Scripted Reality Steeped in Reality

The ensemble behind “Berlin – Tag & Nacht”
The ensemble behind “Berlin – Tag & Nacht” | © rtl2

Scripted Reality is a television format that at first seems to be a documentary, but in reality is in fact based on a fictional story. For quite a few years now this fusion has been celebrating huge successes on German television, at the same time, however, it has also provoked the ire of quite a lot critics.

Just before the millennium a German TV production company Filmpool hit upon an idea for an interesting entertainment format – real plaintiffs in court cases against real defendants, with a real judge, in this case a woman, pronouncing the sentence. And as it would be dealing only with civil law cases within the framework of a so-called court of arbitration, it would be allowed to capture it all on film.

The only problem was that Richterin Barbara Salesch (Judge Barbara Salesch, as the show was called) was not a hit with viewers. The ratings were miserable. Then Filmpool had another idea – how about switching from the somewhat dry and often complicated civil law cases to criminal law that was much more appealing to audiences? Of course they would not be allowed to film such cases in “real time”, but they could simulate the cases in a courtroom and they could work with amateur actors. As they say in the trade, they could “script” the interaction in front of the camera.

Packaging fiction as reality

“Back then this was in fact the first time ever that non-professional actors had worked in this way in a show that was on every day”, remembers Felix Wesseler from Filmpool. “And in no time at all the show was a huge hit.” Richterin Barbara Salesch kicked off a whole new genre in German TV entertainment – the courtroom show. A new term came into parlance for this approach of packaging fiction to a certain extent as reality, of making reality more entertaining with the help of quasi-documentary stylistic devices – scripted reality.

Despite the show’s success in the ratings it did not take long, however, before the critics started berating it. They were of the opinion that the show was deceiving its – mostly young – viewers, leading them to believe it was a true reflection of reality, possibly to even adopt certain forms of behaviour, prompting them to think that this is how one would react in real life. Or, equally as negative, the viewers were being trained to be fundamental sceptics who see through the manipulation and as a result lose all the trust they ever had in the media. And especially in those media which for important reasons assert the claim that they are reflecting such a thing as “reality”.

And what was even more provoking for the critics – scripted reality formats started to develop even more and to perfect the game they were playing with their alleged authenticity. In 2009 Filmpool launched two new show formats Verdachtsfälle (Suspected Cases) and Familien im Brennpunkt (Focus on Families), in which amateur actors played out family conflicts. Little by little more and more TV productions got on the bandwagon and developed similar formats: policemen and detectives investigating crimes, family members at loggerheads with each other, lawyers advising their clients in particularly difficult cases.

The secret of success – authenticity

“As soon as it became clear just how well the work with talented amateurs was functioning, we started to look for a possibility of more long-term production scenarios”, says Felix Wesseler. What they come up with was Berlin – Tag & Nacht (Berlin – Day and Night), a daily soap with non-professional actors that was launched in 2010 and tells the story of a flat-share in Berlin. BTN, as the fans call it, was a resounding success – not least thanks to Facebook, on which the format is particularly active compared to other shows. Furthermore it has also become one of the fundamental arguments used in the ongoing discussion on the possible effects scripted reality might have on the younger target group.

Joachim von Gottberg is director of the FSF – Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle Fernsehen – a voluntary, non-profitmaking self-regulation body for private TV providers in Germany that deals with issues concerning the legal protection of minors and media education. In 2012 the FSF published a survey on scripted reality in which particular emphasis was placed on Berlin – Tag & Nacht. “We were interested in the theory that there was a linear effect in the way people deal with scripted reality. The fact that young people would accept the series as real and adapt what they have seen into their concept of normality”, said von Gottberg.

It was, however, this in particular that the survey could not confirm. “The constructed nature of the format is quite consciously perceived and considered to be a stylistic device”, said Gottberg. He went on to say that it was this reason in particular that made scripted reality so successful. “What we are dealing with in this case is a particular form of production and, if you like, a particular form of direction that is particularly well suited to producing authenticity.” Whereas classic, script-based TV formats are often criticised for their wooden style and dialogues in successful soap operas and telenovelas just seemed to be “read out loud” by the actors, the verbal exchanges in shows like Berlin – Tag & Nacht have an astonishingly genuine touch.

The limits of the format

Playing with authenticity is basically a classic criterion of quality in the realm of acting – is that then the secret of success for formats like Berlin – Tag & Nacht? “The approach is simply very effective”, explains von Gottberg. “Instead of motivating actors to empathise with the part they are playing, the actors are selected from a giant pool of amateur performers, who on the basis of their appearance, their experience and their character are perfect for the role.” Apart from this, there is also another advantage for TV stations – “These formats are much cheaper to produce, as a rule a station saves two-thirds of the costs it would normally have to pay for a comparable classic TV format.”

Does this then mean that from now on we are going to have to put up with more and more TV formats that rely on favourable shooting conditions and authenticity? “Scripted reality – or, scripted entertainment, as it is also known –, has managed to make quite a name for itself in the world of television over the past few years”, says Felix Wesseler. “Of course, we are constantly developing our productions further and further and trying to find out which genres in particular might benefit from this method.” For Joachim von Gottberg the format also has clear limits. “Maximum authenticity is not everything. Some stories are simply better told by well trained actors and an elaborately developed script.”