Producers taking excessive liberties with the reality of reality shows
As a kid I owned a T-shirt with two vultures on it, and one saying to the other, “To hell with patience. I’m going to kill something.”The same scenario seems to be occurring with growing frequency in reality TV. Sure, you can wait around for something interesting to happen, but with so many shows, it’s easier — along with less time-consuming and expensive — to simply make something happen by staging or reenacting it. Even some longtime purveyors of the genre, as varied as it is, are expressing dismay over how blatant these practices have become. Not that anyone is eager to discuss them on the record, naturally — there are mortgages and kids to consider — but beyond ethical concerns, there’s fretting excessive unreality threatens to strangle the golden goose. What’s remarkable is that it hasn’t yet. Past revelations about reenacted scenes on programs like MTV’s “The Hills” did little to dim the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, paving the way for more blatant manipulation. Like anything else, repeated exposure tends to have a numbing effect, which requires more provocative moments to achieve any kind of thrill. At the same time, a proliferation of shows has strip-mined ideas and seemingly invited corner-cutting. Whatever the underlying cause, the Federal Communications Commission should consider forgetting about indecency and tackling the implications of bogus reality. After all, the government maintains guidelines for meat through the USDA. You can only put so much filler into it before losing that designation. If the FCC actually wants to place its stamp on programming in the name of safeguarding the public, here’s a pertinent question: How much BS should producers be able to put into a reality show and still earn the right to call it “reality?” Among those testing the boundaries, industry sources say, is TruTV, which features pretty obviously reenacted sequences in programs like “Operation Repo” and “Southern Fried Stings,” which look too carefully sculpted and stiffly “performed” to consistently pass the smell test. These series largely fly under the media’s radar, which is another by-product of the unscripted glut. The Time Warner network declined to make execs available, but a spokeswoman explained its policy thusly: “TruTV’s series feature real people and are based on real situations. Due to production needs, some scenes are reenacted.” Loosely translated, that means, “We try to be real unless it’s costly and inconvenient. Then all bets are off.” Reenactments are understandable in a documentary about Marie Antoinette, perhaps, since there was no video back then. In this context, it’s just a better-sounding way of saying “acting,” without paying the going rate or benefits afforded trained pros. If TruTV is among the more brazen practitioners, it’s hardly alone. Indeed, the reality genre has exhibited an almost Orwellian ability to bend language and describe shows in misleading terms that are often close to the opposite of what they say. Take “Leave it to Niecy,” which TLC incongruously bills as a “reality sitcom.” Then there’s the entire genre known as “celebreality” — usually just comedies or dramas staged on the cheap — or History referring to its popular “Pawn” shows as “artifactual.” For many of these programs, “anti-factual” would be more accurate. After initial nose-holding, the entertainment industry has embraced even the silliest forms of reality. In fact, the Hollywood Radio and Television Society will again pay tribute to “unscripted hit-makers” this week, with a panel that includes Kardashian “momager” Kris Jenner, who has turned her entire extended family into a profit-generating zoo exhibit. Admittedly, reality is often placed in showbiz’s crazy-uncle category — becoming occasional punch lines on “Saturday Night Live” or “The Colbert Report,” which last week riotously lampooned National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers,” a show featuring members of the hard-to-reach (and potentially even harder to maintain) survivalist demo. The laughs notwithstanding, there’s good cause for insiders to worry about the worst excesses triggering unforeseen consequences. From that perspective, the industry might be doing itself a favor by imposing minimal quality-control standards before somebody with more questionable motives gets the bright idea to try. There’s no outcry yet. But wouldn’t it be better to start cleaning up reality’s act (and reenacting) before the real buzzards start circling?
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more