Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Behind the Scenes of Reality TV

Take a moment and sit in front of your TV and flip channels.  Notice a pattern?  The channels are full of shows called “Reality TV”.  Dance Moms, which makes my skin crawl and I can’t figure out why children’s services isn’t involved.  Supernanny.  Wife Swap (seriously, who would do that?).  Honey Boo Boo.

If this is a slice of reality, I think we should be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Of course, most of us have figured out that it is NOT in fact reality.  These shows are edited, sometimes partially scripted, and manipulated in ways to meet standard formulas.  There must be drama.  And tears, tears are good (apparently).

I recently had a conversation with a dance instructor at a Dallas dance studio who gave me some inside scoop on Dance Moms.  The studio she works at was the first dance studio scouted to be on the Dance Moms program.  The owner met with the teachers and producers and discussed what kinds of roles they wanted to fill.  In the end, this particular dance studio chose not to be involved because they didn’t want their friends and neighbors seeing them act like that on TV, even though they knew it would be fake.  Their reputations were more important to them then the money, fame and face time on TV.

Many of our kids, however, don’t know how fake so called reality TV is.  But guess what, there is a book for that.  More than one, actually.

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Chomp is a middle grade fiction title about Wahoo (named after the wrestler, not the fish) who lives in Florida with his father, who is an animal wrangler.  There are monkeys, snakes, and a large alligator (oh my!) named Alice.  They are in serious financial trouble when they are offered the job that might save them: providing animals for the “reality” show Expedition Survival.  It stars Derek Badger (not his real name) who is forced to find ways to survive in a variety of perilous adventures (that are not at all actually perilous).  Along the way they meet Tuna, a young girl with a black eye from her father.  She joins them on the shoot in the Everglades.  Soon her father shows up with a gun and everyone is now trying to survive – for real.

I just finished listening to this on audio and it is one of my favorite audios to date.  I was surprised to find that it was narrated by Mr Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek, and he did a pretty good job.  It helps that he had excellent material to work with; Chomp is funny, heartwarming, adventurous, and teeming with great, rich characters.  I loved how clearly it showed the contrast between who Derek Badger was onscreen and what a spoiled, worthless tool he was behind the scenes.  I also loved how clearly it demonstrated how the screen product was manipulated, from showing the scripts to discussing how scenes actually occurred and how they could edit them to make it appear that something completely different had happened.

I think this is a must read for all Tweens so that they can better understand how entertainment is manipulated, and it helps that it is a brilliantly fun read.

Reality Boy by A. S. King

The reality boy in Reality Boy by A. S. King is one Gerald Faust, a very angry young man.  The anger started when his family began to appear on a television show that is basically a version of Supernanny.  Twelve years later he can’t escape the perception people have of him, or his nickname “The Crapper”.  That’s right folks, he would crap on things as an expression of his anger.  People are still judging him and teasing him for something he did when he was 5 years old.

Reality Boy is a brilliant and moving look at one young man’s anger that simmers just below the surface and his attempts to control it.  If you didn’t know Gerald it would be easy to hate him; distant, angry, withdrawn.  But we do get to know Gerald, what goes on inside his head and the behind the scenes things that led to his barely controlled rage, and you love him.  He is a broken young man, and the realization of why exactly that is makes for a profound and moving read.  What goes on in this young man’s house when the cameras aren’t rolling and how it is all manipulated for TV will blow your mind, break your heart, and then make you swear off reality TV for eternity (which you should probably do any way.)

Reality Boy doesn’t come out until October, but YOU MUST READ IT. Why?

1) Because it is A. S. King book and she is brilliant. She does not pay me to say that.  In fact, I am probably on her personal watch list somewhere for my stalkerish ways.

2) Because we all know a lot of angry young men, and she gives them voice and soft edges underneath and it is important that we remember that something happened in their lives to make them that way.  Their something is probably not being screwed on a reality TV show, but they have their own something.

3) Because it gives keen insight into the behind the scenes of TV production and it is so important that our teens understand what is happening, how the scenes – and the audience – are being manipulated.  There is a great ethical discussion to be had about what we put on TV, how we put it out there, and how we respond to it – especially if it involves children.  Children can’t really consent to what is happening, they don’t have the legal rights, they don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand the short and long term ramifications.  I basically already did, but after reading this book I refuse to ever watch a so-called reality show that involves children (though I don’t reality watch much reality TV to begin with, I’m more of a Buffy/Firefly/Doctor Who kind of girl).

Tweens and teens of any age can read Chomp, it is safe and delightful while being eye-opening.  King writes for an older audience and her main character is an angry teen boy, so there is language.  Though very different in approach and tone, they are both 5 star books that need to be read.  Reality Boy is powerful, thought provoking, and compelling.  Chomp is fun, but the second act does have a little meat to it as it discusses how Tuna lives in an abusive home and her daddy chases them around the Everglades with a gun.

Go further: As a hands on activity, I think you could use your smart phone or tablet to have tweens and teens shoot some of the classroom discussion on these titles, then use editing software to show how they can be edited to make it look like something completely different happened.  They would get a real life look at the behind the scenes process and learn some tech skills in the process.


  1. Jessica S says:

    As an AVID 'reality tv' watcher I think that the reason I like them is because they are so obviously fake. Its hilarious! Plus, because I love to waste my time and know useless things my friends and I really work hard at 'uncovering' the truth about the 'actors.' I think its value has to do more with pure entertainment value. Though I have felt awkward at times when I find out one of my teens watches Real Housewives or something. I first think OMG AWESOME someone else to discuss this with! then I think… uuuuggg I wouldnt want my 13 year old watching that. Much less have my tween ON the show like in Dance Moms or RHONJ . I feel so so bad for those kids, what kind of mom does that to them?
    These shows were always fake, from the start with MTV and the Real World, I just hope teens can see that they are not reflecting real life.

    I could go on forever, but I do have to say, I LOVED Chomp. I hope kids do too!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Would it be too obvious for me to add to this list: Hunger Games!

  3. Well, my Tween loved Chomp – so I think that kids do too.

    Can I just say, the original seasons of The Real World are so much different then later ones. I used to love it, less so now. The only “reality tv” I watch now is Project Runway and SYTYCD, which I am not sure is really so much reality tv as competition TV. Oh, and I watch Face/Off. They are not without their issues. For example, I don't watch the audition portion of SYTYCD. I have never seen Real Housewives, any version. I thought Reality Boy raised really interesting questions about involving children. I don't care what adults do to themselves, more power to them. I, too, hope that everyone is talking to their kids about how the shows ARE NOT reality.

    Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. Good call. Thanks for the addition.

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