Tuned In

Reality TV Is Faked? Are You Shocked? Do You Care?

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Today’s New York Post Page Six column blows the lid open on the verisimilitude of MTV reality hit The Hills. If there’s a lid to be blown open. From the piece:

[O]n Tuesday night, the star, Lauren Conrad, showed up at Da Silvano for dinner with three friends and a camera crew. One irked diner told us, “It was clear that this show is not a reality show. They took five takes of Lauren ordering dinner. The film crew took over the outside eating area by setting up lights and cameras everywhere.”

OK, first–setting up lights and cameras? That’s every reality show ever made, not to mention much hard TV news that doesn’t involve embedding with the troops. As for the five takes ordering dinner: OK. Did she eventually eat? Fine by me.

Maybe I’m a little flippant about the whole subject, especially for someone who once cowrote a feature on reality TV stretching the truth. In the article, Jeanne McDowell and I looked at the tricks of editing and other prestidigitation that go into reality shows, including The Hills’ precursor, Laguna Beach:

The first season of Laguna Beach, MTV’s reality series about rich teens in Orange County, Calif., centered on a love triangle among two girls (LC and Kristin) and a boy (Stephen). The problem, says a story editor who asked not to be named, was that the triangle didn’t exist. LC and Stephen, he says, were platonic friends, so the producers played Cupid through montage. LC “would say things about [Stephen] as a friend,” says the editor. “[LC] said, ‘I just love this guy.’ All you have to do is cut to a shot of the girl, and suddenly she’s jealous and grimacing.”

Tony DiSanto, executive producer of Laguna Beach, says the show’s story was “enhanced” but genuine. “Stephen and LC were friends, but in the raw footage, you could see an attraction,” he says. “Anytime you take anything into the editing room, you are enhancing it and editorializing. But we never make up something that hasn’t happened.”

The thing is, though, I loved Laguna Beach anyway. And knowing how LC may have ordered her dinner the other night isn’t going to keep me from watching The Hills, either. And I suspect I’m not different from many of its fans. As I wrote in that same 2006 feature:

It’s a harder case to make, though, that taking liberties is a crime against viewers, who widely accept that the shows use the term reality loosely. True, the shows sell themselves as more authentic than scripted programming. But in a recent TIME poll, only 30% of respondents believed that the shows largely reflect what really happened, and 25% of them believed that the programs are almost totally fabricated. More than half said accuracy was not a factor in their enjoyment of reality TV. Fans watch Laguna Beach, for instance, not for facts about LC, Kristin and Stephen’s lives but for a gorgeously shot, engrossing story of the envy, entanglements and casual cruelties of rich, hot teenagers. That view of reality TV may veer close to the James Frey “essential truth” defense, but, let’s face it, Blind Date does not have quite the same literary aspirations.

Now, reality-show participants can be, and have been, misrepresented and traduced by producers, and that’s a moral problem itself. But strictly as a viewer, I watch The Hills like I watch any teen drama–for narrative. Unless I were trying to decide whether to become friends with LC or to trust Heidi in real life–not much of a probability–the actual objective facts of their relationship don’t matter much to me.

Then again, I could never get worked up about the whole James Frey thing either. What say you?