Is it all bad? Reality television that inspires

Published: Thursday, April 18 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

It started in 1948 with Alan Funt's "Candid Camera."

That's when reality television began, writes Charles B. Slocum of the Writers Guild of America, creating "artificial realities to see how ordinary people would respond."

But when MTVs "The Real World" premiered in 1992, so-called "reality TV" moved full steam ahead. Since that time, the genre has offered everything from "Survivor," which is still on the air after 13 years, to "Breaking Amish," which generated controversy last year over whether its characters' stories were less than true.

"We all know there's little reality in reality TV," writes James Poniewozik, contributor to Time Magazine. "No reality TV show can match the intelligence and layers of well-constructed fiction."

Indeed, the genre has developed a dubious reputation. But is it all bad? While every reality-TV show is likely to endure some level of skepticism and/or criticism, there are many that also inspire viewers. The following are a few examples of positive aspects to emerge from this genre.

The Biggest Loser

“The Biggest Loser,” a reality show that began in 2004, has inspired many Americans to be more health conscious and work harder for their goals.

At 233 pounds, Shelley, Idaho, native Kaylee Kinikini religiously watched the show with her father, Moses, often talking about their dream to one day be on it.

Although Kinikini didn’t believe her dream would become reality, a health scare for Moses pushed the two to audition for season 11 — and they made it.

The Kinikinis journey to weight loss was difficult, but with the support of family and friends back home, in addition to their trainers and teammates on the ranch, it proved to be a rewarding experience.

“The show was definitely a lot of hard work, but if you’ve seen it you know you’re going to be beaten down,” Kinikini said. “The really hard part is being away from family while making those big life changes.”

Kinikini felt inspired by the many letters she received from family and friends telling her to keep up the good work.

It wasn’t until she went home, however, that she understood what an inspiration she had been to those who hadn’t been on the show with her.

“It was amazing to me to have people come up to me and thank me for this experience and for giving them hope,” Kinikini said. “That is the biggest thing I cherish is that I can affect somebody for the better.”

Kinikini lost a total of 54 pounds on the ranch, weighing 179 pounds when she left the show.

Like many reality TV shows, “The Biggest Loser” is founded on competition, although it’s generally more kind-spirited than most.

“It was so nice to celebrate with each person, because you could see how much it meant to them when they hit a big milestone or accomplished something they never thought they could,” Kinikini said.

She describes “The Biggest Loser” as being, for the most part, a non-scripted show.

“Even though some of the competition or weigh-ins are presented more dramatically than they actually are, the emotions and tears people shed are very real,” Kinikini said.

While it may look like the toughest part is over when the contestants leave the show for the real world, the hard work has only begun. According to Kinikini, going home is the hardest part for most contestants because they are then surrounded by real life, unhealthy habits and time-consuming activities.

Emily Sawyer, a big fan of "The Biggest Loser," eventually determined to lose weight at home rather than on TV. After trying out for "The Biggest Loser" five times, Sawyer decided she couldn’t rely on a TV show to help her get healthy.

“I think that by doing it at home it’s helped because on the show they are in such a controlled environment,” Sawyer said. “I’m glad I’m doing it at home because once I hit my goal, I already know what it’s like to be at a fast-food restaurant and to have to make the choice between the salad and the hamburger. It’s not going to slap me in the face.”

'America's Got Talent'

Many of the reality TV shows geared toward family audiences center around a talent competition.

While “American Idol” stands as one of the most popular reality shows of all time, “America’s Got Talent” focuses on the inspirational stories of the contestants without the occasional exposing of quirky people who lack talent.

Ali Christensen Wilde, along with her sister Christina Christensen, both from Idaho Falls, Idaho, competed in the top 10 of “America’s Got Talent” in 2010. The two sisters both have cystic fibrosis, a disease affecting the entire body, specifically the lungs.

“The main reason we went on the show is to share our message with people,” Wilde said. “Our message is that you can do anything you set your mind to despite any illness or weakness.”

Wilde and Christensen faced obstacles during their performances.

