The Act of Killing (2012)

Reality TV purports to capture raw moments. While largely shaped around interpersonal conflict, the genre claims to show real life. Is it fair to categorize Reality TV as Documentary?


As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director.”


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We can all understand the heart of this quote without needing a theological debate.  Documentary is meant to capture how something happens without the director’s influence. Of course, the director does shape what’s seen — where the camera is put, what ends up on the cutting room floor, et cetera.  Thus, there’s always an inherent bias based on the filmmaker’s worldview.

Reality TV can also capture real things happening in the world, but the genre is generally perceived as more open to manipulation, as it’s often blatantly scripted by writers and envisioned in the minds of directors.  

Clearly some things in Reality TV are done just for the show, but the same has been true for documentary since it’s earliest days. In 1922, Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” mixed footage of real everyday life with segments created and directed just for the film in order to highlight conflict and create tension. A similar technique was used in the acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing.”

Good Reality TV captures highs and lows, conflict and resolution; it has the ability to capture the range of human experience. Bad Reality TV is exploitative, overly-produced, and ridiculously un-real. Whatever the case, in theory, the Kardashians would still be doing whatever it is that they do with or without the cameras following them. Therefore, “Keeping Up with Kardashians,” for better or worse, is documenting events and presenting them in a narrative format, just like any other documentary would.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians
Keeping Up With the Kardashians

There is a bias in everything. Creators make choices, consciously or not, that dictate the outcome of the product. Filmmakers and TV producers have to make a long series of decisions to appeal to an audience. True independent filmmakers have a little more leeway to take unpopular risks, whereas television sponsors demand a product that is palatable by the largest possible audience. But, when examined, neither medium shows a truly objective view. Both are shaped by the viewpoint of the producers who must choose to play up one situation over another to create the desired impact. The medium has it’s flaws, as all do, but at the end of the day, Reality TV finds itself as the black-sheep of the documentary family, sometimes uncouth and uncultured, but studded with occasional gems of insight to the human condition. 

Erik Fritts graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Film from CSU Sacramento.  He works as a multimedia specialist and freelance writer.  He loves waffles, classic cinema, spending time in nature, and playing with his dogs. 

Erik Fritts is a writer and filmmaker who has produced media for CBS, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Berkshire Hathaway, and more. He has a BA in Film from CSU Sacramento, and an MFA from USC School of Cinematic Arts,


  1. Although this article was published a while ago, it just came across today’s email from Videomaker. I’ve been part of the producing team for documentaries that have aired on Frontline and others for PBS, Discovery Science and National Geographic, as well as being part of such reality series as Roble & Co (Bravo), Steven Seagal: Lawman (A&E), and Love & Hip Hop (VH1) and can assure you that the production teams for the two genres would never equate the two.

    Reality TV programs are completely contrived and staged – ALL of them. Documentaries – at least the better ones – follow their subject(s) through non-contrived situations (ie. Harlan County USA or any Frontline film). Where I can agree with you is that neither will ever show their subjects as they would without the camera rolling. I’ve seen people get very comfortable with the camera, but there’s always something held back or something overdone simply BECAUSE they are on camera (ie. The Kardashians).

    But please, especially in a world where Donald Trump is president, do not equate ‘reality TV’ with documentary filmmaking.

  2. Using Nanook of the North as an excuse for allowing reality shows to be called documentaries is poor reasoning. A documentary is fact-based on reality…truth. Reality shows (an d I worked on one) are contrived to bring out the worst in the actors and their situations. The producers hint at or outright tell participants what is expected and it never seems to be something positive. A true documentary either follows and documents what happened or sometimes depicts a staged version which is labeled as such.

    And although I DO agree there is bias in everything…the decisions are not made based on garnering an audience but on telling the story properly. Simply choosing a subject is subjective…choosing the angle from which to approach the subject is subjective. A good documentary filmmaker attempts to show both or all sides (this from my news background). That said, there are times when documentaries can be proactive and take sides. Not a great fan of those myself. I prefer to get facts and make my own decisions, not be swayed by someone else’s opinion.

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