On Monday, Michael Thot spoke to Cracked's Robert Evans about his experiences seven years ago participating in the CBS reality show Kid Nation, in which a group of 40 kids cobbled together an Old West-style society (under adult supervision). It should come as little surprise to those used to articles about how a reality show operates, but Thot recalled anecdote after anecdote about producer manipulation over the course of the season. None of it was directly forced, but producers can, will, and did make some very blatant suggestions and made sure participants were placed as often as possible in situations that fit the character roles the producers wanted them to play. All 40 of the kids swore, for example, but only one, the designated villain, was shown on air actually doing so.
At the end of the season, in which Thot and three others comprised a committee to decide what three participants each got $50,000 prizes, the rules stated that they could award the prizes to themselves, but this option was never even discussed... except by the producers, who needled them and needled them about it. The aim was to get them to at least bring it up so that the footage of that part of the discussion could be run into the ground and make them all look like jackasses who threw the entire town under the bus. The kids, knowing exactly what the producers were trying to do, refused to give them the satisfaction.
I did not watch Kid Nation. It did not last past the one season. But even assuming that it had, and that I had been watching the entire time, I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be watching anymore after learning of this.
I really don't think I ask that much from the reality shows I watch. As long as I don't believe the premise of a show to be inherently immoral or famewhorish, I'm more or less down for whatever ridiculous premise you want to subject people to. Is it realistic? No, of course not. But that's not how I define the term. The reality in reality TV, to me, is not the setting. The reality is supposed to be 'how do the participants really react to this situation they've been placed in'. Do to them what you will. In fact, manipulate how you will. If you even want to make your manipulation part of the show, that's fine. But what I want is the honest, authentic reaction to whatever it is you do. I do not want to be lied to about what I'm watching. You want to play the devil on the left shoulder and 'suggest' that participants do something? Fine (unless it's a competition and you're trying to manipulate their game-related behavior, then not fine). But then you need to show that to me, and then you need to show me how they react to your manipulations. I want what is shown to me to be, as much as humanly possible, an honest portrayal of what actually happened. Don't hide this stuff. For all you know, I might be cool with it.
Though there is a logical limit. If you're looking for everything to be only as spontaneous and unpredictable as you script it, as it was for this unfortunate soul who never got past pilot stage, just get a damn script and actual actors and make a scripted show. There's a Writers Guild and a Screen Actors Guild that do that kind of thing for a living. Call them sometime.
The number 1 way to get me to abandon a reality show is to have me learn, later on, that you've fundamentally lied to me about what you've shown me. This is how, you will recall, I abandoned Hell's Kitchen not too long ago. Even if I had made my peace with some rather obvious heavy editing, there were other fundamental elements- the sous chefs actively sabotaging the contestants, most notably- that were not forgivable. I migrated to Cutthroat Kitchen, which also actively sabotages, but is open and honest in how they do it. This is not the first time I've left a show for being dishonest.
*I left Man Vs. Wild once it came out that Bear Grylls had been staying in a hotel overnight on several different occasions. The part where survival scenarios had been contrived within the larger scenario by producers was icing on the cake. Discovery Channel was open about this in future episodes. Too late.
*I left Storage Wars after a disgruntled Dave Hester- who was quickly fired from the show- accused the show of seeding lockers using personal items from the buyers, for which they'd be paid a rental fee once they inevitably got them back. (The lawsuit was later thrown out, but in a way that rendered Hester's accusations moot and failed to actually answer it.)
*I could take Pawn Stars' shop getting popular to the point where the main crew hung in the back most of the day and came out mostly to take pictures and handle the televised transactions. I could handle them not showing pawns anymore. But when they started casting for customers ... welp, time for me to go.
I'm not the only one to adhere to this behavior. A simple look at the ratings will show that many reality shows have a short shelf life. For a time, a show is the toast of television, as people tune in en masse to see a certain reality show, only to walk away later after they've seen one too many things staged for the cameras or the participants become too unlike their original selves, in the worst cases acting out in the hopes of simply getting another reality show to be on later.
I know shows can be honest about this kind of thing. I know they're capable of it. Part of the reason the first season of Survivor was so popular, and
remains so iconic, is that the participants were not those kind of
people. They had no idea what they were getting into, and in a sense
neither did the producers. They were all, in their own way, just hanging
on for the ride. What happened is, to an acceptable degree, what
happened. Even after reality shows dialed in and knew what they were doing, the Mythbusters have remained regular people doing the best scientific work they can (though they've had to have more than one fight with the producers to keep it that way). I gushed about Strip Search partially because of how open everyone, editor included, was about what actually went down (and the contestants usually confirming the authenticity).
The reason the Strip Search contestants could be so open, though, is that their non-disclosure agreements expired immediately upon an episode's airing. If something was not accurately depicted, they could immediately say so. I think that, in the future, one may want to look at the length of a show's NDA in order to get an idea of how honest it's likely to be. If a show's NDA expires on airdate, that's fine. That's nothing to be concerned about. They're just trying to avoid spoilers. If it extends past airdate, though, it may be time to start asking questions of them that the participants legally cannot. If the NDA extends for several years past the show's airdate, it's really time to ask questions, because the show is very likely ripe to hide details that we won't learn about until several seasons in, after they've made a bunch of money already.
I know it's a little extra work to find that out, but an hour or two digging is better than handing over years of your life to a show only to end up feeling betrayed by it. Again.