How Reality TV Fakes It

Phony quotes, bogus crushes, enhanced villains: the makers of unscripted TV spill its secrets

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Those devices, producers emphasize, can be used not just to deceive but also to tell a story clearly, entertainingly and quickly. News producers, documentarians--and, yes, magazine writers--selectively edit raw material and get accused of cherry-picking facts and quotes. But on an entertainment show the pressure to deliver drama is high, and the standards of acceptable fudging are shadier. 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."

If reality participants think the enhancement amounts to a lie, they have little recourse, since they usually sign a thick stack of waivers. On The Amazing Race last year, Jonathan Baker savagely berated his wife Victoria Fuller and alienated fellow contestants and service workers around the globe. But Baker says his villainy was trumped up in the editing room. One episode showed him appearing to be kicked out of a cab after browbeating the driver. Really, Baker says, the driver had an accident and couldn't continue. "I got the worst rap of anyone in reality television ever," Baker says. CBS spokesman Chris Ender replies that the fender bender was not bad enough to disable the cab. "Although Jonathan may have had softer moments," he says, "what was captured on film during the broadcasts accurately represents his behavior."

That's a nice way of saying Baker did plenty of obnoxious things that couldn't be made up--pushing his wife on camera, for instance, during a tense moment. Which raises the question, Is dramatic editing wrong if it captures the essence of the moment? Reality producers say they often have to shuffle footage to tell a story concisely or make a babbling interviewee coherent. "We're using things said at different times, put together to imply a statement or observation that may not have been succinctly demonstrated," says J. Ryan Stradal, who was a story editor on The Bachelorette. "That's where Frankenbiting may come in." Or producers may withhold information--such as downplaying a budding romance--to create suspense.

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