When Reality TV Is Real... No One Is Watching
"You can’t have drunk bicycle messengers, it would be too dangerous and these were real businesses with reputations on the line." What’s interesting about Triple Rush is not the show itself, but why the show foundered and what this reveals about audience’s expectations from reality TV shows today.
“I thought they’d come out with the show and it would be totally fake,” says 23-year-old Dillon Roberts with a laugh, “but it turns out this is the one new reality show that is actually more reality than fake.” Roberts is sitting on the edge of a mattress in his studio apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn holding a Pabst Blue Ribbon as his chuckle tapers off. It would have been great if Triple Rush, the failed reality show he starred in about New York City bicycle messengers, had been a sham – but it wasn’t. The show, which premiered April 14th on the Travel Channel, was yanked off the air after only three episodes highlighting the fact that audiences may not want as much reality as they think in their reality television.
Triple Rush featured the “chaotic” experience of being a bicycle messenger in the Big Apple by following the daily activities of three courier companies, Quik Trak, Mess Kollective and Breakaway. What’s interesting about Triple Rush, however, is not the show itself, but why the show foundered and what this reveals about audience’s expectations from reality TV shows today.
It means a lot when your reality TV show is, in essence, a sham. For Snooki, the breakout star of MTV’s Jersey Shore, it meant a leap from $3,000 an episode to $30,000, the publication of her first novel A Shore Thing and appearances on shows like The View and Letterman. If you’re Kim Kardashian of Keeping Up With The Kardashians it means newfound fame and notoriety, your own fragrance and oh yeah, that whole sex-tape thing with rap star Ray J. is water under the bridge. It means a whole lot to be a part of this great reality TV thing— if your show is a bamboozle. That is, if it’s not contrived, sensationalized, edited, dramatized, provoked, orchestrated and manipulated enough to be “good,” then you’re just Dillon Roberts, a bicycle messenger with a few extra bucks and a girlfriend who thinks your job is kind of stupid.
Aside from the enthusiastic messenger community which has started an online petition with 1,100 signatures to get the show back on air, Triple Rush’s failure to produce any real audience wasn’t because it was scripted. The Hills, Cheaters and The Bachelorette are recognized as scripted and have been remarkable successes. Rather Triple Rush’s failure is that it was simply just too real. Roberts was portrayed faithfully as a guy who moved to New York City from Nebraska to live with his girlfriend Jess Castro and got a job as a bicycle courier.
“Since I moved here in October  I had applied to a few different messenger companies and a few random jobs in the city. Then there was one day I got a call while I was in Starbucks from Don, who would later come to be my boss,” says Roberts. “He told me to come in so I just showed up to work the next day and they informed me they were filming a TV show and so I just signed the papers and went up stairs to orientation because I didn’t know what was going on.”
The difference between Roberts and Snooki isn’t just a matter of height. Roberts wears a black backwards baseball cap, Dickie shorts, Chrome bicycle sneakers and a blond unkempt beard. He didn’t move to New York City with a gleam in his eye searching for fame or fortune. He moved to be with his lady, make a decent living and maybe meet some cool people along the way. Most of his co-stars are no different. The show features Nick, an aspiring physicist and stuntman who works to provide for his widowed mother, Greg a starving artist and courier for over a decade and Scott who became a messenger after losing his job as an architect and “Now I hear he’s a waiter,” says Roberts. Any of these stories have potential to be great, don't they? Imagine Nick’s struggle to make rent every month for his obscenely small, dingy East Village apartment. Picture Greg struggling to become a successful artist, sipping cocktails with obnoxious hipsters and fighting with all the haters who said he’d never make it. Oh the possibilities for drama with real New Yorkers with real jobs, real hopes, real dreams, real problems!
Sadly, none of these stories ever came to fruition because the show was not about drama or trying to make it in the big city, it was about work – plain and simple. And watching other people work just isn’t very palatable to the American public. While the show promised the same excitement as reality-meets-labor counterparts Ice Road Truckers,Deadliest Catch and Axe Men, it only revealed the tedium of being a bicycle messenger with a poor sense of direction.
