The most popular unscripted series on cable right now is MTV’s The Hills, which is watched by between three and four million people every week. Now in its third season, this spin-off from Laguna Beach follows the real lives of Lauren Conrad and her friends in Los Angeles.
Or not. This fall, a series of revelations about the show seemed to confirm what cynics have always claimed: the show is fake. Two cast members, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, were photographed by paparazzi at LAX. Spencer dropped Heidi off as cameras for the MTV series filmed. Shortly thereafter, wearing different shirts, Heidi and Spencer reunited in front of MTV’s cameras, and were captured by tabloid photographers. In other words, Spencer dropped Heidi off at the airport for a pretend trip, and then they pretended they were thrilled to see each other soon after when Heidi pretended to return from her pretend trip. An MTV spokesperson dismissed this fakery by telling the New York Post, ‘It was a pickup shot that in no way affected the story line. This is no different from any other reality show.’
Most damningly, a man who went on a date with Hills star Lauren Conrad revealed to VH1′s Best Week Ever that he was cast for the part, and that most of what we saw on TV was heavily orchestrated by producers. Gavin Beasley met and talked with another cast member at a house he said was rented just for the scene, and ate food paid for by the show’s producers. His co-star in that scene, Brody Jenner, even told someone who tried to talk to him, ‘We’re trying to film a scene here. Do you mind?’
Yes, actual reality interfered with fake reality, and irritated a reality star.
The most troubling part about all of this is how popular the show remains, despite these revelations. (Ed: compare that to recent events in the UK.) But at the same time, while viewers and bloggers dissect and ridicule the show for being, on some level, fake, they’re also responding to who they perceive are real people. Fans don’t express unadulterated hatred for Spencer and Heidi because of the characters they might play on the show, fans hate them because they think Spencer and Heidi are really how they appear on TV in real life.
Perhaps they are; perhaps their behavior is one aspect of The Hills that’s not contrived. Then again, E! Online’s Kristin Dos Santos reported that producers were searching for cast members for Heidi and Spencer’s wedding – and wedding party.
Still, viewers talk about Lauren and her friends and enemies as if they were their own friends and enemies, and viewers and the media interact with them in a way that’s impossible for fictional characters who cease to exist off-set. Us Weekly, People, Access Hollywood and the like don’t obsess over The Hills cast because they’re contrived, but because they’re real people putting their real lives on display, on- and off-camera.
Adding cameras and producers to lives is inevitably going to cause some disruption in reality, never mind what happens in post-production, when hundreds of hours have to be condensed into watchable episodes. But there’s a clear line between setting up a camera and filming what happens, and controlling what happens while filming. The latter should never be acceptable in unscripted television. That’s why scripted, fictional TV exists – to have complete creative control over everything.
At press time, the writers’ strike was just beginning, and if it continues for more than a short while – the last one, in 1988, lasted for 22 weeks – networks will be pressuring non-fiction producers for more and more unscripted content. With The Hills extreme popularity, the easy, reflexive response might be to just pump out a bunch of contrived reality series stocked with cheap, young actors. Instead of searching for real people with fascinating lives to film, just cast them. Instead of waiting for drama to erupt, force it. If that happens, the results will be highly unfortunate and damaging to an industry that exists to chronicle human experience, telling real stories in creative and engaging ways.
Despite the depressing popularity of The Hills, it’s worth remembering that shows that actually chronicle reality can also pull large numbers. The first season of The History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers, for example, concluded with the network’s biggest audience ever: 4.8 million viewers. Those truckers might not make the cover of tabloid magazines, but they do get big ratings, and they allow unscripted television to retain its credibility.