The Real Reason You (Still) Watch Reality TV

On day one of shooting season five of Love Is Blind, a junior staffer walked into the control room and told executive producers Chris Coelen and Ally Simpson, who oversee every aspect of the popular Netflix dating series, that there was a problem. “There’s two people who know each other and appear to have had a relationship of some sort,” the staffer said to them. In the show’s short but relatively iconic run, this was a first.

Coelen and Simpson’s initial instinct was to send the participants home. “We said, look, the essence of the experiment is that you get to know someone without knowing anything about them in the material world,” Coelen told them. “We don’t know how we can keep you here.” The show, which attempts to pair 30 men and women together over the course of seven weeks, testing their compatibility and emotional endurance with the sole intention of getting married, is bound by a contract of mutual anonymity upon entering the first phase of the experiment, where daters chat intimately in walled-off pods unable to see one another. The producers reached a compromise, and both contestants—Lydia Velez Gonzalez and Uche Okoroha—were allowed to stay under one condition: their previous romance would remain a secret until one of them made a genuine connection with another dater.

When it is revealed, in episode four, that the pair have history, the show, like several of its genre contemporaries—The Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules, Selling Sunset, and Love Island—enters uncharted territory: It is no longer about what is solely happening on the screen, it is also consumed by the drama surrounding it, in the real world, where contestants are not their TV characters, as they appear to be, but people who must live, like us, with the consequences of their actions.

With each new season, the allure of reality TV is what’s happening on the show as much as what’s happening outside of it. Reality stars are now also beholden to a larger information economy, a phenomenon of fandom and media that operate like e-tabloids. Similar to BallerAlert or TMZ, the mission of this network is to steer, and often dictate in blunt terms, conversations we have around fame, influence and reality, and our relationship to the truth of it all.

Every show worth texting your friend about is now part of the hype machine, an unofficial network of blogs, fan podcasts, social media posts, message boards, newsletters, and general group chat gossip that coexists alongside, and in conversation with, a reality star’s storyline, tracking lies or perceived deceptions.

Maybe a contestant wasn’t happy with how they were portrayed, and wanting to have the final word on the matter they go live on Instagram (which is what Uche Okoroha did in the aftermath of his appearance on Love Is Blind). Perhaps a plotline didn’t add up. Exactly how did Heather Gay get her mysterious black eye during a cast trip to San Diego? One subreddit had theories. Or dine on any of the dozens of podcasts dedicated to the Housewives—and sometimes hosted by Housewives themselves, like Reasonably Shady or Namaste B$tches—which often toe the line between speculation and sincerity.

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