Both reality television and documentaries present the specific rhetoric and motive of their creators and sponsors. So what is it that differentiates reality television from documentary filmmaking?
Foremost I would argue that most documentaries are not exactly featured in the mainstream of television or the popular culture, and thus by default have less outside motivations such as sponsorship and advertising that reality television is riddled with. Motivations that on the path to increasing consumerism also reproduce unhealthy and discriminating culture myths (The unfortunate thing about the term culture myths is these “myths” are very much a reality in our culture.). Documentaries are ripe with potential to be extremely manipulative, take the Kony video for example, but for the most part they are just simply not that popular and thus not a very fruitful place to insert sly advertising.
While documentary filmmaking does frame a situation in a certain light, it is often in an attempt to bring about awareness to effect change, whereas the rhetoric in reality television is much more manipulative and under the cover. The danger with reality television is that like in a documentary you are learning something you just don’t often realize it, which is exactly what the advertisers want.
Claiming that reality television is “in reality” good television entertainment, is assuming television entertainment is healthy, and accepting the current state of our cultural reality, a reality that primarily depicts unhealthy ways of interacting and communicating with each other. Documentaries aren’t giving you direct examples of how to live in contemporary life for the most part; they are presenting an aspect of the past in a premeditated way. Essentially a documentary is selling you an idea, be it good or bad, whereas reality television attempts to sell you a product without regard to the ideology attached to it. Documentaries tend to focus on one event or idea, whereas reality television often presents entire ways of living. Reality television as an abstract concept in relation to our own culture may suggest an air of irony even satire to some (particularly those cynical phds who float around, high in the sky, on the cloud of academia), but the real act of reality television is harmful to the type of life I want to live, and the way I want to relate to my environment.