Reality TV is Fake, Producers are Puppeteers, and the “Talent” Makes So Little That They All Need Second Jobs
“I do have a job and yes, I spend money on Vicki! @vgunvalson #editedrealitytvisnotreal” – Brooks Ayers (@BrooksAyers), April 25, 2013, Twitter
“Hard to prove anything to fans that don’t realize that this is for entertainment only! #editedrealitytvnotreal” – Brooks Ayers (@BrooksAyers), April 27, 2013, Twitter
In her book, Reality Bites Back, Jennifer Prozner delves into the world of reality TV and gives insight into producer manipulation.
A former Bachelor producer on the condition of anonymity told Prozner:
In the private one-on-one interviews with a producer (like me) it is the producer’s job to get the sh*t talking started, like “tell me honestly what you think of Sally” – if the interviewee does not respond in a catty way then the producer will usually go to the next level, like “well I personally think she is a self absorbed, attention starved skank,” and then see if the person will take the bait… it is easy to start seeding conversations and gossip. Also, if the conversations linger too long on favorite movies and stuff, the producers will step in and say, “ok, we all know we signed up for a TV show – so if you don’t start talking about something more topical, then you can’t have the sushi you requested tonight.” The smart cast members start to realize that you can be bartered. Like, “I will give you a good one-on-one interview about Sally, IF you let me listen to my iPod for the rest of the day.”
Prozner says that Bravo’s The Real Housewives series teaches us that women are catty, bitchy, manipulative, and not to be trusted, especially by other women.
The cast are frenemies: enemies vying for the same prize. Producers get cast members to turn on each other based on off-camera misinformation, manipulation, and a false economy where trash talk is a participant’s only way… children are selectively edited to appear bratty with their parents and catty with competitors.
Producers ensure that women dutifully perform their bitch-tastic roles by egging them on with techniques that would make psyops intelligence officers proud. They conspire together like high school Mean Girls. They mouth off in hateful, bleep-filled ‘confessionals’. Lifestyle series (like The Real Housewives) manipulate us in the opposite direction.
Some of Prozner’s best points about reality TV and Bravo’s The Real Housewives series, in particular, include the following:
1. Catfights are among the main viewership draws and the primary promotional tactic of The Real Housewives series
Thrown together as cameras trail their semi-scripted – yet supposedly authentic – lives, they are rude and unkind. They betray their so-called friends’ trust… The Housewives make fun of one another (Orange County), flirt with each other’s men (Atlanta), and reveal embarrassing scandalous secrets about members of their social circle (New Jersey).
According to Tamra Barney in one her Bravo blogs:
“Anytime you put a bunch of ladies together who are not necessarily friends, there is going to be some drama.”
In Atlanta, one cast mate (DeShawn Snow) who wouldn’t perform diva antics on cue was canned … she was the only original cast member not asked to return to Atlanta’s second season because Bravo considered her too dignified. A producer “said I was ‘too human for a circus show’ and that because the show did so well, they are about to pump up the drama and they didn’t think that I would fit in.” During RHOA’s entire first season, viewers never learned about original cast member DeShawn Snow’s postgraduate divinity studies. Why? Because filming a competent, intelligent African America woman pursuing a master’s degree would have broken producers’ preferred narrative: that Black women (and their wealthy white lady friends) are gossipy idiots.
NeNe Leakes told Jet magazine:
“None of us are friends. Friends don’t do what we have done to each other on the show. You have not seen one of us get the other one’s back. If you did see somebody get somebody’s back, the next week they were talking about them… We are all clearly associates.”
2. Women who truly dislike one another are portrayed as ‘real life’ friends [except in the case of RHONJ, who are real family and were real friends]
In NJ [where we have real friends and family pitted against each other by Bravo], we get “low-class” tantrums, in which Italian American women accuse each other of prostitution, kidnapping and drug dealing while flipping over banquet tables.
[The trips that the cast mates take together on RHs are designed to] isolate them and encourage alcohol consumption and wild behavior; and angry outbursts are stoked and edited.
3. Reality TV producers are puppeteers
Producers craft dialogue they can feed to cast in a pinch or pop into scenes after the series has stopped filming. They coach cast to deliver monologues on specific topics… And if there aren’t enough sparks, editors “take something black and make it white,” as reality editor Jeff Bartsch told Time. Bait-and-switch is par for the course. “Footage has to be manipulated cleverly and often, so it’s really in my job description to know where all the bodies are buried,” a Top Model producer says. “If the show is done well, you wouldn’t even know my job exists because it would just feel like watching people do stuff.”
What reality fan doesn’t assume that the Real Housewives show up where and when producers instruct? When eight women in bikinis in an Australian hot spring simultaneously shave their legs with Skintimate Gel on Outback Jac, we realize that’s staged. Yet most of us remain unaware of practices like Frankenbiting. Even fewer understand that pretty much every part of a reality show is manipulated to support producers’ chosen narrative.
