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In Defense of Reality Competition Shows

Updated on October 9, 2013
Tom Colicchio- a judge on Top Chef. Source: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.
Tom Colicchio- a judge on Top Chef. Source: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

Reasons why Competition Reality TV is the best kind of Reality TV.

1. Contestants generally excel in their field- Fashion Design, Athletics, Cooking.

2. Contestants often go on these types of shows to further their career, win the life-changing prize, or better themselves.

3. For the most part the drama is not invented, it is a natural byproduct of putting people in challenging situations and environments.

4. Every season is different because of the human element the cast members bring.

5. As the seasons progress the challenges the contestants face get more and more inventive.

I feel like competition reality shows like Survivor, Top Chef, and Project Runway get lumped into the ‘reality’ category and people dismiss them at face value. I agree with people who argue there is way too much reality television on TV right now, a genre whose name isn’t always clear since how real these shows actually are is questionable. However I’d like to clarify the distinction between reality television and competition reality shows. Reality television shows follow around a family or coworkers in a business hoping to catch interesting conversations and drama occurring. It seems if there isn’t natural drama the show creators resort to set-ups and the viewer can tell it is staged. Competition reality shows are in a way a game show, where a competitor is kicked off each episode until one victor is crowned at the end of the season. For the most part these game shows require the people to have an individual talent that is often a career path- cooking, fashion design, or modeling for example. In the case of Survivor there isn’t an exploited career path but the people must live on a deserted island, compete in challenges, and as the motto goes ‘outlast, outwit, and outplay’ all of the other castaways to win a million dollars as decided by a jury of people who played the game alongside the victor.

I love these kinds of shows, Survivor, Top Chef, and Project Runway are among my favorites. Not totally innocent of some staging, but unlike a lot of reality television shows, competition reality shows for the most part are the real thing. Of course the challenges and scenarios are meant to bring out stress and drama. Also the one-on-one interviews each contestant goes through, with someone behind the camera asking questions that are edited out, are meant to stir things up as well. As well editing on when these one-on-ones are weaved into the action can evoke drama for the viewer because things the person says during the interview can be taken out of context. There is also casting to take into consideration, the producers definitely select people that are going to have opinions and butt heads with other contestants. But overall it’s the competition of the game and the human nature in people that provides all the entertainment anyone could ever need.

Survivor has been on for so many seasons but the thing that always fascinates me, drawing me in every new season, is the human element. In the end, two or sometimes three people defend themselves to the jury, which consists of the nine or so players last kicked off (one person is kicked off an episode, the first ten or so you don’t see again but as the numbers dwindle the cast-offs become part of the jury) and this jury decides who will win the million dollars. The human element makes this decision different every season- will they reward the person who stabbed them in the back and voted them out because ultimately that person was playing the game or will the jury be bitter and reward, by default, the other person? Will they give the million dollars to the person who masterminded the entire game or the number two person who kept their mouth shut and followed the mastermind? And so on and so forth, every season is different in the end because of the contestants. There are so many different strategies to employ as a contestant and there is luck involved as well, do they get on a winning tribe (at the start of the game the people are divided into two tribes and then when the numbers lessen it becomes an individual game in terms of the challenges for reward and immunity), plus it depends on the people they are playing against, their social skills, and how the other contestants react to the person’s game-play.

Reward/Immunity Challenge in Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

My other favorite competition reality shows feature talented people competing in challenges showing off their cooking or designing skills. This fascinates me because for the majority of these people, this is their career, their job they go to every day but it is manipulated to be shown on TV and there are crazy restrictions, you can only spend 50 dollars on fabric and have one day to complete an outfit in the case of Project Runway or you have 30 minutes to cook an appetizer using foods only found at the gas station convenience store on Top Chef. Could you imagine going on television to compete against others in your designated field? The thing that makes these two shows, in particular, so great is the level of talent of the contestants. In both shows, a panel of judges select the person being kicked off each week and the ultimate winner. The challenges on both these shows, which have been on quite some time, are usually pretty interesting. The stakes are very high for every contestant on these profession-based competition shows because their reputations are on the line. Many contestants, not just those that win or make it far in the competition, end up reaping the benefits in their real world career based on how they perform on these shows.

Designers create their own fabric in this Project Runway Challenge

I can’t get enough of competition reality shows, especially the three I have talked about here. As far as I am concerned they can keep on airing them- Survivor has been on the air for over ten years with a two seasons per year format that has them in the mid-20s for season count, both Top Chef and Project Runway have done around ten seasons along with spin-offs of both (Top Chef: Masters, Project Runway All-Stars). So in the end, to me, there is a world of difference between watching the Kardashian clan and Cake Boss (where someone always seems to mess up a cake and they have to start all over again right before they need to deliver it) and competition reality shows where talented people are put in stressful situations and those that can handle it come out on top.

Do you think there is a major distinction between competition reality and all the rest?

See results

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