. We see ourselves, and then we groom ourselves accordingly,” sociologist Danielle Lindermann writes in True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us. “We’re voyeurs, but part of what tantalizes us about these freak shows is that the freaks are ourselves.”

Leading streamers like Netflix and Max now dictate the tempo of the market. It’s something many Hollywood insiders I spoke with over the past year are keenly aware of. The metric for success has changed, they said, which has in turn changed how shows come together, are marketed to viewers, and enter our expanding pop discourse.

Rupert Dobson presides over the unscripted department at Bunim-Murray Productions, the agency that birthed The Real World. He has worked in the industry for more than 25 years and has seen how the genre has expanded, and contracted, up close. I reached out to him at the end of last year, curious about the future of reality TV. “The thing that people loved about unscripted was that it was organic, warts and all,” he said. “Slowly, those edges have been sanded off in a quest for efficiency.”

Reality TV is sheer volume, and with its current dominance, the genre is not only everywhere, an increasing priority of just about every streamer and network, it’s unstoppable. Everybody watches it. Then everybody wants to talk about it; over half of US adults average an hour a week.

The current era of mass television has shifted the axis and appetite of our gaze. There’s something for everyone, from high-octane lifestyle soaps (The Real Housewives franchise) and experiential delicacies (Married at First Sight) to the culinary dark arts (Nailed It) and softcore exhibitionism (Physical 100). According to one report, “unscripted hours watched” have grown 200 percent on Hulu since 2020. In its current form, the genre’s plump rolodex of titles is endless and endlessly rewarding.

Reality TV remains a “battle for eyeballs,” Dobson says, but the real metric for shows is “getting the audience to the final episode.” That has made it harder to sell episodic work. Most reality programs today need an arc—or, failing that, a gimmick. Dobson brings up Is It Cake?, the ludicrously popular reality food game show hosted by Saturday Night Live cast member Mikey Day, where the entire conceit hinges on celebrities guessing whether the, I don’t know, basketball is actually a basketball or, in fact, a cake. To Dobson, its popularity both did and did not make sense. “You kind of look at it and go, ‘What the fuck is that?’”

But that hasn’t stopped people from tuning in. “A lot of the decisionmaking from the buyers isn’t really ‘Is this a good show?’” Dobson continued. “It’s more ‘Is this a show we can promote? Is this a show that will make noise in the marketplace? Is this a show that will make you stop scrolling and watch it?’”

Where does reality TV fit into our current way of life? Social media has equipped reality stars and viewers alike with the tools to broadcast their version of reality, to produce their lives to people as they see fit. As a genre and business, will reality TV be able to keep up? Maybe it doesn’t matter, because in the end, everything feeds into the hype machine—truth and untruth—and contributes to the genre’s influence and reach. The noise, to Dobson’s point, is all that matters. It’s why we watch.

The night of the season 13 premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, cast member Kyle Richards appeared on Watch What Happens Live, Bravo’s in-house reality talk show. The recent split from her husband of 27 years caused a frenzy when it hit the press this summer. Some speculated it was all a ruse to make her storyline more interesting. Others speculated Richards was involved with country singer Morgan Wade, and perhaps lesbian. “The one thing I hear the most is that we are doing this just for ratings,” she said. “What human being would do that to their children, their family?”

Lived reality was once the basis for reality TV. Today, the genre—and what it has come to represent through its necessity for performance, high drama, and posh aesthetics, particularly on the docusoap and dating show formats—informs how reality is presented on social media, which has become a stage for certain ways of image-making and content creation. When everyone’s got their own version of the truth, who are viewers to believe?

“We certainly don’t like it if what’s happening outside or around the show ruins the viewer experience,” Simpson says when we speak by Zoom in October. “ If certain details of the show are leaked before it airs, we don’t like that. But—”

Coelin jumps in. “But there’s no narrative that we’re constructing. We live in a social media world. People are going to speculate about other people’s journeys or their own journeys or whatever,” he says. “People have said, ‘Well, I got a certain edit’ or ‘I got the villain edit.’ Nobody gets any edit on this show. People are going to say whatever they want. People are going to lie about it. People are going to make up stories about it. What we put out there is an accurate portrayal of their experience.”

With international versions in Brazil and Japan, Love Is Blind is a cultural juggernaut, but one not without its fair share of controversy. Last year, a season five participant sued Coelen’s production company Kinetic Content for claims of assault, false imprisonment, and negligence.

Before my interview with Coelen and Simpson, I was told that they would not discuss any of the allegations or active lawsuits, but it didn’t matter. The discourse was already beyond their reach.