4. Quotes are manufactured, crushes and feuds constructed out of whole cloth, episodes planned in multi-act storyboards before taping, scenes stitched together from footage shot days [or months] apart
“We shoot 100% of the time and air 1% of what we shot,” then edit “the really good stuff” to suit their purposes, an anonymous Bachelor producer told NPR. “We have even gone as far as to ‘frankenbite,’ where you take somebody saying, ‘of course I’d like to say that I love him’ and cutting the bite together to say ‘of course I love him’… [It’s] misleading to the viewer and unfair to the cast member, but they sign up for this.” [Time]
5. Cast members are molded into predetermined stock characters such as the weeper, the bitch, etc.
Casting is the single most important ingredient in the success of any reality show – truth is, producers seeks out people they believe will behave in hypersensitive, bizarre or stereotypical ways (those proven to verbal outbursts, physical aggression or addiction are desired). People who are overly emotional and mentally unstable offer more potential for conflict.
6. Standards for reality casting are very low
Standards for entry into reality casts are so low because background checks aren’t intended to ensure contestants’ safety. Instead, they’re conducted primarily to absolve producers and networks of legal liability. In fact, casting directors often seek out participants who are prone to violence—including alcoholics, drug addicts, and emotionally unstable people—the better to ensure fights, tears, and that oh-so-important ‘drama’. One anonymous producer admitted as much to Entertainment Weekly:
“The fact is, those shows work only because of the irresponsible casting. If you force people to cast upstanding citizens without criminal records, you’re not going to get the same show.”
In the world of reality TV, women are not concerned with politics, law, athletics, activism or even careers in general (unless their competing for the supermodel/starlet/rock star jobs that populate 10-year-old’s daydreams). Instead, reality TV producers have collaborated to paint America women as romantically desperate, matrimonially obsessed, and hyper-traditionalist in their views about the proper role of wives and mothers, husbands and fathers.
7. Violence is used as promotional devices and as a ploy for ratings
When acts of physical abuse make it to the screen, they’re not treated as seriously inappropriate—they’re simply a promotional device. Reality shows trivialize abuse of women as a ploy for ratings… as a cheap ploy to induce those all-important tears they promise to deliver each episode.
8. Companies hawk products through embedded advertising and product shilling
The primary purpose of contemporary television is not to entertain, engage, or inform us. Today, the driving factor for all corporate media production is to turn tidy profits for the tiny handful of mega-merged corporations that own the vast majority of media outlets and control the bulk of what we are given to watch, see, and hear on TV and radio, in movies, video games, and more. The suits in charge of deciding what shows, songs, films, and news programs we get to choose from care only about their companies’ bottom lines—and see their media products as virtually indistinguishable from sneakers, Snuggies, or any other doodad to be bought or sold.
In this climate, what viewers want will always take a back seat to what multinationals such as the Big Six media owners (Disney, News Corp., Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom, and CBS) can convince us to watch. TV shows live or die in today’s media market based not on pure-and-simple ratings, but on demographics (which viewers are watching, in relation to age, race, gender and income bracket, not just how many overall) and broader economic factors, including the cost to produce a program versus the amount of profit it generates.
The key to media profits is advertising, a $200 billion annual industry. In the last decade, TV companies’ ad revenue has come not only from traditional commercials between, but increasingly form product placements within, the content of our favorite shows. Embedded sponsorship has been a particular windfall for cable, which operates under a subscription model and is therefore seen as an ‘ad-free’ medium.
Media scholars Robert W. McChesney and John Bellamy Foster have noted that by 2003, 80 percent of U.S. ad spending was funneled through the eight largest advertising corporations, giving companies the ability to name their tune with corporate media firms more than willing to play ball. For example, during a series of top-level meetings held in 2000 by USA Network, major advertisers were invited to “tell the network what type of programming content they wanted.”
Reality TV’s racial typecasting, infantilizing fairytales, and hyperconsumerism—indeed, all the issues explored in Reality Bites Back—are a testament to what happens when advertisers expand the stories they tell from static print ads and thirty-second commercial breaks to feature-length programming. Using real people as their props, marketers have worked with producers to cultivate entire faux worlds based on sexist, racist ideologies. Worse, they have pretended the results are just reflecting—rather than attempting to shape—American life.
9. It’s not just advertisers who influence unscripted programming
In today’s multimerged media environment, TV networks, film studios, newspapers, and magazines are just a small sample of parent companies’ cross-holdings. Big Media corporations are also invested in industries such as travel and theme parks, insurance and financial services, sports teams and stadiums, medical technology, and aircraft, weapons, and nuclear manufacturing, to name just a few. In practical terms, this means that some reality TV content is crafted to serve the financial and ideological agendas of the owners of the networks airing the shows.
