For reality-TV fans, the revelation that not every aspect of a show is legit is like learning there's no Santa Claus. They move on and enjoy the presents.
But the curtain on "reality" is getting pulled back more and more. Last spring, HGTV acknowledged that the home viewings on House Hunters are done for the cameras after buyers have already chosen their properties. In his recent wrongful-dismissal suit, former Storage Wars star David Hester charged producers with planting valuable items in the bins up for bid on the top-rated A&E show. And the celebrity investors on ABC's Shark Tank admit that some of the entrepreneurs who get handshake deals on the show never receive financing; after a closer, off-camera look at the books, some ventures fall through.
But these shows are still successful. Ratings remain strong for Storage Wars even though A&E's court response to Hester's suit did not confirm or deny the fakery. Shark Tank is ABC's hottest unscripted show (it drew 6.1 million viewers on Feb. 8), and many producers are pitching variations on the format. "I look at the ratings on a show like that and I go, 'Well, America doesn't care,'" says one veteran reality producer.
At a time when social media erupts over far-fetched moments on scripted series, why does reality get a pass? "It's always been consumed as a new kind of soap opera," says Michael Hirschorn, whose Ish Entertainment produces programs for Style, WE, Oxygen and VH1. "I think viewers believed the genre was somewhat fake even when it first emerged. Now the demand for intense story is too great not to make up certain pieces of it."
One cable executive has witnessed focus groups during which viewers say they don't care if the fights on docu-soap series are staged. "It's a circus to them," the exec says. "If the audience is engaged, they are willing to go along with it."
The acceptance of artifice is frustrating to producers who want to keep their shows as authentic as possible. But they also have to compete. "Reality TV is part of a populist medium," says Hirschorn. "It's not a church."