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Reality TV catches characters at most extreme

Folks on reality shows such as "Wife Swap" seem so extreme that it's hard to believe they're really like that . In truth, editing often just amplifies the sometimes over-the-top behavior.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Apprentice," "Real World" or another show, . Andy Dehnart, msnbc.com's Television Editor and creator of ,will try to answer them.

Before you send in your question, — you may be able to get your answer right away.

Q: My cousin Lisa swears that on shows like “Wife Swap,” that these people are fake and are actors, or are prompted to be weirder than they normally are in real life. Is this true? Living in New York it's hard not to believe that there are very odd people out there — for real. — Amy P., Staten Island, N.Y.

A: That's a complicated question. For sure, reality shows have featured actors — although they're not acting. "Survivor" is a good example. Recent seasons have featured cast members with acting backgrounds, but those don't really count because they're actors who are playing "Survivor" just as non-actors would (although perhaps their profession gives them an advantage).

However, a few less-than-honest series have featured actors and pretended those people were non-actors. Most recently, an actor who went on a date with Lauren on "The Hills" revealed to Best Week Ever's Web site that he was cast for the part. Now there are reports that producers are casting for Heidi and Spencer's wedding.

Far more often than not, people we'd like to think are actors are people, and that can be terrifying. Sometimes, it's easier to just believe that someone is pretending when their behavior is so completely bizarre.

Your cousin's insight about whether cast members are prompted to act differently is a more accurate analysis of how cast members' behavior is, to some degree, affected or controlled. Forgetting entirely about whether or not people change their behavior when cameras are around (and that's a big question), most reality shows have on-set producers who talk to and work with the cast members.

Depending upon the nature of the series (is it a competition? a docudrama?), producers will set up scenes and perhaps even direct conversation. Series that are ethical in their depiction of reality don't go further than creating an artificial context and then letting the cast interact naturally within that. For example, when "American Idol" finalists meet celebrity mentors, those scenes are set up, and the finalists know that they're about to meet a musical icon, but they interact genuinely with the mentor when the cameras start rolling.

Producers also interview the cast, both in regular sit down interviews and during "on the fly" interviews (where a cast member is asked a question and addresses it directly in the moment). What people say during those talks might not be what they'd say to anyone but their diary or closest friends, but that gets included in the show as if that's how they normally react. And if producers ask leading questions (for example, "Why does so-and-so hate you so much?"), that could impact the cast members' behavior.

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Finally, there's editing. The nature of reality shows requires life to be edited, and of course editors and story producers are going to select only the most extreme and interesting moments to include in their 44 (or even 22) minutes.

All of us have moments of less-than-typical behavior, and if strangers observed us just at those times, they might certainly be skeptical about how real we really were.

Q: On “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” you sometimes hear someone come on and say that the "mortgage" is taken care of for the family. With the impression that the current home, which is usually in shambles, does not have an existing mortgage, is the family expected to pay some type of mortgage for the new home? If true, this is very misleading to the viewers thinking a new home was "given" to the family. If they could afford a mortgage in the first place wouldn't they have built their own home? — Lisa, New Haven, Ill.

A: "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" will air its 100th episode on Sunday, and the series has recently faced questions like this about who it selects and why.

First, though, the new homes are mortgage-free, as all of the materials, time, and labor have been donated.

Often, sponsors step in to pay off the homeowners' old mortgages on the now-demolished houses. However, your question bumps up against other questions: How can low-income homeowners afford higher property taxes and upkeep that comes with a big new house? And should the show be selecting people with high incomes who can afford those things?

Recently, a Hawaii newspaper revealed that home recipient Theresa "Momi" Akana makes more than $100,000 per year, as does her husband, yet they were still featured.

The show does extensive background checks on a family, including on their finances. Those who are cast are repeatedly told that their new house will cost them more money in everything from utilities to maintenance, according to a recent story in Variety.

The show's casting director, Quintin Strack, told the paper that the series doesn't only look for people who live in poverty.

"That's a huge misconception. We have to be conscious of what we're doing. We can't give someone a big house knowing full well they can't afford to keep it," he said.

Q: Is it true that Kristy Swanson had a baby with her co-star from “Skating With the Celebrities”? What about Trista and Ryan from the “Bachelor”? Are they still married? Did that first bachelor, Alex, ever settle down? — Helen, Woodbridge, Va.

A: First, Kristy Swanson and her "Skating With Celebrities" partner and Olympic skater Lloyd Eisler did indeed have a baby together.

They started dating during the early 2006 series, when Lloyd and his wife were separated; their child was born in February of 2007, about a year after the show aired.

Tabloid reports suggested Lloyd's soon-to-be-ex-wife discovered the affair in 2006 while she was pregnant with Lloyd's child.

Incidentally, Kristy Swanson was arrested last summer after a confrontation with Lloyd's ex-wife, but the charges were recently dropped.

As to Trista and Ryan, they're still married and had their first child on July 26. They live in Colorado, where Ryan is a firefighter.

And after breaking up with his pick on the first season of the series, Amanda, Alex Michel has mostly dropped off the cultural radar, and there have been no reports that he's in a relationship.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.