The term “Reality” in television is broad, to put it lightly. The concept of reality TV covers multiple different genres, from competition shows like Survivor and American Idol, to more biographical shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the Real Housewives franchise, and even comedy-oriented shows like Jackass. All of these shows are commonly classified as reality shows. Not only does ‘“reality” cover many genres, but it also applies to many different topics: cooking (Chopped), business (Shark Tank), fashion (RuPaul’s Drag Race), and romance (the Bachelor franchise). Even incredibly specific topics can be found in reality TV, like weight loss (The Biggest Loser). But if all these shows are considered reality shows, then wouldn’t that make Good Morning America a reality show? The answer would be yes, but reality shows share one defining feature that connects them all: the confessional.
What is a Confessional and How did it Originate?
Simply put, a confessional is a scene in a reality show in which one or two people share their thoughts on a situation in an area outside of the action happening. They also typically have a chyron lower third denoting who is speaking.
Confessionals were conceived during the birth of reality TV in 1991 and 1992 with The Real World and the Dutch show Nummer 28. Despite these two shows defining reality TV, The Real World was inspired by a much earlier show, 1973’s An American Family, which documented seven months of a recently divorced family. Despite inspiring The Real World, An American Family is seen more as a documentary series nowadays. And this applies to other progenitors of reality TV. Much of The Bachelor’s DNA comes from The Dating Game, which first aired in 1965; however, The Dating Game is commonly referred to as a game show, at least it is on Google, Wikipedia, and its fan wiki. So what do these earlier shows not have that modern shows do? Confessionals. And confessionals also connect the myriad subjects of modern reality TV. America’s Next Top Model has confessionals, and so does X Factor. So does The Amazing Race. Hell, even the parody animated series Total Drama Island has confessionals. That’s how defining confessionals are.
Confessionals as a Spotlight
So confessionals are what distinguish reality shows from past and present unscripted shows. Big whoop, blog post over, right? Not for me. The confessional has lasted for over 30 years, naturally making me ask why. Why did it become so common in the first place? What makes the confessional work in so many types of shows? Well, it’s because confessionals are the backbone of what makes reality TV so appealing. They help producers control the story for a show. And that is a game changer (pun intended) because storytelling in reality TV is a completely different beast from any other form of media. Producers can’t follow a script, they have to react to whatever the cast does and create an entertaining story from those events (at least the shows that don’t stage major events have to do that). The confessional is the only way this reactionary way of storytelling works. The confessional allows producers to spotlight specific cast members as main characters by giving them more confessionals and delegating less interesting cast members into side roles by giving them fewer confessionals
For an example of the confessional’s power, let’s look at The Real World: Portland, the 28th season of the show. This season has eight people living in a house together. However, the confessionals are not split equally between all eight contestants. Anastasia got 59 confessionals over the season, while fellow house member Nia got 75. And to top it off, Nia wasn’t in the house until episode 4. Nia’s higher confessional count is explained by all the drama she caused. She got into a physical altercation near the end of the series that led to three of the cast mates leaving the house for the final three days of filming. Because Nia caused this, she is given more screen time during the season so her fight can serve as the climax of the season, a big moment that changes the characters’ relationships. Meanwhile, the more passive Anastasia was given less attention since she wasn’t affecting others as much as Nia and was mainly relegated to being Averey’s sidekick that season.
Confessionals as a Narrative Device
This example from The Real World perfectly illustrates why confessionals are so powerful for telling entertaining stories through reality TV. It allows the show to follow a more standard story structure with rising action and a climax. Of course, the content of confessionals is often more important than the quantity because it creates the characters in the conflict. Rupert Boneham from Survivor: Pearl Islands is a prime example of content being king. He was constantly given confessionals about his job mentoring teens struggling with addiction and his ability and desire to help feed his fellow competitors. The show wanted the audience to love Rupert, so they made him a hero. And if you think that this interpretation of events is subjective, then I turn your attention to Rupert’s re-appearance on Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, where the show itself outright labeled him a hero. Comic relief characters are also easy to define with confessionals. Tommy Stevens from the ninth season of Hell’s Kitchen mainly got confessionals of him telling jokes about his fellow chefs, as well as the show’s host, Gordon Ramsey. The finale episode of the season even says “he often played the comedian.” The content of confessionals helps keep these people into character archetypes that we’re familiar with, and the number of confessionals they receive helps us know who to focus on. In tandem, these two variables mold every person on a show into more digestible characters for the audience, especially audiences who may just be tuning in halfway through an episode.
Ultimately, the confessional is not only the mechanism that separates reality TV from other unscripted genres, it’s also the most pivotal storytelling tool for those shows. The confessional gives reality itself a story. When producers are filming the endless randomness of reality, the confessional is a mechanism that gives control back to them. It keeps the story focused and familiar, which is key since it’s impossible to tell an interesting story with 20 characters. Even blockbuster movies only have huge casts if they’re a part of a series. A confessional allows producers and editors to focus the audience’s attention on a select few characters with more defined roles. It’s the smallest editing trick in the book, but it brings out the best in reality television time and time again.
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