How Reality TV Fakes It

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

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The heart, Woody Allen said, wants what it wants. For the producers of the ABC reality show The Dating Experiment, that was a problem. The heart of one of their female participants did not want what they needed it to want. She disliked one of her suitors, but it would make a better story if she liked him. So they sat her down for an interview. Who's your favorite celebrity? they asked. She replied that she really loved Adam Sandler. Later, in the editing room, they spliced out Sandler's name and dropped in audio of her saying the male contestant's name.

That's love, reality-style. This trick, says Todd Sharp, who was a program consultant on the series, is called Frankenbiting. And it happens more often than you may suspect. Frankenbites, he says, are the work of "desperate people who had to deliver a story in a few days"--producers under pressure to deliver a tidy story that's zippier than real reality.

Granted, in the pantheon of shocking headlines, REALITY SHOWS MANIPULATED ranks with PORK RINDS FATTENING, RESEARCHERS SUSPECT. But even savvy viewers who realize that their favorite reality shows are cast, contrived and edited to be dramatic may have no idea how brazen the fudging can be. Quotes are manufactured, crushes and feuds constructed out of whole cloth, episodes planned in multiact "storyboards" before taping, scenes stitched together out of footage shot days apart.

And while we may have long suspected that a cast of camera-smitten future trivia answers can't really be that interesting without professional help, details of how these shows manipulate reality have begun leaking out--because of a dispute with the employees hired to do the jiggering. Those staff members--who create story lines, coach interview answers and cobble together video--say their work amounts to writing, and they are suing their networks and production companies, arguing that they deserve to be covered by the Writers Guild of America.

Their employers call them story editors, segment producers and so forth and don't recognize them as union employees. Those designations save money--Guild members have better pay, benefits and protections. But they also preserve an illusion: that the shows are authentic and true to life, free of anything close to "writing."

It's not that the shows have line-for-line scripts (although reality writers have charged that Paris Hilton was fed lines on The Simple Life). But Jeff Bartsch, a freelance reality-show editor, says there are many ways of using footage to shape a story. Bartsch worked on Blind Date, a syndicated dating show that features hookups gone right--and comically wrong. If a date was dull or lukewarm, the editors would juice the footage by running scenes out of order or out of context. To make it seem like a man was bored, they would cut from his date talking to a shot of him looking around and unresponsive--even though it was taken while she was in the restroom and he was alone. "You can really take something black and make it white," Bartsch says. (NBC Universal Television, the studio that makes Blind Date, had no comment.)

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