Everyone knows reality TV is fake. Or do they? It turns out a lot of people were surprised when news broke that a recently aired scene on Kourtney & Kim Take New York couldn’t have been real or unscripted. Kim Kardashian and her mother were shown in a car, discussing the state of her marriage to athlete Kris Humphries. “It was portrayed on the show as taking place in October in Dubai,” says Keith Girard, editor of the online magazine The Improper. But she and her mother were wearing the same clothes as in a paparazzi photo snapped a month after the marriage broke up—and everyone knows reality stars don’t wear the same outfit twice unless they’re on Survivor.
As with most reality shows, Kourtney & Kim producers insist everything that happens is real, and the only manipulation is in editing of the real events; the host of The Bachelor, Chris Harrison, insisted last year that “the only fake thing on the show is me.” But the mix-up of dates and times on the Kardashian show seemed to confirm what a lot of people suspected: as Girard says, producers “attempted to backfill the storyline” to create a fictional substitute for events they didn’t have on tape.
Several media outlets pounced on Kim’s apparent foray into fiction. “The reaction to the story has been overwhelming,” says Lauren Rounseville, a writer for Reality Tea, one of the first sites to break the story. Other publications hinted this is par for the course: a source told the New York Daily News that “all reality shows are faked.” Girard notes that there have been other such reports, including charges that the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills “never socialize or interact with each other when cameras aren’t rolling,” and that everything they do is staged for the cameras. These reports, taken together, could have been reality’s version of the game show scandals of the 1950s: Girard says we’re learning that networks “have every incentive to coach the players, fabricate confrontations, fake scenes and create controversy just as the networks did with game shows.”
But unlike game shows or sporting events, which can be destroyed by these revelations, reality is doing fine. Reaction is split between those who don’t care and those who won’t believe it. Rounseville says some fans “are so consumed with their Kardashian adoration that no amount of proof to the contrary would make them believe anything the family does is fake.” She pointed to a commenter who said the Kardashians “would never be a part of anything like what is suggested here. Trust me, Kris and Kim are the ‘real deal’ and everyone on here knows they would melt in their presence and be gushing.”
Even the fans who love to hate the Kardashians—who Rounseville calls “the people who spend their time actively looking for flaws or falsities in order to bring more negative press to the Kardashian Klan”—don’t seem turned off by these allegations. Rounseville says many watch the show “either as lighthearted entertainment or because it’s such a train wreck they can’t look away, regardless of good or bad press.”
With many people watching for the fake stuff, rather than in spite of it, allegations like these may actually be good for ratings. A few reality shows have even made a move toward embracing the idea that they’re not real, and hinting they’re really nothing but a showbiz sham; MTV’s The Hills ended with everyone striking the set and moving on.
Most reality shows, though, can’t just come out and claim to be fake, because much of their audience is not used to the idea that they’re watching a staged version of events. “I’m sure some people take what happens with a grain of salt,” Girard says. “But far too many people believe they are real, just as viewers believed game shows were honest during the ’50s.” Kim Kardashian may appeal to both groups: people who think it’s fake may enjoy it as camp, while true believers take everything seriously, even in real life: “Watch how Humphries is booed on the basketball court,” Girard laments. “The hate is visceral.” That could be why Rounseville thinks the most sane group of TV viewers is “the group who ask, ‘Kim who?’ ”