When Real World and Survivor touched off a reality show revolution in the 90s and early 2000s, many in the media industry dismissed it as a trashy fad—but Andy Dehnart saw a new movement in entertainment, and was one of the first journalists to cover the genre seriously.
Now, entire networks are programmed with unscripted television, and Dehnart has seen it all. In an exclusive e-mail interview with Monsters and Critics, he shares his thoughts on cancel culture, hate-watching, and what reality really is.
Monsters & Critics: You are one of the first journalists to cover reality television, beginning with Real World. Are you surprised at the direction the industry has taken?
Andy Dehnart: For sure, mostly because I’m bad at predicting things! While nonfiction entertainment has been around since the start of television (and before that in radio), people quickly predicted the end of reality TV, like it was an acid-wash jean jacket.
I didn’t think it’d just evaporate, but I am surprised at how much of television is occupied by unscripted TV now, and how many sub-genres have emerged.
Then again, I’m also surprised by how much TV there is now. It’s produced a lot of great television, and the shifts have been fascinating to observe.
M&C: Do you prefer competition or docu-style reality shows? Why?
AD: Both! My first two reality show loves were Real World and Road Rules—and before that, game shows like Double Dare. So it all works for me.
M&C: Do you think any nonscripted show is actually “reality”, given the heavy editing and storyline arcs some shows undergo?
AD: The unsatisfying answer is: yes and no. All reality TV is produced, from concept to casting to filming to editing, and every one of those layers introduces some artificiality, and the possibility of outright manipulation.
Add to that the eternal question of whether people change their behavior while being filmed—or, say, in anticipation of getting more screen time—and there’s certainly lots of opportunity for reality to not be real. But I also think that, even within an artificial context and an edited show, there are genuine, real moments and emotions and interactions. If there weren’t, I don’t think people would watch.
M&C: What do you think of the terms “Twitter mob” and “canceled” when applied to fans “calling out” reality show participants based on political opinions or perceived wrongs? Where do you think the line is regarding social media interaction and reality show participants? If they have an online presence, is “mobbing” just one of the hazards of being in the public eye?
AD: I’m all for holding people accountable for their words and actions. If a reality star complains about “cancel culture” or being “canceled,” I think they’re likely upset about facing consequences for something they’ve said or done, when in the past they might have faced no consequences, or never even heard criticism.
Plus, there’s the irony of publicly saying that one has been canceled—If we’re hearing them, they still have a platform and attention and thus have most definitely not been canceled.
That said, it worries me when reality fans respond to edited content as if it was something they were seeing actually happening in real-time in front of them, rather than asking what they’re seeing and if what they’re watching is a fair depiction of reality. (For an illustration of how editing can change reality, watch this great demonstration.)
Ultimately, I think there needs to be space between watching something on TV and attacking a human being, and that can start by asking questions or expressing dismay. That’s what we might do with close friends or family members, so I think that’s very fair.
M&C: Why do you think people hate-watch shows?
AD: I’m not quite sure. There’s nothing that I literally hate that I watch, so perhaps I don’t get it. But I suspect that’s true for other people, too—why spend time on something you truly hate?
That said, I certainly do watch shows that sometimes—or often!—frustrate or irritate me. With a show like Survivor, which I’ve watched for 40 seasons, I know how great it can be, so when it’s not as good, I get annoyed and express my irritation. I want it to be better.
Some shows are just so bad they’re fun to mock, whether that awfulness is intentional or accidental, so if that’s hate-watching, sign me up for more!
M&C: On social media, stories with inflammatory headlines are sometimes shared without the poster actually reading the article. How do you balance this tendency with creating a great reality-related title that draws in the reader?
AD: I am so bad at summarizing my own work! And I also hate headlines that deliver something other than what they promise (the literal definition of “clickbait”). So, I do my best to summarize what my stories are about, and hope it sounds as interesting to other people as it is to me.
If I’ve written, for example, a 1,500-word story on Mike Rowe’s show being sponsored by the oil industry, I think all 1,500 of those words are important, including the 75 words in which he responds to my questions.
I hope people read more than just headlines, though I certainly have been known to scroll past a headline and think I now understand what’s going on!
M&C: What continues to draw you to reality television?
AD: Well, mostly, I want to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
I’m quoting from the intro to The Real World here but am quite serious. That was my first reality TV love, and that’s still what I look for in the genre.
I want to be entertained by real people who can surprise me and teach me things, whether that’s introducing me to new perspectives or life experiences, or coming up with a creative strategy in a game, or just letting me laugh at their silliness.
M&C: Any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
AD: Besides reviewing shows and covering reality TV at realityblurred.com, I write a weekly newsletter, in which I recap what I covered that week, plus offer recommendations and occasional GIFs.