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Reality TV’s Dirty Little Secrets

America let out a big sigh of relief when Trista dumped Charlie and picked Ryan on The Bachelorette. America wanted to slap Richard Hatch for being so mean and manipulative (not to mention nude) on Survivor. America sniffled and teared up when Randi finally won over her family and walked down the aisle toward a half-million bucks on My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé. But America got taken for a ride. It turns out the myriad of emotions people feel while watching reality TV are often triggered artificially.

Teens Duped by "Assisted Reality"
Reality television is hot, especially with teenagers. Most months, at least one- third of the Top 15 series watched by 12- to 17-year-olds are reality-based. Part of the attraction is the strong emotion they evoke. The idea is that we’re watching real people experiencing real situations just as we might. No scripts. No actors. No special effects. But a wealth of new evidence suggests that what fans of the genre are really hooked on is what Blind Date executive producer Jay Renfroe calls "assisted reality."

Renfroe told cable channel Bravo, "We have to assist reality. Reality’s boring." Indeed, it often is. So for reality to succeed as entertainment, it has to be spiced up … a lot. Journalist Emily Nussbaum, who has written for Slate and The New York Times, casts this dichotomy in terms of desire versus fact, explaining, "The distinction that people can’t get around is the feeling that they want what they see to be what really happened, and they want what they see to be incredibly exciting and sexy, and those two things are not the same."

In their effort to assist reality and make things "incredibly exciting and sexy," producers don’t always play fair. Meet My Folks moved contestants out of their homes and stuck them in swank mansions—creating the perception that they were wealthier while assuring that there would always be an obligatory hot tub on the premises. Survivor producer Mark Burnett used body doubles to create what are called "beauty shots." Contestant Stacey Stillman alleges that Burnett didn’t stop there. She accuses him of surreptitiously cajoling her competitors into voting her off the show.

To add drama and intrigue, producers for UPN’s short-lived Manhunt scripted and re-shot elements of their contest months afterwards and thousands of miles away from its Hawaiian setting. Referring to the pressure he felt he was under to make Manhunt more exciting, co-executive producer Bob Jaffe admits, "On one occasion I was asked to throw a certain part of the game. To actually allow a contestant to win a contest purely for the sake of ratings." Participant Jacqueline Kelly doesn’t mince words either, stating, "The producers intentionally defrauded the television viewing audience."

When Manipulation Gets Ugly
Such devious behavior pales compared to what Joe Millionaire’s Sarah Kozer says producers did to manipulate her onscreen image. She claims audiences were led to believe that she was sexually permissive with star Evan Marriott. "As we were leaving one of the locations, the plane was waiting and I was ready to go," she told Bravo. "They were like, ’We just need a shot of you in your bathrobe looking out at the ocean.’ Of course, that’s the scene where it looks like Evan and I spent the night together and I’m reliving it in my mind as I’m looking out over the ocean."

In another episode, Kozer says it was made to appear as if she gave Evan oral sex in the woods just a few feet away from the cameras. "They make it look like I go into the bushes with him," she recounts, "And then they [added sexual noises in subtitles] on the bottom of the screen. It’s almost impossible to defend because it looks so distinctly like something had to have happened."

Even when producers don’t superimpose deleterious dialogue, or maliciously defame participants by inserting "faked" scenes, a lot that appears on reality TV isn’t factual. That’s because so little of what happens actually makes it onscreen. After wrapping My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, star Randi Coy asserted that at least 100 hours of film goes into every hour of TV. Sometimes—as Coy believes was the case with her show—things are portrayed accurately. Other times? Not so much.

Reacting to the final cut of her MTV reality series with husband Nick Lachey, pop star Jessica Simpson told Entertainment Weekly that content she believed would be suitable to show their children one day had somehow morphed into material deserving of a PG-13 movie rating just because of the way is was edited.

As Sarah Kozer, Jessica Simpson and other reality fame-seekers are finding out the hard way, contestants don’t have much control over how they look on the tube. And even less recourse. Strict nondisclosure contracts are signed before filming begins, and some series include language which legally allows producers to use participants’ images and dialogue in "disparaging, defamatory or embarrassing" ways that may lead to "public ridicule and humiliation."

Hollywood casting director Robyn Kass (Survivor, Big Brother) knows full well that folks don’t always get what they sign up for. "I would never tell one of these people, ’You’re going to look great on the show. Don’t worry, you’re going to come out smelling like roses,’" she says. "We do the exact opposite."

One trick for turning multi-dimensional human beings into paper-thin caricatures (stereotypes are a commodity reality industry types crave) is to edit genuine expressions and reactions out of sequence. Imagine a conversation you might have with a friend, sibling or spouse in which that person told you that her dog just died. You respond sympathetically, nodding and wincing at all the right moments; you even put your arm around her to show your support. Three hours later, feeling much better, she tells you a really funny joke, and you burst out laughing. Now picture a video editor callously splicing footage of that laughter into your earlier conversation about the dog. Sound extreme? It’s exactly the kind of deception some reality producers use to vilify and demonize certain characters.

"What you see is real," confirms Dick Herlan, executive producer of Fox’s World’s Wildest Police Videos, "but the order in which you see it isn’t necessarily real. What it means isn’t necessarily real. And the drama behind it isn’t necessarily real." Nor does it end with editing. Background music can radically alter the viewer’s perception. "With the right music cue," says musical director Dave Stone (The Simple Life, The Real World), "I can make a dinner with you look like the most romantic evening we’ve ever had—or like we don’t even like each other."

"… Does It Matter?" "There’s a kind of image virus," said Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show. "Images are so manipulated now. You can’t be sure what you’re looking at. Is it a re-creation? Is it actual? Is it fiction? Does it matter?"

Young reality buffs may echo Weir’s final question. Does it really matter if TV producers and the makers of films such as Jacka-- and The Real Cancun push viewers’ buttons, so long as they entertain? Encourage teens to ponder this statement: "If you are tempted, you know it. If you are oppressed or abused, you know it. But if you are deceived, you don’t know it." Is it ever a good idea to pardon the media for deceiving the public? What are the implications if we do?

Teens love what’s raw, real and unfiltered. So it’s no surprise that this genre, birthed on MTV (The Real World), has spread like wildfire through every facet of youth culture. But "reality TV" rarely lives up to its name. A game of pick-up hoops after school is real. A bonding conversation with a friend or parent is real. A trip to the Grand Canyon … that’s real. More often than not, reality TV is just a vicarious thrill built on emotional fraud.

Published February 2004


Plugged In Plus
We continue to hear horror stories about contestants claiming they’ve been mistreated or manipulated while filming reality television shows. For example, the New York Times reported that, during the 2006 season, contestants on The Bachelor were forced to wait in vans for several hours while their "arrival" party was being set up. Two of the women said there was little food but limitless alcohol, including wine and—when producers thought the video footage was too boring—a tray of shots. "If you combine no sleep with alcohol and no food, emotions are going to run high and people are going to be acting crazy," contestant Erica Rose said.
Similar situations have allegedly occurred on Project Runway and Hell’s Kitchen, with multiple 18-hour workdays, no breaks and verbal abuse from the crew, which can make participants psychologically and physically dependent on producers. "The bread and butter of reality television is to get people into a state where they are tired, stressed and emotionally vulnerable," says Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa and author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. [August 2009]