“I liked the show because I get to see what my boyfriend and his friends are doing at work, what other girlfriend can DVR that kind of thing?!” says Jess Castro. “But I can see how that might not be so interesting for someone who doesn’t know them. If there had been a lot of drama, especially with Dillon I probably would have hated the show and everyone else would have loved it! Catch 22.”
Triple Rush couldn’t grab its viewers’ attention because it stood too closely on one side of the line between reality and the artificial construction of reality TV. Triple Rush chose not to fake it. According to Andy Dehnart, television critic for The Daily Beast and founder of the first web tracker for reality TV, Realityblurred.com, it is common for producers to manipulate players to stir up conflict that would otherwise be nonexistent.
“During production, producers can prompt certain behavior overtly and directly, asking a cast member to do or say certain things is less ethical than just asking someone to be more expressive or vocal, for example," says Dehnart. "That can also happen inadvertently when a producer asks a series of questions in an interview that prompt the cast member to form an idea, accurately or not, about how they are being perceived by the cameras and other people. That could affect their behavior if they choose to feed into that or try to actively fight it.” Not to mention all the free alcohol provided so cast members remain ready to spew word vomit at all times, which is notably absent from Triple Rush. You can’t have drunk bicycle messengers, it would be too dangerous and these were real businesses with reputations on the line.
The only conflict Triple Rush had to offer was messenger Nick delivering a package to the wrong building and Dillon losing his delivery manifest. While the two were pretty embarrassed by the situation, such trivial dilemmas could not compete with MTV’s Real World where Dustin Zito had just come out as a gay porn star or American Idol where contestants are routinely humiliated. If the show’s integrity couldn’t obstruct its ability to be interesting any more, Robert’s bosses were only concerned with him working rather than getting footage for the show. “They wouldn’t usually film me for the whole day it would be a section of a day for 3 or 4 hours," said Roberts. "I’d come in at around 9:00 AM. They would let me know what they wanted to do. Then Quik Trak would call us like ‘are you done filming cause we need you to work?’” Perhaps America doesn’t want to see focused young people with a decent work ethic.
Viewers are more receptive to the shameless performances of the naïve fame-seekers on The Bachelor/ette who pretend true love is amongst twenty-five contestants. However, it would be condescending and downright incorrect to presume that audiences believe The Bachelor/ette or any reality TV show is authentic. So why do viewers accept this premise?
Reality TV Guru Reality Steve thinks we understand authenticity is beside the point, “The Bachelor/ette is the perfect example of that [inauthenticity]. They've produced 2 marriages in 21 seasons, yet the ratings are better than ever. So obviously people have accepted the fact that a marriage probably won't happen, yet they watch anyway,” Steve goes onto say, “I'd say it's about 70/30 of it being fabricated, planned or scripted versus real. Is their a script these contestants have to memorize and say their lines? No. But, they are put into situations where they know they are supposed to talk about certain things. And when it's not spontaneous, it's not real.”
Take a show like Cheaters for instance. The show features a team of private detectives who follow suspected lovers committing infidelity and catches them in the act as host Joey Greco dramatically confronts them. Cheaters even goes as far as to begin each episode with the disclaimer, “You are about to view actual true stories, filmed live.” However, in recent years, many of the show’s “cheaters” and their spouses have come out to reveal that the show is fake. Carri Wyatt told Inside Edition, which has organized several investigations to debunk the show, she was paid $500 to pretend she was having an affair at the expense of her fiancé. Nevertheless, the show continues to be produced, aired, watched and is now in syndication on G4. No one cares the show is fake, but people would care a lot less to watch it if it was not presented as real.
“The reality label gets audiences invested because they know that brings some kind of consequence,” says Dehnart. What is that consequence and how does it differ from scripted shows? Even if it is all for entertainment's sake, “reality” does provide the audience with certain assumptions about what they are going to see. Then the question remains, we all know that reality TV is fake, so why does the label matter?
