I’m Watching the Future of Reality TV

Alex Tolkin
Mar 12, 2018 · 9 min read

For everyone who had “Reality TV” as the topic for your office’s “what will Alex blog about next” pool, congratulations.

I’m surprised I’m talking about this as well. I’ve never been interested in reality TV whatsoever but there’s a new online show that I think shows the potential of reality TV can be: A fun, interactive, and genuinely unscripted experience. To understand Offline TV though, you need some backstory.

Twitch.tv is the primary broadcaster in the West of live video game play. To those unfamiliar with the concept the idea of watching other people play videogames might seem strange but Twitch is immensely popular. As in bigger than Netflix popular. Some Twitch streams focus on video game tournaments in the growing field of “Esports”, but a large segment is watching individuals (known as “streamers”) play video games. Popular streamers make six figures a year (edit — nevermind, it’s up to seven) by playing occasional advertisements on their stream, accepting donations, or selling subscriptions where users pay a monthly fee to gain additional functionality when viewing the stream.

While playing video games for money might seem like a cool job, many streamers say that it’s mentally taxing. Getting popular is very challenging and aspiring streamers often grind for 10 or more hours a day. It’s also extremely lonely. William “Scarra” Li, the founder of Offline TV, said that in the entire year before he founded the group only two people set foot in his apartment. Other housemates have confirmed that depression is rampant in the streaming community.

Scarra (I’m just going to use people’s gaming handles instead of their real names because that’s how people typically refer to them) decided that it would be more enjoyable to stream with like-minded people and assembled a team of fellow streamers to live in a house together. At first they didn’t collaborate on projects much. The group released a Youtube video every few months, typically quite scripted and edited.

We’ll leave OfflineTV there for now — a collection of friends who record themselves playing video games and every once in a while release a video of them interacting in real life. Lets segue to the current state of reality television.

Most Reality TV is Bad

While I’m not a huge viewer of reality TV, former roommates watched a ton of terrible Bravo reality TV. So I’ve half-watched far too many episodes of Vanderpump Rules and other garbage (I’m calling it garbage because spoiler alert — the show is as mindless and uninteresting as you might expect). When I was living with them I did some research out of curiosity on the incredibly vapid cast and was amazed by how many of them were actresses, aspiring actresses, or left the show to pursue acting. My guess was that people are hired because they act in very dramatic or expressive ways, which can then be edited and manipulated to cause drama. In fact, Vanderpump rules has plenty of accusations that it uses manipulative editing to generate drama — here’s an article from just a month ago.

While Vanderpump Rules is the reality show I’m most familiar with, as far as I can tell almost every reality TV show uses similar techniques. There’s a classic BBC report from a decade ago that demonstrates how editing can create whatever story line one likes. Some shows go even further to generate drama. House Hunters for example is notorious for ensuring participants have already selected a house before coming on the show and forcing them to act out multiple takes to get the desired reactions for the editing room.

Aside from editing manipulation, these shows are obviously somewhat artificial. During filming, people are interacting with giant cameras in their faces which may affect what they say or how they act. When something goes really haywire you might see the camera people or director intervene to break up a fight or something but generally they are a necessary part of the show who are meant to stay as invisible as possible so that viewers forget that they exist.

Aside from how artificial the “reality” is in reality TV, a lot of the shows that I have seen are deeply unpleasant, with nasty characters acting spitefully towards one another. When I talked to my former roommates about it they said they watched the Bravo shows to feel superior to the cast members. From Snooki to Donald Trump, people have become reality television stars by acting dumb, acting crazy, acting like assholes, or acting like dumb crazy assholes. Yes this is a generalization but conflict powers a lot of reality TV and it’s easier to have conflict when everyone is an ass to each other.

Just look at the most recent season of The Bachelor, which ended with an excruciating finale where contestants were humiliated while the host gushed that it was “the first uncut, unedited scene in reality TV history” (obviously false because of the dramatic piano music) and “to say this is trending and blowing up social media right now is a gross understatement” (to be fair, the ratings were great). ABC was apparently thrilled that they could get scenes of people being terrible to one another without even having to goad them or edit the footage, or use other tactics, such as tracking contestants’ menstrual cycles to be sure to film contestants when they are on their periods.

Offline TV and the rise of IRL Streams

After all that negativity, it’s a relief to head back to OfflineTV. Members of OfflineTV began to stream themselves having regular interactions, completely separate from games. One member, Lilypichu, began streaming herself drawing and playing music, with other members of the house joining in. Before long, members were frequently streaming aspects of their daily lives. For example, members of the house would often play video games during the day as individuals and then stream playing board games together as a group.

Twitch was designed as a gaming platform so content is organized by whatever game a streamer is playing at the time. Twitch has an “IRL” (“in real life”) section for people who are live recording themselves doing daily activities. The streams gained lots of popularity, and the entire IRL section is now dominated by people affiliated with OfflineTV.

