Let’s Hope You’re Not Taking Real-Life Money Lessons from ‘Reality’ Shows

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Guess what? Reality shows aren’t that real. This news shouldn’t come as a shock. Yet it is still surprising—and worrisome—to hear about the latest scandal involving the home-buying show “House Hunters.” Each of the program’s episodes is presented as a real-life example of individuals walking through the house purchasing process, with lessons on making offers and estimating home values and renovation costs throughout. The problem is that apparently much of the program is staged, fake, or otherwise totally untrue.

The Hooked on Houses blog (hat tip: Consumerist) recently spoke to a woman whose family was featured on the HGTV program “House Hunters.” The program shows people scoping out three possible homes they’re considering for purchase, and at the end of the show, the buyers decide which home they’ll buy. Viewers get to “play along” by being voyeurs on tours of the houses, and by guessing which home the individuals will wind up selecting.

The woman, a mother of three from Texas named Bobi Jenson, exposed just how much of what’s shown on TV is fake. First off, before HGTV agreed to feature the Jensons, the family’s home search was already completed. The network accepted them only after they’d closed on their new home. Because the family was already done with the buying process, HGTV had to stage a fake home search to build the drama necessary for a half-hour program. Of the three homes shown on the program, one was the house the Jensons had already bought—and the other two weren’t even for sale. They were the homes of the Jenson’s friends, who’d agreed to help them out and cleaned like crazy in order to get ready for the cameras.

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HGTV also pumped up the Jensons’ back story in order to make the narrative more compelling. The family was buying a slightly larger house and turning its old home into a rental, but that story wasn’t sexy enough. So, Jenson says, the show’s producers “wanted to emphasize how our home was too small and we needed a bigger one desperately. It wasn’t true, but it was a smaller house than the one we bought so I went with it.”

Shows such as “House Hunters” are hardly documentaries filmed by silent camera people capturing the drama unfolding naturally either. During their house tours, directors regularly asked the family to do five or six takes for each “scene.”

After Jenson’s admissions became public HGTV released a statement, which doesn’t claim that any of the allegations are false:

“We’ve learned that the pursuit of the perfect home involves big decisions that usually take place over a prolonged period of time — more time than we can capture in 30 minutes of television. However, with a series like House Hunters, HGTV viewers enjoy the vicarious and entertaining experience of choosing a home — from establishing a budget, to touring properties and weighing the pros and cons of each one. We’re making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home-buying process.”

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The key phrase here is: “We’re making a television show.” This is first and foremost about entertainment. Does the program actually honor the home-buying process? That’s debatable.

Slate’s Marcelle Friedman laid out some of the arguments for why the show is misleading consumers, and what harm that can do:

Showing houses that aren’t even for sale at prices divined by its producers, House Hunters is presenting dangerous misinformation about the home-buying process and deleting all of the accompanying complications and consequences. It’s turned what is actually a messy, frustrating, often dead-end process into a seamless (and perhaps necessary) path toward fulfillment.

A “messy, frustrating, often dead-end process” does not make for a good, satisfying 30-minute TV narrative. So HGTV fudges a lot of the details and fakes a lot of the drama. The result is an easy-to-digest TV show with a beginning, middle, and end. What it is not is a true depiction of the home-buying process. This may be “reality TV,” but it’s sure not reality.

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“House Hunters” is hardly the only reality TV show that’s been accused of faking scenes and fudging the facts. Skipping “The Bachelor,” “The Amazing Race,” and other shows that are based entirely on manufactured premises, programs that purport to show business and consumer activities in journalistic fashion sometimes also stray far from reality.

The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” for instance, has been accused of faking scenes and negotiations. In one episode, a man comes in to sell a rusted old Coke machine—which the pawn shop later brings to Rick Dale, of another History Channel show, “American Restoration, to have it restored. What the program never says explicitly is that the original seller of the Coke machine was Dale’s brother.

The money-saving techniques shown on the TLC show “Extreme Couponing” have also been accused of being bogus. The allegations say that men and women on the show have used counterfeit or invalid coupons—lots of them—and store managers have gone after the shoppers demanding that they pay for the merchandise in full. None of this action is shown on camera, of course.

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The point is that, in the same way that dating in the real world bears little resemblance to “The Bachelorette,” couponing, pawn shop negotiations, and home buying are often quite different than what you see on TV.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.