“There is a big difference between what people believe is real and reality TV,” says Dr. Moya Luckett, professor of media studies at NYU. “There is this sense that it’s real people but in very structured and contrived situations, there may be some relevance to their real life or work, whether it be American Idol or The Real Housewives but it’s not real. There’s this fantasy/reality combination that’s going on in this very structured world that doesn’t have the same links to the real world. They often remove cell phones or put people in accommodations at these majestic houses, yet they’re sharing bedrooms on The Real World so that we can see what happens when we take someone that’s based in reality and structure it in a way to produce conflict and to produce drama.”
It is the tension between the thinly drawn demarcations of real and fake which makes the drama more satisfying than a scripted show. The viewer knows that the star, even if they are performing, has to be accountable for what he says and does even when the cameras are off. Luckett continues, “the key things with reality shows is that they are real people…they are who they present themselves on screen even if it is a heightened version of the self... Yes they are performing but they aren’t actors, we all perform and we can judge that there is a certain truthfulness of this person, even if this situation isn’t a realistic one… This conversation I am having with you might feel different if there were a couple of camera people here and a sound guy. We’d either feel as though we might have to be more intellectual or compose our body in a certain way, but it wouldn’t be like we were reading lines and acting, it would be somewhere between our real self and the kind of performance associated with scripted television.”
While it’s true that cameras are conducive to anyone’s performance, Reality Steve tells another story, “The producers provoke it [performance], but it's still up to the person whether or not they want to go along with it. However, there's always incentive that they offer for going along with it. Whether or not that ‘incentive’ actually turns out to be legit, though, is a different story," he said. "They tell guys and girls all the time on the Bachelor and Bachelorette to do or say certain things and in return suggest things like, ‘you know, if you do this, so and so will really like that and you'll probably get a rose tonight.’ But there have been many instances where someone does something, is promised a rose or a 1 on 1 and it never happens. It’s the producer’s job on these shows to build such a trust with contestants that the contestants feel comfortable enough with them to tell them anything. Then once the producers have that info, it's their job to turn that to around and try to screw the contestant with that info as much as they can.”
The fact that most reality shows recruit people who want to be famous makes the stakes to perform even higher. Normal people with integrity just don’t make the cut with audiences anymore and shows like Triple Rush can’t compete. According to Luckett, “A lot of reality TV success is casting… On shows like America’s Next Top Model they have deliberately cast people who represent everything else another cast member says they cannot live with or stand. You’re getting the idea of performance as well as the idea of unmasking the performance with conflict. When two people finally go for each other’s throats what they’re doing is not performance, it might be fueled by alcohol or casting. There might be the person who is generally not prone to anger except when confronted with ‘people like this,’ what you’re looking at is casting and the levels of persona, but also the manipulation and behind-the-scenes work."
Audiences look to reality TV for the heightened level of artificial reality that implodes upon its participants exposing tiny fragments of authenticity; a kind of truth that is intensely dramatic and often reveals people at their worst. Viewers can justify finding this spectacled catharsis gratifying because we make judgments on the performers who we think shamelessly expose themselves for money. People who don’t want notoriety make poor specimens because they would rather have their dignity. Take Jess Castro, Dillon Roberts' girlfriend for example, “They wanted to come here [to the apartment] to find out what I thought of the job. Well you can have the inside scoop, I think it’s stupid. The camera adds fifteen pounds and I’m not going to do that to myself, not for seventy-five dollars.” Castro also has reservations about Robert's job.“I think it’s too dangerous. He doesn’t wear a helmet anymore. It’s too dangerous for no good reason—for Ke$ha’s feather headdress—that’s the kind of stuff he’s delivering, hair extensions and weaves!” If Triple Rush were a show on MTV a drunken, Vaseline and glitter covered Ke$ha would have emerged to perform her latest single Blow but alas, Triple Rush is real and in real life nothing interesting ever really happens.
Indeed, Triple Rush remains the little show that couldn’t. It couldn’t grab the attention of its viewers. It couldn’t exploit aspiring actors and attention whores for salacious drama. It couldn’t sink to the levels of manipulation and meddling that all reality TV shows must do to stay afloat. Ah! Triple Rush, at least you have your good name, your dignity and integrity—but those don’t matter in the real world these days.