Lauren Pope (L) and Mario Falcone during episode of 'The Only Way Is Essex'
Two TV shows in Britain showing "real" people in fictional situations -- "The Only Way Is Essex" and "Made in Chelsea" -- have gained large audiences and unleashed a social media frenzy by blurring the lines between reality and fiction. When
"The Only Way Is Essex" burst onto screens in 2010, it fast became Britain's most successful example of "structured reality TV" -- a cast of people going about their daily lives but with story lines that were part fact and part fiction.
Though inspired by US shows, the makers of TOWIE say it has built its success with a rapid three-day turnaround from filming to screening, allowing participants and audience to discuss it online almost immediately.
TOWIE features the twenty-something, spray-tanned residents of Essex, a county to the east of London whose brashness has long made it the butt of jokes in Britain.
It was followed a year later by "Made in Chelsea", about the well-funded residents of the upmarket district of west London that is the polar opposite of Essex.
Despite the different social backgrounds, the content is similar -- delving into who is going out with whom, break-ups and arguments, with frequent visits to bars and nightclubs.
TOWIE has even ushered in a new vocabulary to Britain -- from "vajazzling", the adding of diamante studs to the nether regions, and "well jel" for really jealous.
Ruth Wrigley, the co-creator of TOWIE who previously oversaw the early series of "Big Brother" UK, describes her show as "a combination of reality and drama, so at its best it should look and feel like a drama".
In the final episode of the 10th series screened in November, the hunky Mario Falcone brought his new girlfriend to an '80s-themed disco, providing the perfect opportunity for his former love Lucy Mecklenburgh and her friends to discuss the delicate situation on screen.
Although the scene is acted -- somewhat woodenly -- Falcone and Mecklenburgh used to date in real life.
Wrigley, a mother of five, argues that the critics' fretting over the blurred lines is irrelevant to the show's youthful target audience -- something she first spotted by observing her own children's reaction to "Big Brother".
"Their generation isn't saying 'is this real, is it not real?'. They don't care," she said.
The major difference between TOWIE and US shows such as "The Hills" is the rapid turnround from production to broadcast -- making it fresh for both the viewers and the characters, which sparks instant exchanges on social media.
"That means it's huge on Facebook and on Twitter, and with that audience, that's what makes it so popular," Wrigley said. "The first time the audience sees it is the first time the cast see it.
"Just as in their real lives, they would naturally take to Twitter to say 'I can't believe she is saying that' -- and that's what they do with the show."
The cast of TOWIE do not have a script, and neither are they actors. They discuss with the show's makers, Lime Pictures, what is happening in their lives and act that out on screen.
"Everything in TOWIE is based in reality," Wrigley said.
If, for example, one of the cast mentions that they want to pass their driving test, or become a model, it can be incorporated into the show.
"In real life that might take years to come to fruition. If you ask TOWIE, we can very quickly make it happen."
But she insists, "we'd happily show them being rejected as a model too, and film their reaction."
For a relatively low-budget formula, it is wildly successful -- each episode of TOWIE was watched by around 1.2 million viewers on ITV2 in its most recent run, while E4's "Made in Chelsea" attracts 900,000 viewers.
In 2011, TOWIE beat bigger-budget shows to win a prestigious BAFTA YouTube award voted for by the audience.
It is a formula that other countries want to copy -- the owners of Lime, all3media, are in talks with a Spanish production company and two major broadcasters about a version based in Madrid.
In Germany the formula has been adopted with a twist in shows such as "X-Diaries" -- the cast are also real people, but unlike in TOWIE they follow a script.
Some TV critics may despair, but Wrigley predicts the genre has a bright future.
"I think it's a generational thing. Everyone thinks their lives are worthy of a reality show -- and quite frankly, if they're produced properly, they are!"