The camera shakes as it pans quickly to the floor. When the camera man pans back, we see a hand covering the screen. We hear shouting, “I don’t want to be on camera right now.” The fourth wall of reality television has been broken.
The “fourth wall” is the imaginary space that separates the audience from the performer.
For many years, reality television existed within this fourth wall. It only broke during interviews with personalities and that was only use in competition like series. Reality television had to claim that everything audiences witnessed was 100 percent true. They had to put the ‘real’ in ‘reality’.
In 2010, Jennifer Pozner wrote Reality Bites Back, a detailed look into how crafted this reality really was. Her goal was to, “arm readers with the tools they need to understand and challenge the stereotypes reality TV enforces…” Her work is exemplary, as it magnificently synthesizes stereotypical tropes and cliches of the genre.
While in 2006 shows like The Hills projected real life, viewers and critics started to question how real the experiences were for these stars. Critics wanted to know what was being manipulated. On top of that, producers have to compete with the hundreds of other reality shows out there for ratings. Teen Mom decided to break the fourth wall.
When Teen Mom returned after a few seasons of not filming the shows cast Maci, Amber, Catelynn, and Farrah were shown interacting with the producers and crew. Catelynn explained, “I feel like it makes it more raw and honest.” Which is interesting, since audiences were supposed to believe everything before was ‘raw’ and ‘honest’.
Now we see producers ask the leading questions. Something like, “so did you hear about Ryan’s new girlfriend,” is asked of Maci. We are now aware of how little the girls are actually filmed. Crews show up during their allotted times to get the information they need and then they leave. It is not a 24/7 filming experience.
Even some of the oldest reality shows are trying to rework their idea of “real”. The Bachelor/Bachelorette series has attempted this by portraying a more self aware cast. Host Chris Harrison stands in front of the studio audience at the “Tell All” and “After the Final Rose” specials laughing with the audience as he says “This will be the most dramatic finale in Bachelor history.” The audience chuckles with him because they are in on the joke. Every finale is “the most dramatic ever.”
With the breaking of the fourth wall we are given a glimpse behind the scenes. We are seeing how these shows are created. So does that make it more real? Does the ownership taken by these shows change the way we see them?