a critical guide to:

     Reality Television

Ethics Overview Forerunners Economics
Sub Genres Casting Authenticity Critics

The Ethics of Reality TV: Frankenbiting

Frankenbyting is a popular tool used by Reality TV editors to add drama to their programming. In the same way that scripted TV producers write dramatic dialogue for their characters, reality TV producers use frankenbyting to create dramatic situations by rearranging the sequence of events and dialogue. Frankenbyting occurs in two general styles. The first type is when producers run a piece of audio relatively unedited, but out of context. The second, which the technique gets its name from, is selecting pieces of several sentences that have nothing to do with one another and editing them together into a new sentence. These audio bytes are accompanied by video cuts which help to cover up the splices as well as make the whole situation believable. If two people are having a conversation and the producers want to insert a line spoken by one of the individuals but at another time, they simply cut to a reaction shot of the listener while playing the audio out of context. This cut keeps the viewer in the scene and makes them believe that this is how it actually happened. These two forms of editing can serve several functions, both positive and negative, causing viewers to question whether or not these practices are ethical.

With the first style you would have a situation similar to that which occurred on Laguna Beach in which editors tried to create a relationship that didn’t exist. In real life LC and Stephen (‘characters’ on Laguna Beach) were great friends but nothing more. Producers thought that there was more, or at least it would be more interesting if there were. They would have audio of LC saying something about Stephen as a friend, “I just love this guy” and then run it out of context making it look like she was legitimately interested in him. They would then show Kristin, Stephen’s actual romantic interest, grimacing and make her look jealous. In another example, editors on the show Blind Date would take clips of a bored and unresponsive suitor (taken while his date was in the restroom) and insert them during a conversation between the two people to make it look like the date was more boring than it actually was.1 This form of editing seems fairly intuitive in that it is closer to paraphrasing than actual manipulation. They may be running things out of context, but perhaps LC and Stephen really did have an underlying interest in each other but would never do something that clearly showed it; it makes much more sense to edit something such that LC says, “I like you, Stephen” than to show hours of footage which sends the same message nonverbally. Likewise a date that was incredibly dry but didn’t seem so because both participants were always too polite to let it show could be shown a lot easier if you cut from a longwinded rant by one individual to the other looking like they’re staring at a wall. The producers wouldn’t want to waste broadcast time showing something in real-time when it could be edited to show the same thing in a fraction of the time.

The second style of frankenbyting seems much less like a creative liberty of the producers and more like blatant manipulation. On an episode of Fox’s Joe Millionaire, two of the participants, Evan Marriott and Sarah Kozer, went for a walk behind some trees. Producers cut in sexual sound effects and a line that had been said much earlier and in a different context, “It’s better if we’re lying down.” The editing and frankenbyting of sound effects and dialogue gave the impression that the two were having oral sex.1 This has less to do with telling a story and seems to be solely focused on entertaining. One contestant from Farmer Wants a Wife has commented on how all the other girls drank so much alcohol and at a different point during one of the confessionals talked about a slip-up of one of the other girls worked to her advantage.2 The producers cut the dialogue and spliced it together to make it sound like she was judging the other girls for drinking in front of the bachelor and saying how that served to make her look better. Because producers are recording all day, every day they have recordings of the cast members saying all sorts of things and by cutting them up and assembling them as they see fit, they can create virtually any situation they want.

                                                          Reality TV Editing Video

TV has always had programming that is scandalous and dramatic for the sake of ratings. It is different with reality TV though, precisely because it’s “reality” TV.  Sociologists and those who study culture have noted that television shapes peoples perception of reality and what they consider to be normal or acceptable.3 And that’s just scripted television. For programmers to then present something they call “reality” television, they should be held to higher standards in terms of how they represent society. I bring this up not to digress into the ethics of reality TV as a whole, but it needs to be established that the core of the ethical issues rising out of reality TV is centered on the fact that reality TV claims to be “reality” when it seems to be the furthest thing from reality. It is also important to note that the only “real” thing in most reality TV shows is the individual’s names and reputations. These are the only things not created by the producers and that will last after the show is over; the situations and challenges are all fictional and controlled and the “plot” is made up. Therefore, the way that the individuals are portrayed and how their reputations are effected determines the ethical value of a given show.

Frankenbyting certainly influences both of these things and therefore has a substantial ethical value. With both types it seems that there are harmless, creative edits to keep things moving and interesting and there are malicious edits which deface the individual and give them a bad reputation which they keep after the show is over. Randi Coy, a participant in the show My Big Fat FiancÚ, lost her job as a school teacher because of the image of her the show created.4 The show involved a woman convincing her family that she was going to marry someone blatantly rude and offensive; if she was successful she won money. In the same way it is easy to see how Sarah Kozer’s reputation could have been ruined by the false implications that she had oral sex on one of the dates on Joe Millionaire. Frankenbyting then is just like any other tool in that it has good uses and bad ones, however due to its weighty ethical implications it should be taken much more seriously.

How Reality TV Fakes It

Author: Matt Diehl


1. James Poniewozik, “How Reality TV Fakes It,” Time, 29 January 2006, at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1154194,00.html.

2. Personal Correspondence with anonymous Farmer Wants a Wife contestant.

3. Douglas Kellner, “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” Gender, race, and class in media: a Text-reader, 2003.

 4. Richard M. Huff, Reality Television, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 2006, pg.91.

 5. “Reality Blurred” various articles at http://www.realityblurred.com/realitytv/.