So what makes these IRL streams so interesting and exciting? You’re just watching people go around their lives with no script, structure, or editing. Admittedly, these are people who for years have been recording themselves so they’re pretty good at constantly providing entertaining content, but even so the draw of this over standard fare might not be too apparent. However, OfflineTV does a lot of stuff which standard reality cannot.

First is much more organic. If a streamer does something viewers like, they will do it again the next day. If they do something audiences are uninterested in, they might stop. This allows interesting interactions to rapidly snowball. For example, when Lilypichu was trying to learn how to dance the entire house ended up getting involved providing lots of hilarious moments. Dance lessons became a recurring event. The board game streams emerged because everyone was having a great time and the audience was loving it.

Second, the experience feels far more real because there is no separation between actors and support staff. Many of the camera people and managerial staff live in the house and are characters in their own right. Some of the most powerful moments occur among members who don’t stream games at all. In one stream Fedmyster, the editor for OfflineTV’s Youtube channel, reflected on how well OfflineTV was doing. He started talking about the death of his alcoholic father and how he dropped out of college to support his mother. He risked everything to join a experimental stream house. The conversation between him and Chris Chan, the manager of the house, was incredibly powerful. Today Fedmyster streams often, covering his editing work, interactions with house members, or other miscellaneous content. His stream is often more popular than some of the dedicated streamers in the house. The interactions between the dedicated streamers and the support staff makes the entire experience feel very real and makes standard shows seem transparently artificial by comparison.

Third, the audience can interact with the stream in ways which are impossible in standard television. One notable feature of Twitch is “Twitch Chat”, a message board that runs in parallel to a stream. Twitch chat has a lot of problems but OfflineTV has done a good job fostering a (relatively) pleasant community. Streamers will call out and aggressively ban members of chat who are being unpleasant. They also provide opportunities for chat to participate with them. For example, the streamers would frequently play Jackbox games. Jackbox games are games that you play on your phone using a shared screen. My favorite is “Drawful” which is similar to Pictionary except that people use their phones instead of pieces of paper and vote on drawings on a TV screen. The good thing about these sorts of games is that since everyone is on a phone, it’s easy for remote people to participate as long as they can see the shared screen (which is being streamed). OfflineTV would often invite a random member of chat to play with them. In other Jackbox games, one player can be controlled by “the audience” where everyone who has access to the game room can vote on what move they want to do. OfflineTV is a two-way street where the audiences interacts with and influences the actions of the performers.

Fourth, there’s a deluge of content to sort through. If you want to spend ten hours a day watching OfflineTV, you can — there’s going to be someone streaming. In fact, the onslaught of content can be fairly overwhelming. People sometimes use multi-stream setups to watch multiple people simultaneously (although that seems bafflingly confusing to me) and there are various browser extensions or websites to track all of the activity. There’s also a cottage industry of Youtube channels dedicated to highlights from the activities and compilation threads on the OfflineTV subreddit if you are just interested in the highlights. Whether you’re in the hospital spending eight hours a day watching the streams or just catching up on highlights for fifteen minutes, the show is an enjoyable experience.

Fifth, the members of the house are kind to each other and somewhat aspirational figures. The show I’ve most often seen OfflineTV compared to is Terrace House, the Japanese show about housemates living together that is notable for how kind and respectful the housemates are to one another. For example, when DisguisedToast bombed out in last place of an online tournament he was competing in members of the house came and gave him hugs and gave him encouragement. The streamers frequently talk about how inspired they are by those they live with to work hard and constantly come up with new content or ways to interact with the community. Reality TV shows that throw contestants together can’t have the same level of cohesion as a group of friends/significant others who have lived together for months or years.

The Future is Bright

I really need to write faster. I started this post about two months ago just as OfflineTV was taking off, and since then the group has exploded in popularity. The main gathering spot for fans is the OfflineTV subreddit. It was founded in July 2017. On December 31, it had 754 subscribers. As of today (March 10) it has more than 50,000. Posts from the subreddit frequently make it to the top of reddit.

While OfflineTV has had some celebrities take notice, it’s still far from a mainstream phenomenon. But it feels very much like a show of the moment. In a world where millenials are facing catastrophic financial uncertainty it’s cathartic to watch people who are wealthy but don’t spend money on bling but rather on each other (except for that one time where they spent hundreds of dollars on claw machines). In a world where there are all sorts of memes about having nothing to do on a Friday night it’s nice to participate with other people in games even if you can’t be there in person yourself. In a world of wholesome memes in a sea of internet nihilism I’d rather happy people having fun rather than miserable people competing for a cash prize or whatever (yes there are plenty of reality TV shows that don’t do this).

Younger people are moving away from television, or at least cable; moving away from watching scheduled episodes and moving towards binge-watching instead; engaging with their favorite media franchises online and with fan art. OfflineTV capitalizes on all of these trends. In ten years don’t be surprised if the hottest shows people are watching look a lot like the ebullient fun of OfflineTV.

Alex Tolkin

Written by

Communications/Political Science PhD at University of Pennsylvania

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