Though the TV show Unreal is fictitious – a dystopian look into the lives of producers on reality shows like The Bachelor – it’s a program that raises questions about the morality, ethics and manipulation behind the dazzling mirage of reality tv.
On Unreal, producers use any means necessary to climb the ladder of success. They feed their contestants alcohol, storylines, and lies to manipulate them into following a character arc created for them. They label contestants “heroes” or “villains” or “love interests” and plot their romances. And they have no sense of guilt for doing it. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
But how close does that come to real life?
We asked a producer that question – granted anonymity for obvious reasons – who has worked for over a decade in the Australian reality TV business.
Short answer: “It is 100% manipulated.”
VICE: So you were saying that the archetypes of villain and hero actually exist and people are cast in those roles.
Yeah, the archetypes definitely exist, they build it around them. We’ll say, ‘Okay, so this person, we're going to be keeping around for a while because they're going to be a villain, and there'll be good television’.
Say you're doing Bachelor or Bachelorette, it is ultimately up to the person who's picking whether they stick around, but they will have their own producer who will be like, ‘Hey, maybe just keep them around for another episode’. And then they'll get rid of someone who's boring and who's not really getting any airtime.
For example, when you're watching The Bachelorette, like Brooke Blurton’s season, and they've got an absolute douchebag who everybody's like, ‘Why the fuck is she keeping him on the show?’ That's because a producer or executive producer has been like, ‘Hey, we just need to keep them around for a few more episodes’. So they're playing along as well.
Oh, so the person that's the bachelor or the bachelorette is just acting as well.
Yeah, well, some of them go rogue, like Honey Badger. He went absolutely off script. He was taking his mic off and telling girls things he shouldn’t have been. But basically, when you get cast on these shows, it's been decided who you are going to be from the beginning. I know that people say that in reality TV that we manipulate the edit. That's true. Like, we can give you a hero or a villain cut. It’s a lot easier to give someone the hero cut, it's harder to give someone the villain cut because you still need to do the dodgy shit. You still need to look like an ass, you still need to say the bad shit. So if people come and go, ‘I wasn't happy with how I was portrayed on this show’. They still had to have been an asshole.
But I was actually meeting with my writing partner the other day, and she was telling me a story about there being a contestant who was a bit of a douchebag. He came across like a villain. And they were like, ‘Great, we're gonna portray him as a villain’. That's what we wanted. He tried to, in a cute way, grab his partner that he was dating and pull her onto her lap, just in a cute playful way. But she was shocked by it. Not for any untoward reason, just she didn't expect it. So she pulled away. And it was just after she'd been on a date with another guy. So the way that it's been edited and gone out, it looks like he's grabbed her out of anger.
So do the contestants know that they're being cast as heroes or villains?
No. And they have no idea who they are going to be. Part of my job when I meet them is to basically become their best friend. Straight away. And normally, one of the first things you do before you start doing anything else is you do a master interview. The master interview would be like, we'd sit down in a chair for an hour, two hours, sometimes more, and basically, I’ll just ask you questions about yourself, but I'll try to keep it like a conversation.
And then if you reveal something like, ‘I’ve had a really tough time, my mom has cancer’. I'll go and reveal something about myself, like, ‘Oh, yeah, my mom actually had ovarian cancer, I know exactly what you're going through. It's so tough’. And then we build this relationship where they start to trust me.
So I'll say stuff to you off camera with no mics on and get their actual thoughts because they're always like, ‘Oh, man, I don't know, I don't think that she's my type or he's the biggest douchebag I've ever met’. And then they won’t say that on camera. And then you’ll go like, ‘Oh, come on, so what do you actually think about them?’
I had one contestant admit that he didn't like his date because she was Asian…When I left the room, he went to my camera operator and said, “Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. No. I thought I was just talking to a man. Am I fucked?” And the camera guy is like, ‘Nah, man, they're probably never going to use that’. But it's reality TV, so of course they're gonna use it.
I feel like one of the biggest things people think about producers is that they are manipulative. Do you ever feel morally conflicted about that?
Only when they're actually good people. The problem is when you get the hero characters who were actually douchebags. So I had a hero once, but basically, he was an absolute scumbag. I only feel bad when you've got nice people who your bosses are going to stir up some shit with. I actually like these people and I don't want them to look like idiots on TV. I don't want to ruin their lives.
