The objective, shared by most of the filmmakers I spoke to, was just to make some money and perhaps help fund another documentary project. But the allure of a regular paycheck proved hard to resist. “That’s where the work was and that’s where I stayed,” Pilar says, “though I wanted to go back and forth from doc to reality. Anyway, I am seriously booked for reality. The market is huge. I get called every day.”

For David Van Taylor, Intervention was the gateway drug into reality TV. The three episodes he directed were successful, so he “got a foot into that door,” as he says. Now his production company, Lumiere, has created and produced a pilot for the Lifetime channel that is “without any doubt a reality show. If it’s a smash hit,” he says, “it will provide me with regular income. One that’s not dependent on grants.” The show sounds promising: each episode features married couples who must have sex for seven days in a row.

The experience of editing or filming these programs is not always so positive. Melissa Hacker, forty-three, is a documentarian who made a film about Jewish children who were sent from Germany and Poland to England without their parents immediately before the Holocaust. Yet she has also edited the reality shows Wife Swap and Things I Hate About You.

When she worked on those shows, Hacker says, she tried to import some of the techniques she uses in nonfiction film. She’d cut interviews with subjects so they’d last a few beats longer, letting their silent, telling expressions fill the screen. Inevitably, though, Hacker says, her stylings were cut down or out, to fit into the show’s time limit and to quicken the whip-fast pacing, which is key in “reality.” When she’d let a scene linger, she’d get notes from her bosses asking, “What is this dead air?”

For Hacker, the gap between the two forms was too great, and she swore off reality work. “Documentaries are traditionally about observing reality when you shoot, not changing what is unfolding before the camera,” she says. “In reality [TV], it’s okay for producers to set up situations that would not happen naturally. It is okay for producers to tell characters where to go.”

For instance, Syndi Pilar says that when she was working on Kimora, about music executive Russell Simmons’s ex-wife, “if there’s a hole in the story, we’ll shoot an extra scene, with Kimora talking to execs at the perfume company. It’s all something that ‘might have happened.’”

Some of these problems—if that’s what they are—arise because the shows’ producers aren’t familiar with documentary standards. But there are also more fundamental reasons for the disconnect.

Reality shows are made for and by corporations, so their legal departments are inherently more conservative than the typical documentary filmmaker or producer. They blur out logos when there is “no real reason to blur them out,” as one filmmaker put it. Bigger clashes come when editors and directors try to put their documentary imprint on these shows, as Hacker did with the lingering camera shots. Sometimes this culture clash can be comical. David Van Taylor told me he once did a reality show “for a high-profile cable network” about a beauty pageant for children: the show had no narration (vérité documentaries eschew narration). “The executive who watched the show without narration loved it,” he said. “He thought [the form] was something new.” His supervisor, however, told Van Taylor, “We don’t do cinema vérité! Go slather some narration on that thing.”


Van Taylor says he tries to get to know the people on the shows he makes so that he’s not forcing a “back story,” as they say in television, but rather letting the subjects’ personality unfurl as naturally as possible. Even by using the word “subject” to describe his interviewees, though, Van Taylor shows his roots in documentary. “Reality” people tend to use the term “character” instead, even though that word is usually the province of fiction.

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.