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tv A New Book Tackles the Splendor and Squalor of Reality TV

Critic Emily Nussbaum makes the case for the guilty pleasure as an art form.

Chris Harrison, Peter Weber, and Madison Prewett on The Bachelor‘s season 24 finale in 2020. ,ABC via Getty Images

Kyndall Cunningham is a culture writer interested in reality TV, movies, pop music, Black media, and celebrity culture. Previously, she wrote for the Daily Beast and contributed to several publications, including Vulture, W Magazine, and Bitch Media.


Reality TV is experiencing some growing pains. During last year’s WGA and SAG strikes, former Real Housewives of New York City star Bethenny Frankel ignited an industry conversation about the lack of protections and fair pay for reality performers. Since then, Bravo and its network spokesperson Andy Cohen have been hit with a stream of lawsuits alleging discrimination and sexual harassment. At the same time, Netflix has seen its fair share of alarming complaints around its Love Is Blind franchise. One of the latest reports of misconduct came from New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, who spoke with former cast members about the dating competition’s allegedly toxic workplace and manipulative production tactics.

However, Nussbaum isn’t really concerned with opining about these issues — or finding a solution to them — in her new book, Cue The Sun! The Invention of Reality TV. When I asked her whether she felt reality shows could be made with a moral conscience, she answered bluntly, “I’m not in the industry, so my answer is, I don’t care.”

She followed up by saying that she feels reality stars are “very unprotected” and deserve fair compensation. But unlike her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about scripted TV, I Like To Watch, her latest book is decidedly not a work of criticism. Rather, she set out to explore the idea of “reality as craft.” While the genre is more popular than ever, what goes into the process of developing shows, finding talent, and creating new cinematic techniques is generally taken for granted. With Cue The Sun!, she credits the genre with the same level of creativity we normally ascribe to filmmaking and writing music.

The cover of Emily Nussbaum's latest book "Cue The Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV."

Emily Nussbaum’s Cue The Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV, came out on June 25, 2024.

 Random House

“The goal with this book was not to say ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ on reality TV,” Nussbaum says. “It was to try to tell it through the voices of the people on both sides of the camera. It's the story of a lot of experiments. It's about people inventing jobs that didn't exist.”

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In that regard, Cue The Sun! is a required text for anyone who wants to understand how reality TV — or as Nussbaum calls it, “dirty documentary” — arrived at its current tipping point. The almost 400-page book includes interviews with former reality television participants, producers, editors, and assistants. It’s a riveting chronicle of the low-budget, “guilty pleasure” genre, beginning in the 1940s and concluding in the early 2000s with the truly culture-shifting program, The Apprentice. What Cue The Sun! ultimately exposes is the paradoxical and queasy nature of reality TV, a boundary-pushing artform that often relies on a lot of depravity to keep the wheels turning.

The most riveting chapter in Nussbaum’s book focuses on the lore of the long-running CBS hit Survivor, starting with its odd beginnings as a Scottish radio experiment. This inspired the controversial Swedish television show Expedition: Robinson, which premiered in 1997 and raised serious ethical questions after the series’ first eliminated contestant committed suicide. Undeterred by this incident, producer Mark Burnett brought the series to America in 2000 in the form of Survivor.

“I wasn’t that interested in Survivor when I started the book,” says Nussbaum. “But by the time I finished writing about it, I was convinced that the Survivor format was an invention on the level of the telephone or the car.”

It was a few years after the arrival of Survivor that Nussbaum felt inspired to write a book. In 2003, she could feel reality TV becoming its own sort of movement, like the New Hollywood era.

“I discovered reality TV had roots all the way back to World War II on radio,” she says. “There was already a burst of programming featuring regular people and the moral outrage that always accompanied it.”

Those programs included the radio show Candid Microphone, which premiered in 1947, and its televised equivalent Candid Camera, which aired the following year. Both series were created and hosted by pioneering prankster Allen Funt. His elaborate tricks on his oblivious subjects using hidden cameras precedes the work of “reality auteurs” like Nathan Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen.

While modern docu-comedies like The Rehearsal and Jury Duty have been described as experimental “prestige” takes on the unscripted genre, Nussbaum presents these types of shows as the purest form of reality TV, a style that prevailed before audiences’ demands for salaciousness and melodrama made it a lot more complicated.

