In the world of reality television, a best practice for one producer might be a murky gray area for another.
During the Realscreen Summit’s closing session, three producers and three network executives grappled with the “The ‘Constructed’ Conundrum” – or when it’s acceptable for a reality TV producer to stir the pot for the sake of creating the type of conflict or emotional pay-off that, in some cases, can rocket an unknown series into the cultural zeitgeist.
What’s been called fakery on reality television is a hotly-debated topic that tends to make headlines, the latest being generated by a lawsuit filed by former Storage Wars cast member David Hester against A&E and Original Productions alleging that the show is rigged – allegations that A&E has called an attempt to create “tabloid-worthy drama” in its response. Still, unscripted producers and TV execs can tend to shy away from discussing the ‘constructed’ question on the record.
Panelists willing to debate the topic at this year’s Realscreen Summit were LMNO Productions president and CEO Eric Schotz, Collins Avenue founder Jeff Collins, All3Media International format exec Ruth Wrigley, National Geographic Channel president Howard T. Owens, Style Network SVP of original programming and development Sarah Weidman, and CMT SVP of development Joe Livecchi.
In a conversation moderated by NHNZ executive producer Phil Fairclough, the execs recounted the stories behind memorable moments from reality series such as Lifetime’s Dance Moms, OWN’s Golden Sisters, National Geographic Channel’s Diggers and Hutterites, The Style Network’s Jerseylicious and ITV’s The Only Way Is Essex and discussed the various ways in which producers can potentially impact the on-screen action.
While all of the panelists agreed that forcing a character to do something flagrantly fake or out-of-line with their nature for the sake of the show is bad, the degree to which an episode’s story arc can be convincingly constructed or guided by producers depends on viewers’ willingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of being entertained, a factor that varies from show to show and network to network.
All panelists admitted that some of their shows use elements of construction, and a few bristled at the use of the word “deception” but no one supported the idea of flat-out fabrication.
But, as Fairclough asked, even if they did fake it, would it matter?
“I think it’s like wrestling and wrestling is not real,” Schotz said. “It’s entertainment.”
“I don’t think the networks ask producers to do things that they don’t want to do,” added Collins, whose credits include the Lifetime hit Dance Moms. “I call constructed ‘good producing.’”
Owens concurred. “Are you willing to deceive your audience? We’re not. Yet we’re producing television. We’re having fun with the form.”
All3Media’s Wrigley, whose docu-soap The Only Way Is Essex is preceded by a disclaimer that some situations on the series are staged, went further, maintaining that the characters essentially “play themselves” on her show, which is shot more as a full-fledged soap opera than as a gritty reality series, and the audience willingly buys into it. “We’re honest about it.”
Livecchi noted that interview segments on morning shows, late night chat shows and syndicated daytime talk shows are often constructed but those programs are not scrutinized in the same manner as reality TV.
“I don’t think anyone on this panel wants to deceive anyone,” he said. “What’s offensive to me is putting on a boring show.”
To ensure a show does not bore its audience requires different approaches. Producers on CMT’s Bayou Billionaires will construct scenarios, like when producers arranged for a character to live out his dream of being a TV weather forecaster, but Livecchi insisted that a similar tactic would not fly on the sort of unscripted series the network is prepping with Dog the Bounty Hunter.
“The audience expects it to be real,” he said.
One clip presented to the room featured a now-infamous argument from Dance Moms that went viral when the show premiered in July 2011. The episode featured an explosive argument between dance school owner Abby Miller and the mother of a student she had kicked out of a class for wearing socks in contravention of school rules.
After Fairclough played the clip, Collins explained that when his producers became aware that Miller was giving the tot her walking papers, they rang up the girl’s mother, “Minister Dawn,” to tell her what happened, knowing that she was, as Collins put it, “a big character.” They asked her if she wanted to come to the school to confront Miller and she said yes. She arrived, signed a release form agreeing to be filmed and charged into the school.
The rest of the drama played out without any interference from the production crew. “If we asked them to do it [over] again, it would not have felt authentic,” Collins said. As it stood, the individuals were captured on tape authentically reacting to the situation.
Owens discussed similarly approached scenarios on National Geographic Channel series Hutterites and Diggers. However, he faces a different challenge in producing entertaining storylines because although the channel is moving away from one-off documentaries toward reality, it still employs an in-house standards and practices division that rigorously fact-checks all programs.
For example, it is acceptable for producers on the National Geographic Channel series Diggers to ask the lead characters to hunt for buried treasures in specific locations, such as Gettysburg, but it is not cool for producers to plant items in the ground for the characters to find.
After showing a clip from the show in which the characters freak out after discovering a vintage penny worth somewhere under $10, Owens quipped: “If I was going to plant something, it wouldn’t be a penny worth four bucks. Give me more creative credit then that!”
“I don’t think this is controversial in the least,” he added.
The incentive for producers to plant objects was made clear by Schotz, who produced 27 episodes of a similar series, Meteorite Men, for Science: “I could’ve done 100 [episodes] if I planted the rocks.”
Style Network’s Weidman posited that foresight in the casting process is essential so that when a character raves about “sweet nectar of juice” after discovering a practically worthless rock or gets into a table-flipping argument with another character, the reaction will lead to a big emotional pay-off or quotable one-liners.
“You look for people who have strong opinions, quirky personalities and who will not filter themselves,” she said. “You couldn’t dream up most of the things people say on television.”
In the end, the panel was split on the necessity of having the ‘constructed’ conversation in the first place. Some felt that the issue was “overthought,” while others said it needs to be discussed to ensure producers do not go too far down the road and spark a backlash that could impact everyone.
“It is an issue,” said Schotz. “There are different kinds of reality. Some of it is highly constructed and some of it is documentary. Reality is the only genre where we throw everything into the same pot.”