10. Marketing plays a mammoth role in generating the illusion of populist demand, an illusion of popularity bestowed upon them by corporate synergy
- TV/radio/billboard conglomerate—PR blitzkrieg
- Multiplatform media attention, public relations, and product integration
- The truth is, unscripted programming carries so little financial risk that networks now often prefer likely ratings flops over nurturing more-expensive scripted fare, regardless of viewers’ inclinations
- Embedded marketers prefer unscripted programming because its practices are allowed by networks to bypass FCC regulations for advertising
The truth is that reality TV music and modeling franchises function much like the sex industry. Like most sex workers, they get a tiny fraction of the cash their bodies generate, while their pimps—the media conglomerates and embedded sponsors—control the profits generated by their hydrations. The workers are undervalued and treated as interchangeable.
Few other issues pose as serious a threat to our notion of entertainment—and to our understanding of ourselves and of our society—as the increased commercialization of contemporary corporate media. Why should we care about product-hawking, stereotype-heavy reality TV, we wonder, when television in general has become so risk-free and hackneyed… network TV content has degenerated as quality has increasingly taken a back seat to media companies’ and sponsors’ quest for astronomical profits. Advertisers have already too much control over what we watch, hear and read. We should identify brand integration—and the reality genre that brought it back to TV—as a threatening progression of that structural problem… Through sheer repetition, reality shows are training us to shrug all this off as inevitable. Advertisers are banking on our apathy… Even writers of successful, widely respected series have been ordered to change story arcs to accommodate integrated sponsors, as NBC forced The Office to do for Staples, Sandals Resorts, HP, Apple, Cisco Systems, Gateway, and Hooters, among others. This is a major thorn in the side of the Writers Guild of America, which has filed comments with the FCC protesting the impediment product placement imposes on their jobs.
If such trends continue unabated, entertainment crafted around commercial messages could largely replace traditional narrative.
Media insiders say the future of scripted television is an immediate, interactive model in which viewers will be able to instantly purchase products they see on their favorite shows… a scrolling ticker a the bottom of every show.
One-look-fits all casting will worsen, as will the homogeneity and vapidity of storylines… Advertisers are seeking more direct control over media content than they had even in 1930s radio and 1950s TV… Advertiser-controlled content is more threatening today than at any prior point because of the sheer breadth and inescapable power of modern mediated landscape… Today it’s nearly impossible to tune out the commercials woven into not just reality TV shows, but also blockbuster films, music and talk-radio programs, magazine and newspaper ‘advertorials’.
By Lisa Bloom
May 26, 2012
Having represented a number of celebrities in reality shows publicly and privately, I am here to tell you the shocking truth: there is nothing reality-based about this genre.
Let’s start with the shows themselves, much more “show” than reality. As with sitcoms or dramas, there are takes, re-takes, re-re-takes, and so on. Eight hours to tape a half hour scene is not uncommon. Hair and makeup artists lurk in the background; producers “suggest” lines to the participants, telling them to be angrier, more excited, have bigger energy. “Talent” – as on air types are known in all television – are given plotlines to work through: catty, petty female spats, lies told to some but not other members of the cast, to create dramatic tension, props placed strategically to provoke emotions or arguments.
If you must watch these shows, at least, please, enjoy them as fictional as Days of Our Lives or Desperate Housewives. Don’t believe cameras are just “catching” real people living their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cameras and klieg lights and hair and makeup and producers and directors do not make for reality. If they were all in your living room, how authentic would you be?
If a reality star complains about any of this, they are referred to the lengthy (often 30, 50 or even 100 pages) contract, which binds them so thoroughly they can hardly sneeze without the express written permission of the network. For example, as an attorney I was shocked to see my clients had signed contracts barring them from ever suing for defamation, no matter how egregiously the show had manufactured a plot line making them look like liars, cheaters, even criminals. The shows get it both ways: they call the show “reality” to hook in viewers, yet absolve themselves of all legal liability even when they falsely destroy someone’s character.
And at least according to the contract, they can’t be sued for it.
(I told one network I couldn’t believe that would be enforceable. Could the show falsely come up with a story line that my client was a child molester, and there would be nothing she could do in response? I didn’t believe any court would stand for that.)
Nor can they even complain. Ironclad confidentiality provisions prevent the talent from talking to anyone about what goes on in the show. From the pages of legalese on this point, one would think reality stars are being given the codes for Fort Knox.
Hey, at least they’re making the big bucks, you say. So isn’t it worth it?
No. Other than the rare breakout star, reality “talent” make so little they all need second jobs. Ten or twenty thousand dollars a season – for, say, six months’ work – is typical. And the thing is, they’re all so replaceable. How many people can play themselves? Just about everyone. How many people can be drunk/obnoxious/loud? Hundreds of millions. So these types of reality stars are replaceable. Here today, gone tomorrow.
The production companies and networks profit, the “talent” often walk away disappointed, and we all get dumbed down from watching these shows.