Trained humans make for tired ‘reality’

Predictable participants ruin unscripted TV

Insomniacs across the United Kingdom have found an addictive reason to stay awake in “Springwatch: Nightshift.” Devoid of diva casts, the BBC Two show merely positions infrared lenses around a Devon farm, where baby owls could be seen eviscerating a mouse (and even devouring one of their fallen brethren), right before the badgers engaged in a raucous brawl that toppled the camera.

Given that the British are equally gaga over “Big Brother,” a series that transforms humans into a zoo exhibit, the popularity of “Springwatch” is all the more striking, but perhaps shouldn’t be: Unlike their biped counterparts, these animals don’t mug for the cameras or hunger to become the next “Survivor” contestant turned “The View” host (a la Elizabeth Hasselbeck); rather, they engage in refreshing acts of barbarous spontaneity.

The British press, which covers “Big Brother” as if it were the real House of Commons, has also warmed to “Nightshift,” and no wonder. As a reality TV trendsetter for the globe, Europeans already appear to recognize that the overly structured nature of most reality is becoming a trifle frayed at the seams.

During a recent jaunt to London, for example, I not only caught up with “Springwatch: Nightshift” but also read reams of coverage about “The Big Donor Show,” a Dutch TV special that featured three contestants vying for a kidney transplant. The program turned out to be an elaborate hoax, meant to pressure governmental reform of organ donation laws.

As stunts go, that one was rife with the whiff of desperation — sensitizing an audience heretofore programmed to suspend disbelief of the so-called reality they watch. Notably, the Dutch trick occurred around the time WAGA-TV in Atlanta and Associated Press reported that an episode of A&E’s “Flip This House” misleadingly featured a con artist who allegedly faked a home renovation in order to present himself as a successful real-estate developer.

Even producers of what’s sometimes called alternative or unscripted TV are now wondering where the road — or in the case of “Survivor” impresario Mark Burnett’s latest adventure “Pirate Master,” the waves — may be leading them. As one producer wryly put it, now that Burnett’s contestants are “willing to act and play dress up” by masquerading as pirates, well, isn’t that supposed to be what actors do?

Increasingly, participants in reality TV have become actors, albeit of the cut-rate variety. Having spent years watching what’s worked dating back to the first U.S. version of “Survivor” in 2000, they arrive mulling strategy and contemplating how they wish to be perceived. Producers and editors can still trump that if they have enough footage to splice together, but more than a few contestants have retaliated by insisting they were misrepresented or oversimplified once they hit the interview circuit after the show.

Hidden-camera reality, a genre as old as “Candid Camera,” offers one alternative to this question of self-consciousness, but even that requires waivers and putting unwitting people in awkward and even potentially dangerous situations with no assurance of success, as evidenced by NBC’s disappointing results for “The Real Wedding Crashers.”

No wonder networks are taking the dubious step of thrusting children into the spotlight with upcoming programs like CBS’ “Kid Nation” and NBC’s “Baby Borrowers” — perhaps hoping tykes will lack the media savvy of their elders, yielding more honest, unguarded reactions.

Considering this new generation has been weaned on the genre, hey, good luck with that.

So we’re back to the badgers and the owls, which aren’t worrying about signing with CAA, just where they’ll find their next meal. BBC America says there are currently no plans to bring “Nightshift” across the pond, meaning Americans will have to content themselves for now with the usual menagerie of latenight hyenas.

Sooner or later, though, the ripe (and surely inexpensive) video possibilities of animals preying, feasting, brawling and mating — so beautifully captured in Discovery’s recent documentary “Planet Earth” — sounds like an idea whose time has come. After all, the reality zoo has begun to look seriously overpopulated, as crowds grow bored watching the predictable shenanigans of what Howard the Duck referred to as the hairless apes.

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