Dionicio is a heroin addict who was terribly abused as a child and turned to drugs and crime when he was a teenager. Now, he speaks directly to the camera about his struggles, then ties off his leg while filling his needle with heroin. David Van Taylor, the documentarian behind the superlative documentary film Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest, captures Dionicio’s every move. Moody music swells.

But this is not a scene from Van Taylor’s next documentary. It’s an episode of Intervention, the A&E reality show about people whose addictions have nearly destroyed them. Because it is reality TV, inevitably a counselor is brought into the family circle to try to bring Dionicio back to the world. Viewer discretion is advised.

Van Taylor is not alone in his embrace of reality television. A growing number of high-minded, often cinema vérité, documentarians are going to the lowbrow depths of docusoaps and the like. These directors and editors once labored only on films for PBS, or for limited release in art-house theaters. Now they are working within a genre that many cinephiles regard as our culture’s nadir. “Every documentary editor I know is booked now doing reality TV,” says Syndi Pilar, an editor who has made the move herself. “It used to be the only work was documentaries, and you were lucky if you got on a paid doc.”

The crossover from docs to reality television is largely the result of how difficult it has been to get funding for documentary films during the recession; money from nonprofits and other backers is even tighter than usual. But this is not the cue-the-violins tragedy that you might think. Documentarians have always had to struggle to earn a living, and most have at some point taken jobs outside of filmmaking to do so. Reality TV is in many ways just the latest, and arguably the most lucrative, chapter in that story. Instead of getting a real-estate license, documentarians can now edit cooking competitions. One filmmaker estimates that successful independent documentarians can make from $50,000 to $100,000 a year. They can double or triple that as a staff member of a reality show.

But unlike the filmmaker who sells real estate on the side, this is a collision of universes that are at once familiar and alien. Both are, of course, filmmaking. But whereas documentaries are known for their links with advocacy and social justice, reality TV tends to be associated with high drama and yes, embalmed-looking women who scream at one another in restaurants.

The similarity, though, runs a bit deeper than it seems. The style of the great works of American documentary of the 1960s is often referred to as “the observational mode.” Directors like Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, and Shirley Clarke filmed hundreds of hours of footage, acting as proverbial flies on the wall. But they always imposed a dramatic structure afterward, carving those dozens of hours of footage into two to three hours of cogent narrative. Wiseman even described his shooting and editing as “highly manipulative.” If there was artifice behind much of what is regarded as classic and great documentary, there’s also unexpected authenticity in shows like Intervention. You could even say that reality shows are the uncouth heirs of the observational tradition.

Nevertheless, the documentarians I spoke to know they are no longer in the Kansas of PBS. As Syndi Pilar says of one show she edited, “We’ll be feeding the people lines, making stuff up that never happened in the first place.”

Pilar cut documentaries for directors like Ric Burns. Now she edits Mob Wives on VH1 and was supervising editor of Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane for two seasons. Her crossover began in 2006, when documentary work “was very, very slow”: Pilar landed a job on a reality show on the Style Network called Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?

Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.