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Cheating? Sure. But viewers want suspense. The problem is that makers of reality TV have the power to imply or outright fabricate things about real people who have to carry their fake reputations into their real lives. Sarah Kozer, a contestant on the Fox dating show Joe Millionaire, says producers doctored a scene in which she went for a walk behind some trees with the show's bachelor, Evan Marriott, to make it seem as if they had oral sex. The producers added sound effects and captions, she says, and dubbed in a line--"It's better if we're lying down"--that she had said earlier in the day in a different context. "It couldn't have been more misrepresented and fictional if it had been completely scripted," she says. (Fox declined to respond.)
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.
And what about contestants? Once Frankenbitten, twice shy? Kozer feels badly used by Fox, but Baker says he would do Amazing Race again, albeit more self-consciously. Likewise, says perhaps the biggest reality villain ever, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth of The Apprentice, who says the show demonized her. "When I was a good girl, there were no cameras on," she says. "The minute I started arguing, there was a camera shooting me from every angle." She was vilified by viewers across the country. But she has since gone on to do Fear Factor and to play host to Style Network's Oscar coverage. "I was on track to become the biggest bore in history," she says. "Being on the show changed my path." Reality TV's Dr. Frankensteins have tremendous power indeed. And sometimes it pays to be the monster.