Reality television shows often draw in audiences with footage designed to captivate, amuse and shock. But according to reality players, the programs that move from the mundane to Emmy-deserving consistently deliver one particular thing: a moment so honest that the viewer can't help but respond with real emotion.
“When people are willing to be vulnerable, we watch them,” says Real World producer Jonathan Murray, who cites the moment on Real World: Brooklyn when Ryan Conklin got his deployment notice for Iraq as particularly poignant for the audience. “When they struggle, you feel empathy for them, and that's what makes it more than just entertaining.”
Hugh Rowland, a driver featured on History Channel's Ice Road Truckers, believes viewers identify with him because he's willing to be himself—for better or worse—on the show, where he routinely puts his life at risk while doing his job.
“I say what I'd say if there weren't a camera there,” Rowland explains. “I think people relate to it because it's like a soap opera where some of us get along and some of us don't, but we have to do our jobs, just like everyone else.”
Characters like Rowland aren't easy to find, according to one producer. “It's all about casting,” says Thom Beers, executive producer behind the shows Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch and Monster Garage. “It's the thing I spend the most time on because you need a person who can give you that narrative and seem natural.”
It's the same for Deena Katz, senior talent producer on Dancing With the Stars. “The audience has to fall in love with the people on the show, otherwise they won't come back no matter what happens,” Katz says.
David McKillop, History Channel's senior VP of development and programming, says reality-show “cast members” also have to have a kind of star quality, whether or not they're actually famous.
“You need someone larger than life because often the television screen makes a big personality smaller,” McKillop says.
For shows featuring participants in crisis, viewers might initially be seduced by the promise of one thing and then find themselves watching for entirely different reasons. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew describes this and what he does on his show as a “bait and switch.”
“There are two qualities to this,” Pinsky says. “One is the train wreck that you can't look away from, but that's not what creates a compelling or satisfying feeling ultimately. It's when someone on the show is authentic, vulnerable and human that people are pulled in, and then we give you the reality of addiction.”
Jessica Sierra, who is both a veteran American Idol contestant and former Celebrity Rehab participant, thinks these sorts of connections can lead people to recognize their own issues or even motivate them to change. “I get e-mails from people all the time saying they saw me on Celebrity Rehab, and that they really related to my addiction issues and that they want to get help,” Sierra says.
As often as reality television gets to these authentic moments by showing people reaching out for aid, it can also get there by telling the story of those who give help.
“We really do try to have families who are relatable on the show,” says Anthony Dominici, executive producer of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “But it's also the story of the community that comes together to help them and what they donate to that process. And I think that touches people, because they want to think of themselves as people who would help someone.”
Regardless of the circumstance, shows that find a relatable person willing to be vulnerable in a real situation form a bond with the viewer.
“People might begin to watch a reality show feeling cynical about it,” says Susan Murray, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. “But real emotions are difficult to fake, and when the audience sees something authentic, they connect.”