She draws similar parallels between the ’60s game show Queen For A Day and 1970s PBS docuseries An American Family with modern programs like Real Housewives and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Both shows gave TV its first taste of melodramatic, slice-of-life reality programs. On Queen For A Day, women would essentially compete for who had the worst life in order to win prizes, like household appliances. The image of host Jack Bailey surrounded by a group of women trading in — and oftentimes, exaggerating — their personal woes for the audience’s sympathy feels reminiscent of a Real Housewives reunion.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast — Annemarie Wiley, Dorit Kemsley, Erika Jayne, Kyle Richards, Andy Cohen, Sutton Stracke, Garcelle Beauvais, and Crystal Minkoff — and host Andy Cohen at the Season 13 reunion.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast and Andy Cohen at the season 13 reunion on February 21, 2024.

 Griffin Nagel/Bravo via Getty Images

Nussbaum writes that the producer interference that goes into creating these unscripted soap operas can be directly traced to PBS’s An American Family,which followed the upper-middle-class Loud family. On paper, the California suburbanites represented the American dream, until the show revealed some cracks in their family portrait, culminating in the divorce of the central couple, Bill and Pat Loud. What was originally designed as an elevated, experimental documentary by filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond quickly became tainted by creator Craig Gilbert, who interfered with the show’s subjects and edited footage to make interactions appear much more salacious than they actually were.

Nussbaum analyzes the subsequent years of TV when documentaries became “dirtied,” as reality shows proved to be inexpensive and easy to make. In several cases, they’ve served as ratings generators in times of network crises. By the time the ’90s rolled around, Nussbaum’s definition of reality TV — “cinema verité filmmaking that has been cut with commercial contaminants, like a street drug, in order to slash the price and intensify the effect” — is extremely accurate. The “street-drug” quality is especially apparent in a chapter about late ’90s Fox, which broadcasted fake journalism shows like Alien Autopsy and lazily packaged clip shows, most famously Cops.

When it comes to the manipulation of reality subjects for an “intensified” effect, though, The Bachelor franchise reigns supreme. Since its premiere in 2002, the competition show has become infamous for its devious production tactics. “I could sort of trace the moment that shows started using tools to create more contrived, more extreme distortions of what had happened on camera,” Nussbaum says. “A lot of that had to do with [the newly available] technology,” she says.

One of those techniques was the “Frankenbite,” which involved deconstructing a quote and stitching it back together to form a new, unsaid soundbite. The book’s chapter on The Bachelor also explores the still-common practice of recording participants without their knowledge — otherwise known as the “hot mic” — taking quotes out of context, and pressuring people into providing usable quotes.

In the book, season one contestant Rhonda Rittenhouse recalls being badgered to the point of tears by producers about her reasoning for coming on the show. After multiple rounds of questioning, she finally said, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to meet Alex [Michel].” The question of whether a contestant was “there for the right reasons” ultimately became a motto for the franchise, as well as later dating competitions, like Love Is Blind.

One striking part of that chapter is an interview with Ben Hatta, the former assistant of The Bachelor’s creator Mike Fleiss. While his former co-worker, producer Sarah Shapiro, would go on to create the Lifetime series UnREAL based on The Bachelor’s corrupt practices, Hatta told Nussbaum that he wasn’t interested in reality reform. In fact, he viewed it as “inseparable from — and, in fact, defined by bad working conditions.”

“He was basically like, ‘I don’t want it to change because the entire genre would disappear,’” Nussbuam says. “I don’t think that’s crazy. Because the truth is, the shows are greenlighted because they are profitable. And the reason they’re profitable is because the people who make them, on both sides of the camera, make nothing.”

Today, we can see the effects of being on reality TV shows in the way many of its stars narrativize and gamify their own lives to the point of complete inauthenticity. Arguably, its most harmful effect is the way the people making these shows have come to accept a twisted moral code in order to produce the best product.

“People really bond over doing things in production that would make much of the outside world’s jaw drop because it’s so insidious, manipulative, and unethical,” says Nussbaum. “But the truth is, if you’re working hard with a team of people who encourage you to do those things, I think it’s easy to start seeing them as normal.”

While network executives and producers continue to fight for the status quo, former and current reality stars are boldly speaking out about what should and should not be tolerated at work. A unified code of conduct, let alone a union specifically for reality stars, has yet to be established. For now, though, fans can at least appreciate that reality TV is being taken seriously as an art form, most recently in Nussbaum’s work. Whether that change in perception will result in a better workplace is yet to be seen.

“That pearl-clutching, finger-pointing, outrage, can’t-look-away quality is embedded in reality TV,” Nussbaum says. “It’s what drives it and is often what makes it popular.”