Jennifer Pozner in conversation: On the fakeness of reality shows, how ‘the dumb bimbo’ is cast, and why actresses are shrinking
by Anne Kingston
Jennifer Pozner is the director of Women In Media & News in New York City and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.
Q: Why do you say it’s “bulls–t” that viewer demand has created the deluge of reality TV?
A: Michael Hirschorn, the brain trust behind VH1’s Flavor of Love and Flavor of Love: Charm School and basically the guy who is responsible for bringing the modern minstrel show to television, has said in an interview that – this is the quote, “If women don’t want those shows they wouldn’t get made,” That’s what I call bulls–t, because what reality producers and what the entertainment press sells us is this notion that we, the public, have just demanded via massive ratings that they give us this bottom-feeder low-quality reality TV fare, and this is just a big lie. It’s true that some reality shows—American Idol, The Bachelor—have gotten high ratings, but many others languish with paltry ratings and they get to stay [on air] because these shows are really cheap to produce. It can cost about 50 per cent less—sometimes even 75 per cent less—to make a reality show than to make a quality scripted program.
Q: And they can also get advertisers to pay big money for stealth product placement.
A: People think that product placement is just a Coke can or a Coke cup on the desk at American Idol. But advertisers can pay millions of dollars per episode to integrate their products into the casting choices, the plot development, the dialogue, the scenery, the “challenges” of shows. Take The Apprentice, which has gotten upwards of $2 million per episode from a variety of Fortune 500 type companies to integrate into the challenges, so every episode is basically one long infomercial for Sony and Chrysler and candy bars and cars and sneakers. Some seasons The Apprentice has done very well in the ratings, and other seasons it’s done so poorly that NBC cancelled it. But then they hired a new entertainment division president, Ben Silverman, and he happened to be a former reality TV producer. He was one of the people responsible for producing a show called The Restaurant. NBC paid not one dime to create that show, it was created by a reality TV production company that works with advertisers to create content that advertisers want people to see, and then they gave that show, for free, to NBC. So NBC didn’t invest anything; they were just able to sell commercials. So Ben Silverman gets to NBC, realizes that The Apprentice was a cash cow even though the ratings had plummeted, reversed the decision to cancel The Apprentice, and then turned it into The Celebrity Apprentice, sprinkled D-list fairy dust on it and brought it back. Was it because people, the public, really wanted that show? No, it was plummeting in the ratings every single season since it debuted. Now it’s back because Silverman, a reality TV stealth advertising fan, decided that it was too cheap and too lucrative to let go.
Q: Do most people understand that what they’re watching is completely manufactured?
A: If you ask most people, “Do you think reality TV is real?” they’ll say, “Oh, no, no, I know it’s fake”—but in the next breath they’ll say, “Oh, but that bitch needed to get eliminated,” or, “Oh, but that guy was such a douchebag.” Well, if you think you know anything about any of the people you’ve seen on reality shows, you don’t know that the shows are not real. These shows aren’t any more real than Mad Men, without the cool clothes. But Mad Men, at least, is intentionally scripted to have a running critical commentary about the sexism and racism of the ’50s and early ’60s within the advertising industry.
Q: You argue that we need to readjust our definition of “scripted.”
A: Scripting doesn’t happen in the traditional sense of actors being given a 30-page manifesto to memorize. It starts with casting. Producers find people with addiction problems or anger problems, and think, “This will make great TV.” Women who are Mensa members or high achievers tend not to be cast. Women who are either sincerely “looking for their Prince Charming” or sincerely feeling down on their luck do. After casting, they then edit people into stock characters: the dumb bimbo, the catty bitch, the weepy loser who says, “I’m going to die alone if the bachelor doesn’t choose me!” For women of colour those stock characters are even more extreme. Editing is the predominant way that scripting happens. People don’t understand that for every 45 minutes of The Bachelor they see, more than 100 hours of film have been shot.
Q: You write about “Frankenbites,” the industry term for splicing various conversations together to create a fraudulent new one.
A: One of the most controversial scenes on any reality show was in Joe Millionaire. Viewers watched about five minutes of trees in the dark, nothingness. But what you heard were things like, “Do you think it would go better lying down?” And there were captions like “slurp” and “mmm.” Those bits of conversation were from an entirely different day. I’ll give you another example. One of the only Asian women who’d ever appeared on The Bachelor was a medical student named Tina Wu. She was recruited by the producers because the bachelor that year was a doctor, so they thought, “Oh, it would be good to have one person, at least, who has his medical stuff in common.” She hadn’t seen the show before, she thought, “Oh, maybe it’ll be a chance to have some fun vacation.” Well, she goes on the show, and she blogged about it in great, great detail—but she ripped that show to shreds. She talked about the psychologists they have behind the scenes who do all these intake interviews, so they knew that she had a very troubled relationship with her family, in particular her father. She hated being on the show, she said that it was filthy, there were rats running around the mansion, that there was very little food and constant alcohol. And she didn’t like the guy; she thought he was kind of boring. She would say on camera that she thought he didn’t really have a good since of humour, because at one point they’re out an a date where there’s big, huge yacht and he says something like, “Welcome to my yacht,” and she laughs about it because she knows that he can’t possibly afford that. She’s like, “Oh, you mean this is your yacht?” in this very kind of ha-ha way, calling attention to the product placement. Then they edit that to make her seem like she’s a dumb-ass and she really believes that this is, you know, “This is your yacht!”
She was edited into the girl who was too closed off, who wouldn’t open up, and that became the thing he would always say to her and other women would always say, “Why aren’t you opening up? You’re too cold.” So at one point she says to the producers on camera: “I’m not opening up because I’m not really interested in him, but being on this show, agreeing to do this show, was the thing I regret most in my life.”
Well, eventually, way, way, way longer into the show than she would have preferred, she eventually gets eliminated. When she finally got eliminated it was about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, she said, and she was grinning ear to ear, she was happy to go home. That didn’t play well with producers, and they kept saying to her, “We need you to cry,” and she wasn’t interested in crying, she wasn’t heart-broken. And they told her: “If you don’t show some real emotion here you’re just going to be edited into being, you know, the cold bitch.” And she was happy; she was going home, she didn’t want to cry. So they poke at her and poke at her and poke at her, and she’s still not giving them the tears that they want, so finally… now, imagine you’ve been up since, like, 7:00 in the morning, you’ve been in this high-pressure environment all day, and the producer is saying to you, “Don’t you think your father would be disappointed in you?” or things about your family. That’s where she cried. She felt betrayed that they would exploit her personal back story that way. And so what we saw as viewers was after she gets eliminated we hear her say, “I didn’t open up to the bachelor. This was the biggest regret of my life,” and then she cries. That’s a frankenbite.
Q: Have any contestants taken producers to task for misappropriating what they’ve said?
A: They sign away their rights to do so. In these very draconian contracts it says: “We can make a fiction out of you and we most likely will.” It says that in legal language but that’s basically the long and short of it. Not only do people sign away their rights to speak to the press negatively about the shows, they sign away their rights to own the intellectual property of things they create on shows like Project Runway or on American Idol, they sign away their rights to sue if they get injured or even killed on these shows. What these contracts do is they cause a chilling effect, because most people who show up on reality TV shows do so because they are hoping for some sort of big pay-day to change their life, right, so they’re not going to be people who have the kinds of resources to go up against Goliath, so they just don’t say all of the things that have seen happen behind the scenes. You know, they’ll maybe critique, “Oh, I didn’t like the way I was edited on the show,” to Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide, but they won’t say, “Here exactly is how they manipulate reality so that what you’re seeing is absolutely not real.”
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