But when we get a misogynist who is talking about how women need to be subservient to men. And how he likes Latina women because they know their place, then I'm like, ‘Yeah, no, no, give me him. I'm gonna get his date to like, fucking throw a glass of water in his face’. I'm gonna make him look like the biggest douchebag. I'm excited to do that. But someone who's just, a bit dumb, a bit innocent, but we can make look like a bad person – because that's what the bosses want – then I feel bad about that.
So do people come on already with their own constructed storylines? And does it work out?
Usually not, unless they're actually good at doing it. A lot of people come onto a reality show and think, ‘I know that I'm gonna get manipulated’. There's that idea that the producer's manipulating you but they think, ‘I'm smart, and I'm going to manipulate it in my favour’. Trust me, no matter how smart you are, you don't know the tricks. I've been in TV for a long time. I guarantee you I know more about how to get you to do what I want. Because you've never been in front of a camera before, you don't know the tricks that we have.
You’re very open about how much manipulation there is. It's kind of refreshing.
Oh yeah, well, we call a group of producers a manipulation.
As a joke, yeah.
Have you ever seen something that another producer has done and it’s been a bit questionable?
Yeah, it's not normally another producer. It's normally executives. It's people who have a lot of power. We have a lot of power as producers whether it’s to get you filmed in a certain way, or get certain grabs from you. Try to make you look good. Try to make you look bad. But ultimately, the story power all goes to the executives and the networks. And if a network or an executive tells you to go down a bad route, that's the route you've got to go down.
It is uncomfortable, manipulating people that don’t want to be together, making sure they're together and it's two people who genuinely have no connection and genuinely don't want to give this thing a shot. And cool, we're forcing them together.
So if someone’s a bad person do you give them a bad storyline?
Look, don't get me wrong, there's 100% manipulation… but if you've done something wrong behind the scenes, you're more likely to get manipulated really badly. If you were lovely behind the scenes – I'm just speaking from personal experience and from the producers that I respect – we're gonna have a real struggle trying to make you look bad. Because we do care about them. Some of them. Some of them you’re just like, ‘You're a piece of shit. And I want to ruin you’.
Have you ever heard of a contestant that was given a villain arc, and then has had trouble after the show?
I mean, none of them have contacted me after the fact. None that I've personally produced. But yeah, I've seen those stories where people are like, ‘Oh, you fucked up my mental health. People hated me. That's not how I really was’. But the problem is, you did do those things.
Now, in the edit, we've probably exaggerated it to be more than what it is. Like we do franken-grabs. Basically a franken-grab is a way of editing but we're not misrepresenting them. People think, “Oh, franken-grabs, they can make us say anything they want”. And the issue with reality TV is that it is 100% manipulated, there are storylines, there are plans, but it is still unscripted. So people don't speak in concise sound bites, and that means that we need to condense it down in the edit. And that's why we use franken-grabs. So the franken grabs are still the exact same thing that they were saying or were implying or. But we've condensed it to make it more concise so that it can actually make a storyline in a TV arc.
So when you get into the editing suite, there hasn't been an instance where you've totally constructed a conversation?
I haven't. No. But I know that other people have. It's not that easy. It is actually quite difficult to try to make something where there is nothing. I know that it's happened. I know people who have done it. I have not done it. Although, I also think that it’s just laziness. I think that's laziness from post-production.
So you’d say it’s better talking to them in real time and making them say things and then editing?
I mean, if you get a good field producer, then yeah. But sometimes you don't get that. And the problem is, you've got like six people producing different contestants. So there's not a singular voice there who's in charge to keep the tone all the same.
Have you ever seen the TV show Unreal? Is being a producer similar to that?
Unreal is an exaggerated version of what is real, but it is surprisingly accurate. It’s set more in a bygone era before the public was so aware of the role of a producer or the manipulation that we do. Nowadays, it's a bit more thoughtful and less evil. There's definitely moral and ethical issues with what we do. Because even if you watch reality TV back in like the early 2000s/2010s, it's gotten tamer.
From what I understand they've done the research and in Australia, we don't particularly want that gross exploitative stuff anymore, like the really really fucked shit. You don't want to see the turkey slap from Big Brother anymore. There is more care about the mental health and well being of the contestants, but I would say nowhere near as much as there should be.