I wouldn't call myself a fan of the whole reality television thing. But it has become such a large category that it's really hard to ignore. So I find myself stopping to think about what differentiates a reality show that makes me want to throw up and one that sucks me in and won't let go.
The obvious answer is that the ones that I like are the ones with real people. But how do you know which shows have real people and which don't. The trick is looking at what the "goal" is of the show. Is it a cash prize? Bring on the gold diggers.
No one wants to be crowned America's Next Top Model and get a modelling contract unless they, you know, want to be a model. It's not like you can trade that contract in for cash. That's not to say that there aren't drama queens that dominate the show's content, nor that the show itself is anything but trash. But for better or worse, those are in fact real people.
A less trashy example would be So You Think You Can Dance. That show has people with real talent. Yes, they need money. Yes, they need a job. But the point of the show is about how well they can leverage their talent. Not how much they love money.
Anyway, what brought about this particular round of thought is Beauty and the Geek. What makes this show really interesting is that it is half filled with honest people looking for self improvement, and half filled with money grubbing ho's. It's the perfect meta-reality show.
The geeks are sometimes extreme characters, but more often they're scarily familiar (at least if you run in the circles I do). They couldn't care less about the cash prize, because honestly they're all on the path to make lots of money anyway. The geeks are there to better themselves. And as a result they don't game the show. Instead they make friends.
The beauties, on the other hand... well... they're horrible. They form alliances, back stab each other, disrespect their geek partners, sunbathe through anything interesting, and generally just drool over the money.
The point of the show is to see if even one of the beauties can pull herself out of her superficial shame spiral and become a human being, or if all the other girls will cannibalize her first, leaving the Queen Bitch as the victor. And it's hard not to find that entertaining.