“As a singer (cystic fibrosis) really affects your lungs, so sometimes you have to clear your throat in the middle of a song or lower the microphone for a second,” Wilde said. “However, singing is also the greatest exercise you can do for your lungs.”

According to Wilde, “America’s Got Talent” is true to the contestant's lives.

“They literally just followed us around and saw our lives without trying to drum up any drama,” Wilde said. “They just wanted to see the person and their talent and that’s what it was all about.”

“America’s Got Talent” isn’t set up for one specific category of talent, creating a less competitive atmosphere.

“It’s the only show that has different acts and I got to meet all kinds of people,” Wilde said. “There was an act called ‘Fighting Gravity’ and it was just a bunch of college guys putting on a glow in the dark act.”

Wilde enjoyed getting to know her fellow contestants on the show, but she is particularly grateful for the producers and executive producers as well as Piers Morgan, one of the judges.

Known as the “mean judge,” people are surprised to hear he was Wilde’s favorite. He left a remarkable impression upon the young singer.

At one point during the show, the top 10 contestants were able to have a dinner with the judges, which was filmed. Before the cameras started rolling, Morgan came out to personally talk to the different contestants and get to know them a little better.

“I kind of grew attached to him,” Wilde said. “When we got kicked off, we got to say goodbye to him and he told us we were his favorite act, not because we were the most talented, but because there was a sparkle he could see in us.”

Since being on the show, Wilde and Christensen have raised millions of dollars for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation through their performances.

“I still have people who message me or email me and thank me for inspiring them,” Wilde said.

'The Amazing Race'

Another popular reality TV show that has built a family audience is “The Amazing Race.”

Salt Lake City natives Dave and Connor O’Leary competed as a father-and-son team in the most recent season.

In 2007, Dave O’Leary was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Luckily, the cancer was found early enough to cure through surgery. However, it was still a very painful and trying process.

Three years later, Connor O’Leary was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had to go through months of chemotherapy. He nearly died from blood clots developing in his lungs and in his heart.

Connor O'Leary has been in remission for the past two and half years. He had always wanted to try out for “The Amazing Race,” and after his experience with his own cancer as well as his father’s, he was determined to make an audition video.

“We went into the garage and sat on some stools and had one of his friends with a video camera shoot a short video,” Dave O’Leary said. “That was honestly the last I thought of it, but then I got an email when I was in Europe saying the producers were trying to reach us, and the rest is history.”

“The Amazing Race” focuses on values such as teamwork, culture and courage.

The O’Learys attribute much of their success to their ability to work as a team.

“The people who have the most problems in the race are typically the ones who don’t get along well as a team,” Dave O’Leary said. “I learned that even in times of adversity, if you’ve got a strong teammate and you’re willing to work together, you can make progress.”

The O’Learys did face adversity when Dave ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Although he was in a lot of pain, the father and his son continued on for two more legs of the race, winning each.

Eventually the time came for Dave O’Leary to have surgery and the two left the show without regrets.

“To be able to show people from our standpoint that we’ve both had cancer and were still able to do this was pretty amazing for us,” Dave O’Leary said.

“The Amazing Race” highlights various cultures across the world.

The O’Learys experienced the heat of the race in Bali, Indonesia. The sights were incredible, the challenges were unique, but most of all Dave O’Leary enjoyed meeting the Indonesian people.

“We saw a number of people who have far less than we do but that are incredibly happy,” he said. “They’re doing good things, they love each other and their families. That was inspiring to me.”

O’Leary was also inspired by the people involved with “The Amazing Race,” including the other contestants and the producers.

“There were these twin OBGYN doctors from Chicago who were terrified of water, yet they overcame it and went into these diving bells,” Dave O’Leary said. “I thought that was so incredible.”

The O’Leary's lives have been enriched even more since their experience on “The Amazing Race.”

“It’s life changing to see the world,” Dave O’Leary said. “It’s a big place and I’m anxious to continue seeing more and getting out of my comfort zone.”

Megan Marsden is an intern with the Deseret News writing for the Faith & Family section. She is currently a junior at BYU-Idaho studying communication.

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