Thursday, September 1, 2011

ETHICAL REALITY! (ACT UP, FIGHT BACK!)  Our Friend Linda Holmes -- herself a former attorney -- proposes a code of ethics for reality tv producers to avoid the more exploitative aspects of the genre.  Much of it is common sense for the health of the participants -- reducing alcohol, increasing sleep, providing access to mental health professionals when needed -- but what I want to focus on are her suggestions for reducing the manipulative nature of the shows as edited:

Damage to reputation. Shows agree that their producers will participate once every three years in voting on the appointment of a three-person dispute resolution panel made up of individuals who are not employed in the production of television. Any participant who is required to sign a contract releasing a show from liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress or false light invasion of privacy has the right to bring complaints to that panel. Shows agree to provide up to three hours of raw footage requested by the complaining participant to the panel. If the panel concludes that the show materially misrepresented the participant's actions or character in a way that tends to substantially damage his or her reputation, the panel may require the show to make available online up to 30 minutes of raw footage that remedies the misrepresentation.
To me, that's not enough. What's the point of placing raw footage online which the broadcaster is under no obligation to publicize? Instead, go further: shows should pledge to faithfully and accurately represent the world being filmed, to not air events out of sequence, attach unrelated commentary, or otherwise juxtapose events and images as to misrepresent the experience being filmed. "Reality" should be reality. Heck, why not go further and require a visual timestamp of all footage used to verify the absence of such manipulation?

The problem, of course, is that this makes for less dramatic, less entertaining television. We wouldn't have Joe Millionaire's infamous "slurp slurp gulp" or all sorts of suspiciously well-timed reactions and commentaries from participants. Shows like The Bachelor might collapse if they could not longer hide the ball as to the suitor's known intentions. And to be fair, the reality shows I watch are the competition shows; I don't watch the Housewives/Shore/"celebreality" stuff which requires contrivance and manipulation for its very existence. For those shows, I wonder if more attentiveness on the mental health side is the best for which we can hope.

The great promise of reality tv at its start -- The Real World, early Survivor, even Big Brother -- was that we were watching ordinary people "being real" in unusual situations, not playing to the cameras or being played by them. It'd be nice to take a few steps back in that direction.


  1. Meghan9:35 AM

    I've said it before and I'll apparently say it again--you see it play out on The Real World.  After Season 3, MTV sort of drew back for the London cast.  That was, to my mind, the last time that MTV demonstrated recognition that intentionally exploiting personal dramas might be bad for participants.  By the time you got to Miami, Boston, Seattle, Hawaii, certainly Las Vegas, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion what types they were looking for and what the likely fallout would be.  But they seemed to have a conscience once.

  2. They let Ruthie drive drunk ... and then producers forced her into rehab.

  3. Carmichael Harold9:54 AM

    I think this is a very interesting area for discussion, but, unfortunately for me, it touches too close to my job for to feel comfortable taking part online. 

    I do wonder whether the reasons for implementing these ideas on TV would carry over to feature documentaries as well, as that's a form that uses a lot of similar techniques (with respect to the manipulative elements and editing).

  4. Anonymous10:31 AM

    For me, the very worst thing about watching Top Chef, etc., on Bravo is the interruption of the commercials, etc., for the Housewives shows.  I seriously doubt that anything could be done to those shows that would not make me want to run screaming from them.  And this comes from someone who does watch a fair amount of competitive reality TV.

  5. isaac_spaceman10:36 AM

    Carmichael Harold is psy-ops, I think.

  6. isaac_spaceman11:00 AM

    One would get more traction with a Reality TV Code of Conduct if it focused solely on safety and mental health issues and less on expolitation.  The ills of reality TV, for participants, probably can be separated into "things that are dangerous" and "things that suck."  For my money, the goal should be to prevent the dangerous things but to recognize that the things that suck are the cost that people incur to obtain the benefit that they expect to reap from the shows -- the fame and a chance at a bunch of money.  There is real value in some of the things that LH proposes, and I commend her for using her position and unique perspective to propose them, but I don't see any value in meddling in things like appearance fees or reputational harm or contractual requirements to appear for reunion/recap shows. 

