David Manning Trivial Liars of the Month for August 2004
Are there really people out there who believe that so-called "reality shows" are spontaneous, as in "real life"? The producers of the shows appear to think so, because they go to great lengths to avoid mentioning that these shows actually have writers. One of those great lengths they go to, a pleasant one for them, is not paying their writers the going rate, which is what has sparked a conflict with the writers union, the Writers Guild of America.
"We look at reality TV, which is billed as unscripted, and we know it is scripted," a recent Washington Post report quotes Daniel Petrie Jr. as saying. Petrie is the president of the Writers Guild of America-West, which represents 9,000 writers working in Hollywood film and television. "We understand that shows don't want to call the writers writers because they want to maintain the illusion that it is reality, that stuff just happens."
"Maintaining an illusion" is often called "fraud," "misrepresentation," or "lying through your teeth." In the 1950s, for example, network quiz shows liked to maintain the illusion that contestants actually could answer ridiculously difficult questions, so they rigged the results. The supposed appeal of reality shows is that audiences feel like they are watching real people responding to interesting situations that are really happening, not scripted stories. Thus the producers refuse to credit the writers and editors who work out story lines, give participants jokes and catchy phrases, and coach the supposedly "unrehearsed" comments that many shows use for narration. The Post interviewed one TV executive who conceded that reality show producers definitely do not want to see a "written by" credit on their shows. "It is important that people think it's real," she said.
Is it? I'm not so sure. In the 1950s (clearly a great decade for artifice), Disney produced extremely popular features called "true life adventures," like "The Living Desert" and "Jungle Cat." Audiences were amazed at the intimate photography and the seamless stories that followed the lives of, say, two jaguar cubs in the Amazon. It all seemed awfully real, but writers were listed in the movie credits; later, there was a mini-scandal when it was revealed that the film-makers actually staged life-and-death battles between the jaguars and crocodiles, and didn't just wait around for a rattlesnake to stumble over a desert tarantula: they put the two together and rolled the cameras. Well, of course they did. Sure, we pretended it was all just raw, unrehearsed nature, but most audience members over the age of 12 knew something was up. (How did the narrator know the names of the two jungle cats, anyway? And who named them?)
Millions of otherwise intelligent people watch professional wrestling, after all (okay, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt here), and it's the ultimate phony reality show…clearly scripted and rehearsed, horribly acted, and completely pointless. Still, they suspend their disbelief and get emotionally involved. Millions of people care passionately about soap opera characters as if they were real people, and the programs begin by announcing for all to see that the characters are all played by actors.
Pretending that reality shows aren't scripted and manipulated to make them suspenseful and entertaining is the ultimate trivial lie, because it is unnecessary. Much of the audience knows the truth, and the dimmer ones who don't are unlikely to care. Hollywood Squares, one of the longest running game shows of all time, has for decades included a statement admitting that many of the "stars'" hilarious answers to the questions were scripted beforehand, and that they were often told the correct answers as well. Nobody cares.
The Post story strongly hints that the real reason the reality show producers don't list writers is to save money and exploit young talent: if they aren't called writers, they don't have to be paid like writers. This motive is genuinely despicable, and the writers' unions should be cheered on in their efforts to make the producers pay up: cheating workers out of fair wages is certainly not trivial.
"Maintaining the illusion," however, is. Using deception to pretend that reality shows "just happen" and are not carefully worked out by entertainment professionals who develop character, conflicts and plot lines is insulting, not to mention unethical. The producers obviously have little respect for anyone who would watch their own product.