12/28/2011 09:43 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2012

The Reality TV Myth

In the early nineties I was hired to work as a story editor on one of the first reality TV shows. It was called "American Detective." Back then there were only a few of these shows and they were (and still are) cheap to produce.

In the case of American Detective, camera crews were somehow "deputized" and allowed to follow detectives all over the country. They got access to everything the cops did and wore blue jackets with POLICE in yellow letters written on the back. They filmed with handheld cameras and with numerous tiny lock-down cameras taped to whatever might give a view of a bust.

The video tapes were then sent via Fedex to the production studio in Malibu, where story editors like myself analyzed and made running logs of every visual and auditory element that could be used to create a story. On an average we analyzed between 6,000 to 12,000 minutes of film. Once that was done, we created a 15-minute highlight reel of the overall bust or case. That then went to a supervising producer, who in turn worked with technical editors to create an episode of the show.

Most of what we saw was either too boring or, in most cases, too compromising and full of real life pathos for TV. There were desperate women who hooked to put food on the table for their kids. Mentally unstable girls who took in drug-dealing boyfriends because they were lonely and friendless. Poor Hispanic families selling marijuana to the same white middle-class folks who watched reality cop TV. Unemployed Vietnam veterans selling liquid morphine because their SSI checks weren't enough to cover rent. And AIDS patients who got busted in violent raids for smoking small quantities of pot to alleviate the side effects of their medication. There was also a significant amount of footage that comprised the integrity of the detectives: Violence and abuses of power, lewd profanity, extreme sexism, harassment and garden-variety cruelty.

The vast majority of this ended up on the cutting room floor. The remainder was tweaked into 11-minute, action-packed segments that portrayed the cops as heroes and everyone else as dangerous criminals. Despite this feat of production magic, each show began with this message on the screen: "What you are about to see is real. There are no re-creations. Everything was filmed while it actually happened."

I wrote about much of this in a piece that appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1993. Since then, reality TV has become so pervasive it's a norm, like the sitcom. There are literally hundreds of them, all mutations and more polished variations on a theme of the original basic genre, including the stupendously popular sub-genre of reality competitions.

That latter category includes familiar big ones -- American Idol, America's Top Model, Apprentice, Top Chef. There are also a huge number of more obscure ones, like 16 and Pregnant (no description necessary), Airplane Repo (Nick Popovich "repossesses airplanes and other big ticket items), Bridalplasty (a "bridal plastic surgery competition"), Blush (the "search for the next great make-up artist"), Cold Turkey (participants "attempt to quit smoking while living in a smoke-free San Diego Mansion"), Dress My Nest (using "a person's favorite clothing as inspiration for the design of a living space in their house") and "Dating in the Dark (single men and women "go through the dating process without actually seeing each other.") And that's just a smattering of shows listed up to "D" in Reality TV World's extensive alphabetical list.

What accounts for the popularity of these shows? John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay "Getting Down to What is Really Real" in his recently published essay collection "Pulphead" doesn't necessarily provide an answer, though it does state the obvious, which is that what's "really real" is that reality TV isn't real.

And in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine special called "The Lives They Lived" Sullivan, a self-confessed die-hard fan of the genre, profiles the deaths of a few reality TV stars. Each one died when real hard reality - the stuff that's not shown on TV - caught up with them. "A thing we know about reality TV," Sullivan writes, "is that it isn't real, and death is as real as it gets." True. And once a reality TV star dies, there's no "waiting for the episode in which they bring these people back."

It's scary to think that these words might pass for wisdom. Then again, in an industry where fact and fiction are so extensively blurred in the name of entertainment, it's not surprising that it takes death, the ultimate grande finale, for people to start thinking about what's real in life.

In 1985 Neil Postman wrote "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a work that was spectacularly ahead of its time. It envisioned a world where everything, including TV news, was a "packaged commodity." Postman did not believe in an Orwellian future where our demise would come from a totalitarian government that snuffs out our personal freedom. Rather, he believed in how Aldous Huxley perceived things in "Brave New World." That is, that our insatiable appetite for entertainment and distraction might ultimately pacify us, turn everything into a curated narrative, and obscure our ability to think freely and clearly about what's real and what's not.

There's nothing wrong with entertainment, of course. Shakespeare is among our most enduring entertainers. "All the world's a stage," he said presciently. As if real life - and death - weren't enough.