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Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Time to Be Honest About 'Reality' Series

By BRIAN LOWRY


     This isn't normally the place to find official statements of policy, though, for the record, I feel strongly no movie should be remade more than once (how many versions of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau" do we need?) and the National Basketball Assn. should stop drafting teenagers out of high school.
     A new policy shift by The Times, however, requires a bit of explanation, and since I couldn't come up with anything especially pithy this week, I volunteered for the task. So here goes: After some internal huddling, the decision has been made to drop wholesale use of "reality" to cover the broad and growing list of television shows that have little to do with any dictionary definition of the term.
     Instead, what have come to be commonly called "reality" shows--franchises such as "Survivor," "Temptation Island" and "Big Brother," which place people in artificial settings or scenarios, taping, editing and musically scoring their interaction to enhance the entertainment and drama--will henceforth be referred to as "staged, unscripted" entertainment, series or events. If the producers' role is more limited--meaning no "immunity challenges" or goofy games--"unscripted" will suffice.
     Programs relying on video clips--such as "Cops" or "When Animals Attack," compiled after the fact unbeknownst to the (usually unlucky) participants--can still be dubbed "reality." The same designation loosely applies to variations involving hidden cameras, home video or news footage, from outtakes or bloopers to "Candid Camera" and "America's Funniest Home Videos."
     All of this material falls under the overarching heading of "alternative programming," representing an alternative to more conventional scripted sitcoms, dramas and movies--until, at least, such programs become so commonplace that sitcoms, dramas and movies become the alternative to them.
     Admittedly, such arbitrary exercises can be confounding. Some have labeled the trend "voyeur TV," which is true to a point, though one can argue these programs have more to do with exhibitionism--people willing to do anything to be on television--than voyeurism, a fetish TV indulges in other genres as well.
     Even the august Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recently wrestled with this dilemma in its effort to establish new Emmy Award categories governing such fare and found itself pinned to the mat.
     Seeking to mollify some of its members, the academy established awards for "outstanding nonfiction programming." The two honors were sorted by "reality," which "depicts people and/or events in dramatic circumstances with the primary intent to entertain (excluding all programs with game show, prize and/or contest elements)"; and "special class," which lacks that parenthetical proscription and thus includes "Survivor" and its ilk.
     The academy deserves credit for separating these programs from magazine-style and documentary series already awkwardly grouped under the "informational" banner, which encompasses everything from "Entertainment Tonight" to HBO's "G-String Divas."
     The problem, unfortunately, is the term "nonfiction" doesn't quite cut it, since there is plenty of fiction to be found all over staged, unscripted shows.
     Just consider the various cast members from Fox's "Temptation Island"--including the couple booted off for violating the rules because they have a child together--revealing themselves to be wannabe actors, even though the program uses other occupations to identify them.
     The couple with the child, Taheed Watson and Ytossie Patterson, both described themselves as actors in a recent magazine article, as did the twosome of Billy Cleary and Mandy Lauderdale--the latter, having appeared in the movie "Road Trip," steered by her casting agent to take part.
     On the program and Fox's Web site, Patterson--an actress-model who has served as a stand-in for Holly Robinson Peete on the WB network series "For Your Love"--is listed as an "executive administrator." Watson--who recently performed on the syndicated series "Arrest & Trial"--is called a production assistant. Cleary is a "manager of an outdoor sports center" and Lauderdale a "singer-waitress."
     Can viewers trust situations in these programs, or are they merely a public audition for aspiring actors--in essence people jockeying for air time to further their careers?
     Beyond questions about the contestants, there have been allegations about producers manipulating games, including "Big Brother's" apparent breaches of its own arcane rules and a recent lawsuit filed by Stacey Stillman--a castaway on the first "Survivor"--contending that producer Mark Burnett hastened her ouster.
     According to Stillman's complaint, Burnett met privately with two contestants and influenced their decision to banish her from the show while she was "being interviewed . . . at Burnett's insistence" by the writer assembling the authorized "Survivor" companion book.
     CBS and Burnett staunchly deny those charges, and one contestant has stated the producer simply told players to "vote their conscience." Yet even a casual slip or misunderstanding risks compromising a show's integrity and claim to being "real," either by swaying the outcome or merely fostering the appearance of impropriety.
     Finally, hours of footage can be edited in ways that bend reality--an accusation leveled by some "Big Brother" cast members after their experience. Jordan, for example, the stripper-triathlete, noted in a first-person account how "the editors reduced my three-hour discussion with Josh down to a few juicy images and a sound bite of me murmuring seven seductive words--'My sex drive is out of control.' "
     If characterizing these programs as staged, unscripted entertainment seems like a trifle as well as unwieldy, this is more than idle nit-picking. To paraphrase comic George Carlin (something I feel compelled to do almost daily), the words one chooses do convey meaning and value--one reason, Carlin mused, why Raid would find it difficult to market a feminine hygiene product.
     Blithely calling these programs "reality," then, not only ill serves viewers but also the TV industry, which by affixing that tag to the merchandise exposes itself to charges of misleading the audience or minimally playing fast and loose with the truth.
     So why not stipulate that this is entertainment, show biz, the stuff dreams are made of? Because as it stands, about the only undeniable reality one can ascribe to unscripted shows is once you've been voted off the island or out of the house, now comes audition time.
* * *
     Brian Lowry's column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at brian.lowry@latimes.com.



Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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