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structured reality also scripted reality

noun [uncountable]

a type of television series featuring real people who talk naturally but are put in situations which are pre-arranged by the production company

'The Only Way is Essex producer Daran Little has said he believes the show's structured reality format is here to stay. Speaking after the hit ITV2 series won a BAFTA last night, Little said the reality TV spin-off format will likely see plenty new series over the coming years.'

Telly Mix 23rd May 2011

'Is time up for scripted reality shows? … They were hailed as a glossy new addition to the reality genre. But is the appeal of one-joke, one-note shows such as Towie and Desperate Scousewives fading already?'

The Guardian 8th February 2012

Love it or loathe it, no-one can question the impact that reality TV has had on the entertainment industry in recent years. Since the late nineties, when reality game shows like Big Brother first exploded onto the scene, TV producers have continually found new ways to develop and sustain interest in the genre, which claims a sizeable chunk of the viewing public every year. One of the most recent additions to the reality TV suite is a format currently described as structured reality.

The Only Way is Essex, popularly referred to by the acronym Towie, features the lives and loves of a group of young adults in Brentwood, near London

Structured reality is a type of TV show which takes real people, not professional actors, and films them placed in particular 'structured' scenarios which are likely to invoke certain reactions and paths of conversation. The expression scripted reality is an alternative way of describing the same concept, a term which may or may not seem contradictory depending on your point of view: on the one hand the idea is precisely that the dialogue is not scripted and appears 'natural', but on the other, the engineered, highly managed situations in which the people are placed mean that their conversation is anything but 'natural' and often modified for dramatic effect.

In the UK, the concept of structured reality TV was galvanized by the popular success of the series The Only Way is Essex, which scooped an audience award at the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) ceremony in May 2011. The Only Way is Essex, popularly referred to by the acronym Towie, features the lives and loves of a group of young adults, filmed mainly in Brentwood, near London. The success of the series has spawned a number of subsequent spin-offs in the same mould, such as Desperate Scousewives, set in Liverpool, and Geordie Shore, set in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Unsurprisingly, these programmes have been criticised for their portrayal of the places concerned and for the hand-picked protagonists, who are clearly not representative of the inhabitants as a whole.

The longer-term appeal of structured reality has recently been called into question, critics arguing that enthusiasm for the shows is beginning to wane now that they are no longer a novelty.

Background – structured and scripted reality

The terms structured reality and scripted reality have only been recognized in British English since the launch of The Only Way is Essex in 2010, though the genre predates this show, based on American counterparts Jersey Shore, first shown in late 2009, and The Hills, which dates back to 2006. The word dramality, a blend of drama and reality, is an earlier term denoting a similar concept, referring to any kind of TV show that incorporates both elements of drama and reality programming.

The concept of reality TV originated in the United States in the early 1970's with the programme An American Family, closely followed in 1974 by a British counterpart, The Family, which followed the lives of a working class family in Reading. The original idea of reality TV was that it focused on the lives of real, ordinary people, but the genre has also branched out into focusing on celebrities in 'real' situations. This development has in turn spawned the term celebriality to refer to a type of TV show which features the 'real' life of a celebrity.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 10th April 2012.

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