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The Reality of Reality TV

It’s a phenomenon we are all familiar with; so-called real people doing apparently real things onwhat is supposed to be reality television.  But what is the truth behind reality TV?  Why do people really take part and what happens when they do?

As a television producer, I have been involved in a number of reality TV shows.  And I have learned some of the warning signs to watch out for.  Because just like a Rose of Tralee contestant saying that they love working with children, reality TV wannabes will often say whatever they think is needed to get them a starring role on the show they are applying for.

Copyright, Cory

Of course not all reality stars are on the small screen as part of a quest for pure stardom.  Some say they want to do it to highlight an issue or cause close to their heart.  Alanna Diggin is one such person.  In 2014 Alanna, from Tralee in Co.Kerry, was cast as one of six women who filmed the everyday happenings of their very real lives for 10 months, which was then condensed down into 20 episodes of a programme called ‘Connected’, for RTÉ 2.

Alanna is very clear about why she applied to take part. “I wanted someone who might be considering suicide to decide not to take their own life.  I wanted to be seen on screen as an example of what is left behind when someone dies by suicide after my father, Kevin, did so in 2012″.

Alanna’s mum had died from cancer when she was only 11, so after her dad’s death, she was left suffering the trauma of severe grief.  “If only people contemplating suicide could see the effects on the ones they love, then maybe, just maybe, they might think twice.  And that is what I wanted to show on ‘Connected’ –  the reality of what is left behind”.

Casting producer, Sharon Ní Icí has a slightly different perspective about those who take part in reality TV shows.  Sharon puts it all down to one reason, and one reason only – ego.  And after casting numerous shows such as ‘Feirm Factor’, ‘Connected’ and ‘Ministry of Hope’, she insists that no matter what they say, everyone in reality TV is initially driven by ego.  Even someone such as Alana.  “Many people go through massive issues, problems or heartbreak’’, says Sharon.  “But not all of them end up taking part in a reality tv show. Instead they draw attention to their issue by helping a charity or seeking to do good at a local level, not on national TV’’.

For the first ever Irish star of realty TV, Anna Nolan, her reason for applying was plain and simple.  “I had nothing better to do, I was drifting”, she says when we meet in her Dublin 8 home.  Anna took part in the ground breaking first series of Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ in 2000 and didn’t approach the initial stages of the application process in a very orthodox way… “I was sloshed when I went for the initial audition… (Anna explains in the audio below why she was merrier than usual at her audition and why she ticked some other boxes).

Anna went on to come second in the show and has since carved out a very successful career, first as a presenter, and now as a producer of other hit reality shows such as Don’t Tell The Bride and First Dates Ireland.  However, she does have a warning for wannabes.   She says the show itself was often boring and the days were tedious unless there was a task.  “It was mind-numbing. I even worked out how long it took to boil the kettle, make toast, butter it, sit down, and eat it… I could stretch the whole process to 26 minutes”.

But, whilst Anna’s career has surged on the back of appearing in a reality TV show, the chances of making it are slim.  Sharon Ní Icí warns that TV has become littered with reality shows since Anna’s time and as a result, it’s very unlikely that you will make a career or that it will last.  To hammer home the point, Sharon asks if you can remember who won the last series of ‘X Factor’, or ‘Big Brother’ or ‘The Voice’?  “And most likely you can’t”, she says.   Because reality TV stars are not real stars, according to Ní Icí, who says that type of stardom “is really disposable, it’s not like old fashioned stardom”.

But, as ads pop up seeking more reality TV stars of the future to spend some time on ‘Love Island’, Anna Nolan’s advice is contrary to what you might think.  “Go for it”, she says, “if you feel like applying, definitely go for it.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I would certainly say take a chance.”  And she’s not afraid to take her own advice because she would also “go for it” if producers asked her to appear on a 20th anniversary re-union edition of Big Brother in 2020.  But Anna’s reasons would be different this time round. “I’d only do it for the right price” , she says which for her is the best reality of reality TV.  It can eat you up as a commodity but it can also up your value.

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