After producing television magazine programs and documentaries for 14 years in Los Angeles, I closed my production company to begin doctoral studies. One year later, Survivor debuted. As the "reality television" fad snowballed, I became curious about the ethical principles producers apply when they create "reality" television.
I decided to examine "reality" game and dating shows for two reasons. First, as a former producer of non-fiction programs, I was intrigued by this new generation of programs that fall at the "fiction" end of a fact/fiction continuum for viewers.1 And second, several of my former employees have been working on these shows, providing a cooperative and candid, even if non-random sample of reality television production personnel. I interviewed four producers at various levels of reality television production-an executive producer (who represents the company producing the show), a field producer (directs the on-location tapings), a supervising producer (oversees the formation of storylines), and a story editor (works with the actual tape editor to shape segments of the show).2 They were not working on the same reality show when interviewed, so the picture formed here is a composite, and not representative of a specific show.
My questions were framed by the same ethical concerns that Annette Hill suggests are important in reality television: First, that non-professional actors be treated in a fair and responsible manner, and second, that program makers present the stories of ordinary people and their experiences in an ethical manner.3
Failing to treat non-professional actors fairly can have serious consequences, especially for psychologically unsuited participants. In 1997 the first contestant banished from Expedition Robinson-the Swedish inspiration for Survivor-threw himself under a train. Richard Levak, a consulting psychologist working for Survivor, has compared the producers of some reality shows to the psychologists who ran the Stanford Prison Experiment in the early '70s. He believes that many reality TV shows would not be allowed to take place if they were overseen by the same Human Subjects Committees that guard volunteers' rights in psychological experiments.4
This was a priority, however, for the executive producer that I interviewed. An important part of his job was to prepare participants for what will happen to them, as well as to help them decompress if they are voted off the show. Furthermore, he claimed he makes it very clear to his employees that cast members should be accurately portrayed, both in taping and editing. Then perhaps acceptable ethics were being applied to the non-professional cast? When I talked with production personnel below the executive producer level, I heard a different story.
The supervising producer and the story editor I interviewed both claimed that ethical direction had never been given to them by their executive producers. Rather, they were directed to "Create entertaining stories." According to the supervising producer, this direction comes from the networks. Specifically, network representatives insist that reality shows be "cast" with characters that, when put together, will create conflict. This leads to compelling drama, they reason, and the resulting drama should deliver the escape and entertainment that viewers seek.
A former cast member from MTV's Real World told the Washington Post, "I was upset about how they portrayed me. The only thing they went after was sex. When I complained, the producers told me, 'Well, everything else was boring.'" 5 And some ex-reality show participants reported to The New York Times that producers made alcohol freely available during the tapings on several different shows, significantly affecting their behavior. To add validity to this claim, one executive producer confessed that producers of his reality show have to cut a lot of footage with slurred speech. But he said, "It just wouldn't be real if we didn't let them have (alcohol)."6
It appears that the "create entertainment" directives from the networks carry messages that contribute to show producers' ethical behavior. For example, since "conflict" is a network requirement, producers accordingly cast their shows with a volatile mix of characters. But if the casting doesn't produce the desired conflict and drama, producers know they may have to manipulate the conditions under which the cast members perform. Producers can vary the tasks and games required of show participants to build friction or, as earlier noted, they can be divulged to the press, or they can simply open the bar during tapings.
Also, producers can always heighten drama during the editing process. This "cheating footage," according to the story editor, is necessary because cast members don't always demonstrate on camera how they really feel. They can, however, usually verbalize their feelings when interviewed one-on-one by producers. So producers can manufacture scenes out of surveillance footage to visually portray the feelings discussed in the interviews. While this seems to be an ethical stretch, the producers I talked with defended their actions as necessary to tell "the whole story" when their coverage of a story element is lacking.
One of the tools used for "cheating footage" is an editing technique termed the "Franken bite." Production jargon for "Frankenstein bite," all the producers I interviewed acknowledged they used it. To them, this practice is acceptable if it depicts the character's point of view. A female cast member from Joe Millionaire claimed in the press that she was victimized by this technique. Through the creative editing of her words-which were taken from the many different days on which she was taped, and then cut into a single scene-she claims the show suggested she performed oral sex on the "millionaire."7 The field producer I interviewed was actually present during this taping and confirmed that the event did not happen as shown. Therefore, the suggestive scene was created in editing.
My interviews suggest that ethical standards to protect non-professional cast members' psychological well-being are in place. But since producers are required to make a myriad of decisions during the production process, it is surprising they mostly operate without ethical direction from their superiors. The networks want entertainment on these programs, so the opportunity exists for an individual's ethical standards to be crowded out by pragmatic considerations for audience stimulation and successful ratings. The ultimate portrayal of cast members on a reality show appears to be left to the discretion of different production personnel going about their work to "Create interesting stories."
1 See Annette Hill's extensive analysis in Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. New York: Routledge, 2005, p 178.
2 The work of these reality TV producers includes shows like Big Brother, Amazing Race, The Family, Joe Millionaire, Brat Camp, and The Surreal Life.
3 See Hill, p. 108.
4 Levak, Richard. "The Dangerous Reality of Reality Television." Television Week, 2003 September 22: 14.
5 Farhi, Paul. "The Spin on 'Real World,'" Washington Post, 1999 Nov 4: C1.
6 Fletcher, Heather. "Drink Up. It's Not Like You Have Lines to Learn." The New York Times. 2006 Oct 29, late ed., sec. 2: 32.
7 Olson, Lee. "Everything Old Is New," The Reality of Reality. Bravo television channel, Sept. 2003.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.10,19.