Despite scandals, viewers continue to tune in

Oh for those early days of reality TV, when each new U.S. hit carried the intoxicating promise of scandal. From the “Temptation Island” couple with a child (Taheed and Ytossie, how I miss thee!) to lawsuits surrounding “Survivor” to the speckled past of the would-be groom on “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” (a restraining order!), the world was a reporter’s oyster.

As for the prospect of genuine controversy now about staging, rigging or otherwise fabricating unscripted programs? Get real. The audience doesn’t distinguish friend from faux.

Not that media folk don’t keep trying. Recent weeks have yielded charges of staged scenes on Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” and revelations that an addled Paula Abdul appeared to base “American Idol” evaluations on (gasp) what she saw during rehearsals.

Those come on the heels of reports that an airport sequence was reenacted for MTV’s “The Hills.” Various dating shows, such as MTV’s bisexual one featuring Tila Tequila, have been nagged by questions whether the love object was simply going through the motions. And the host of Discovery’s roughing-it series “Man vs. Wild,” Bear Grylls, was exposed staying in a posh hotel during filming, instead of the great outdoors.

Stylistically, the seams in the stitching increasingly show. It’s become standard to see contestants (or in the case of “Kid Nation,” their mothers) receive phone calls — informing them, say, that they’ve been chosen for “Oprah’s Big Give.” Of course, their “shock” is clearly feigned, inasmuch as there’s a camera crew conveniently stationed in the living room.

It’s just that — big yawn — the public doesn’t seem to care.

When “Man’s” manly Grylls appeared on David Letterman’s show recently, the latenight host asked about the staging allegations but — despite joking about how domesticated horses that Grylls rode in one episode were “ex-wild horses” — went out of his way to apologize for him.

“You weren’t deliberately misleading people,” Letterman said, with that world-weary “Why do I have to talk to people like this?” shrug he specifically reserves for reality-TV participants.

“They do plan stuff,” Grylls conceded.

Yep, they plan stuff — often in a manner that skews reality in ways even casual observers will easily recognize. Yet the audience has become so accustomed to suspending disbelief that occasionally pulling back the curtain to reveal the wizard pulling levers does little to break the spell.

Although it’s easy to assume things were always thus, that overlooks the genre’s brief history. “The Truman Show” made its debut in theaters a decade ago, but “Survivor” and “Big Brother” didn’t hit the U.S. until 2000, and back then, second-guessing the pitfalls and corner-cutting in such fare became a rather big deal.

The various scandals comically peaked in 2001, when UPN and Paramount were charged with scripting sequences for “Manhunt,” a competition show. Although the action took place in Hawaii, the crew reassembled the cast to shoot scenes fleshing out the drama in the less tropical environs of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

At various times, there was talk of investigations, or whether networks violated rules established during the quizshow scandals of the 1950s. Ultimately, such talk went nowhere.

Some newspapers, meanwhile, wrestled with using the term “reality,” though unwieldy alternatives such as “staged unscripted programming” didn’t stick. (In the U.K. they’re broadly labeled “non-fiction,” though even that’s imprecise, as writers that have worked on reality shows will attest.)

Given the amount of stagecraft involved, future disclosures are inevitable. Tearing down and poking at stars and established franchises — a firmament that reality has joined, for better or worse — has become a favorite spectator sport in today’s tabloid-tinted culture.

From that perspective, a whiff of controversy merely spices the stew, especially after it’s been kept warm through five or six cycles. Besides, we live in the age of media deconstruction, where audiences want to know how the sausage gets made. And just as their bigscreen heroes are computer-generated, so what if TV’s version of “reality” is shaped with a glass blower’s care?

In terms of missteps or misdeeds choking reality’s golden goose, though, that ship has long since sailed. So as long as the audience doesn’t give a damn, get mom ready for her closeup, because she’s about to receive an “unexpected” call.

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