For a while now, I've been obsessed with reality television. If the public's reaction to this season of The Bachelor is anything to go by, I'm far from alone.
Being a reality TV fan was something I used to be ashamed of, but now I've embraced it. I wanted to explore the bizarre world of reality TV — to separate realism and truth from the construction and manipulation.
When we watch reality television, we contradict ourselves. We don't believe it to be real yet we behave as though it is. For evidence of this, you just to need to look at how reality TV stars are treated when they return to their day to day lives — for the viewers, they are forever the "character" they played.
Being a filmmaker, I decided to explore these questions in a documentary. As I found out, many former reality television contestants feel manipulated and betrayed. These people have often been cast as the "villains" of their shows.
Crafting a character
The success of a reality TV program has a lot to do with casting and editing. It is clear that, even before the show is being filmed, producers know which contestants are likely to be favourites and those that will be potential sources of conflict.
The contestants themselves have very little choice in how they are cast. David Witko, a contestant in the first season of The Bachelorette, was typecast as a high-flying international model.
"When we first got interviewed about what we do … [I told them] I'm a model," he said.
"They're like, ;That's great, that's great — have you worked overseas?'
"And that's what it was … David the international model. And I was like, 'You bastards'.
When David was watching the show go to air with his friends and family, he noticed that he had been given a different soundtrack.
"Even from the first moment I stepped out of the car, the music went from twinkles to hardcore bass … And I was like, 'Okay, this is not good'.
Stirring the pot
To make their programs compelling, reality TV producers put the contestants in emotionally charged situations with the potential for conflict and drama.
In this season of The Bachelor, we saw an attempt to stir the pot when one of the contestants, Leah, was "exposed" for past work as a topless waiter. It was clear that this was planted information, with no real strategy but to embarrass someone and make her feel judged by the other women.
Leah's experience is not unusual. Reality TV contestants face a strange new environment. They are put into hair and makeup, have several cameras on them for most of the day and are told — especially in the early stages — they have to make themselves seen in order to not get evicted.
Often there is alcohol involved, too. Exhausted and in a heightened state of emotion, they have to perform — consciously or subconsciously — in order to impress the producers.
It's hard to imagine what this feels like, but from talking to people who have lived it, it sounds extremely overwhelming.
While you don't see the producers, they are always there.
"They're just out of shot. But they're standing a metre away," Sandra Rato, a contestant on the third season of The Bachelor, told me.
I have been told a little bit of luxury and alcohol is a great mix to get people to feel desire, lust, love and anger for one another. Add a bit of competition into the mix and you have yourself a show.
What was devastating for the people I spoke to was that they weren't aware they'd be portrayed in a negative light until the program was aired.
Sandra, who had really enjoyed her time on The Bachelor, described the sinking feeling when the realisation dawned on her while watching the first episode with her family.
During a "cocktail party", where the contestants are frocked up and plied with alcohol, after being prompted by a producer, Sandra asked the other contestants who they thought they might not get along with.
After being met with replies of "I get along with everybody", Sandra said, "Stop being so nice".
The show then cut to an interview segment with one of the contestants, Reshael, who suggested Sandra was "talking about other girls in a negative light".
"She knew that was asked by one of the producers … and that argument — that stupid one question — was the entire episode," Sandra said.
"My family couldn't believe what had just happened … but then I realised that, wow, if this is the start of what the public is going to think of me, it's bad."
Headlines described David Witko as the "most hated person in Australia" after he left The Bachelorette. He lost a job and it severely impacted his modelling work.
Should we feel sorry for these people? Or is it their fault for choosing to be a reality TV contestant? I'm not 100 per cent sure myself.
What we often forget when we watch these shows is that they are built environments, and most of what we see and feel is a result of decisions made by the show's production team.
Perhaps instead of attacking or adoring these reality TV stars, we should just sit back and appreciate reality TV for what it is — a format cleverly constructed for our enjoyment.
Gena Lida Riess is a Melbourne based filmmaker who has recently completed her Masters of Film and Television.
Her film, Creating A Monster, is screening at the Byron Bay International Film Festival, which runs October 6–15.