Is Reality TV Too Scared To Be Reality TV?

Reality TV is now just a curated feed of not-so-controversial moments, all under the guise of real life. It’s fun, but it’s not very realistic.
Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton in The Simple Life (2003).
20th Century Fox

I watched the entirety of Byron Baes in two days. While some may shudder at the thought (“What are you doing with your life?”) I’m not ashamed to say that I watch a lot of reality TV. It’s interesting - a study of human behavior. But what Byron Baes fails to have is exactly that: human behavior. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. It just felt like I had seen it before.

Byron Baes is Australia’s latest offering to the reality TV market. From its inception it was doused in controversy: Locals protested, they signed petitions, they worried that the show would drive residents to the area which already struggled economically. The drama off-screen was akin to the one on - and may have been even better. It was real. 


Though I’m not saying the storyline of Byron Baes was completely fake (reality TV as we know it is edited and stylized to the utmost), what it felt like was… polished. There’s really only one (maybe two) storylines: That of Sarah St. James, the misunderstood outsider vying for a place in the Byron Baes inner circle, and Jade Kevin Foster, whose large following was revealed to be (allegedly) fake. 

Though Byron Baes fills a gap in the Australian market, playing into the pocket that the much-maligned 2010’s reality show The Shire once tried (and failed!) to exist in, it struggles to delve into characters on any deeper level. Reality TV shows don’t have to do this – the entire genre was made for easy watching. But reality TV is more absorbing when it actually reflects, well… reality. 

Byron Baes, in essence, is about social media. About influencers in the wild. About curation and looking one’s best. It’s all about how you’re perceived. 

Unfortunately, the cast knows this.

It’s different to shows like The Real World or The Simple Life, shot in the early 90s and 00s respectively, an era that shaped what reality TV is today. 

Instead, like in 2006’s The Hills or the first few seasons of Real Housewives (Orange County airing in the same year), there is an almost disturbing nature to the drama. From stories of addiction, like Beverly Hills Housewife Kim Richards’ struggle with alcoholism, or Heidi Montag’s isolation and emotional abuse in her relationship with Spencer Pratt in The Hills. These shows were pre-mainstream social media and, in essence, unsettlingly real. 


They were before anyone was aware of how airing your private moments so vividly could affect the rest of your life. People wanted fame, just like they do today, but didn’t realise the type of fame they were getting into - or what parts of their life would be judged.

These days, our social media feeds are carefully curated to present the life we think other people want to see and that other people might be jealous of. Byron Baes feels like this feed: Beautiful beaches, girls in bikinis, surface-level life. Reality TV once showed a much darker side: It was the burner account – the rot underneath the shiny overcoat. Now, it’s just about a curated feed of not-so-controversial moments, all under the guise of real life. It’s fun, it’s easy, but it’s not very realistic. 

Producers and company heads have also had a hand in shaping the direction of their cast's storylines, dulling down the drama to avoid repercussions to their own businesses. In the last few years, allegations of intoxication and sexual misconduct have forced shows to intervene to avoid liability in what may have been criminal cases. 

"The Bachelor [franchises] just had this disaster. That was a big fear of ours," Mark Cronin, head of reality tv show company 55minds, told Broadly in 2017. "You're liable, so you can't put someone in the cast who's a danger to themselves or others, to the extent that you can predict that.”


Shows like Real World and Road Rules, run by Cronin, introduced strict psychological testing for cast members, and many shows enacted liability waivers to protect themselves from contestants suing them

Inevitably, it also led to shows like Love Island restricting cast members to two drinks per day.

Though this is a good thing, it’s another reason why reality TV gleams at the edges of what it once was. There are new rules, new regulations, and there’s a nature of fear. The blurry ethics of reality TV are becoming more defined, as well as the conversations around whose fault the sometimes-extreme onscreen antics are. 

Reality TV casts, too, have learned what the audience wants. They know how to write their own storyline. 

In the mid-2000s, and after the first season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was released, the beginnings of finessed storylines and “becoming a brand” began to set in.

In Real Housewives Season 2, the cast visit a ski lodge in Beavers Creek, Colorado. Kim is lying in bed after a night of drinking - it's obviously a hangover - but the other characters, mainly her sister, Kyle, tell the camera it’s “altitude sickness”. They designate the same diagnosis to Taylor Armstrong after she has a drunken breakdown in the same episode. They’re protecting each other's public image - and their own.


This episode made it clear - alongside the increasing waves of product placements from each woman’s side hustle - that the cast was now in on the joke. Reality tv had become a means to further your personal following or business. 

Of course, this was most obviously pioneered by the Kardashians – a family so symbiotic with the reality genre that I’d be remiss not to mention them.

The expanse of the Kardashian kingdom, beginning in 2007, was the mainstream audience's first real insight into how social media could impact an onscreen cast. Though the sisters were stung in various viral social media moments, they always brought the commentary back to their TV show. There, they could control the narrative, re-shaping it and providing commentary to anything that had unfolded.

But even the Kardashians reached a point where reality was too far out of their hands. The show closed up in 2020 after the three oldest sisters quit. They needed a break. Apparently, over a decade spent tying your personality to the outward visibility of social media takes its toll - or just becomes not worth it anymore.

In Byron Baes, it feels like this is almost completely what the show revolves around. We see fashion shows and moments dedicated to conversations around the cast's various businesses. We see drama around how many followers one has and how one photo on their story could lead to amazing exposure for their brands. Instead of real people, they are carefully molded Byron archetypes. They don’t stray further than their given lines.


And perhaps that’s Byron Baes intention. Maybe the whole point of the series is to demonstrate the somewhat satirical nature of the influencer crowd, or the surface-level interactions that social media tends to stoke. It could be another stab at cultural commentary, in a time where we have plenty of culture to comment on. But it's a dangerous game to play - and is that really why we watch reality TV anyway?

The drama throughout Byron Baes remains surface level: The whole second half of it revolves around whether wannabe-environmental conservationist Elle Watson has called aspiring popstar Sarah St. James fake. It’s highschool stuff of the he-said she-said variety. And Sarah St. James fills the role well. She gets upset, Elle denies it. It’s PG and a bit, well, played out. 

In the 2020s, reality TV relies more on its cast wanting to gain a following than it does on interesting content. Characters are carefully shaped and storylines are thought out. It’s drama with parental guidance at its forefront, following guidelines and avoiding the dreaded social media shadowban.

We don’t want to see people suffer as they did in the disturbing realities of 2000’s TV - but audiences these days are switched on to the facade. In the end, Byron Baes is fine: it’s fun, I enjoyed it to an extent, and it has some redeeming qualities. But it wasn’t very deep. 

Maybe reality TV, borne in the days of uncensored, toxic drama, is long-gone. Maybe not.

But at least back then it felt real.

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