  7. Meghan11:09 AM

    Right--they got their drama first though.

  8. Well, there are three tiers, really: explicit health/safety stuff, the ancillary economic exploitation issues, but also the emotional exploitation which can lead to mental health health issues down the line.  Yes, these folks are consciously trading dignity for fame, but the folks who are going to say yes aren't likely to be smart enough to understand just how much dignity and control they're ceding to producers.

  9. Whoops.  That "guest" is me.  Guess my laptop ate my logi-in.

  10. Benner11:46 AM

    I thought the hausfrau shows were competitive.

  11. isaac_spaceman2:19 PM

    <span>Where you draw the line on mental health issues is the hard question, sure.  But I'm pretty comfortable that that is a different question than protection of dignity.  And there is a practical issue, too, which is that you will never ever in a bajillion years get a reality TV producer agree to protect his or her subjects' dignity.  Or for that matter, to subject questions of accuracy-of-portrayal to an outside arbitrator or to agree not to show drunken behavior.  You'd have to be out of your mind to agree to that.  </span>

  12. Let's assume an infinite supply of people willing to abase themselves in order to appear on tv and gain mild fame.  Is there anything that can be done to protect them from exploitation beyond the health/safety stuff?

  13. Benner3:28 PM

    I feel that the "panel" should adjudicate such complaints by forcing producers and contestents alike to undergo degrading and humiliating tasks for our amusement.  Not to sound callous, but doesn't the specification of what legal claims the contestants are releasing pretty much tell them what to expect from the show, more so than the promises of the producers?  How about don't go on the show? 

    And why should "reality" be reality?  There's a market verdict at play here.  If people have to be told to care about other people's well being, then any "code of conduct" would just be a dead letter or would be followed to the minimum.  See above for the easy problem avoidance remedy.

  14. isaac_spaceman3:51 PM

    Why do we want to protect them from exploitation beyond the health/safety stuff?  THAT'S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR. 

  15. It's not a lot of money, and folks are ill-informed as to how much money might be out there for them down the road.

    And then there's stuff like Hoarders, which really does seem to prey on folks with real issues.

  16. Meghan4:10 PM

    Is there any benefit to highlighting the mental health issues that cause someone to hoard?  Yes, I can see how the show is exploitative but I can see argument for considering it informative as well.  Especially as after-care therapy is, in fact, provided.

  17. Becca4:25 PM

    I've never worked in reality TV, but I know a ton of people that have, and I feel like I can say, with some authority, that if these measures cost ANY money at all, they will be avoided at all costs (ha!). Many production companies that produce reality shows are already under the gun for seriously underpaying and overworking their employees, and refusing to be signatory to guilds and their pay structures and requirements for employees' health.

    It would take a SERIOUS outcry from the public to get these measures implemented.

    However, if we could drop the "reality" moniker entirely, and just admit that they're scripted, that might help. Unfortunately, that would back the production companies into a corner regarding guilds, so that won't happen.

  18. Not to be all Lochnerian, but to me, the biggest concern is making sure that the people who sign the contracts know what it is they're signing.  If someone wants to freely and voluntarily sign away the ability to sue, I think they should be able to, but the contract should be written in clear and plain English and explained to them exactly what they're signing up for. 

    I also remain more than a little sympathetic to the idea that if you don't want to be portrayed as a buffoon and you're on a reality show, don't behave like a buffoon, no matter how much the producers prod you to do so.

    Finally, yes, London is clearly the dividing line in Real World seasons, because it was so widely regarded as boring and because the people by that point had learned how to avoid the cameras and limit camera access.

  19. StvMg6:48 PM

    If I recall correctly, I remember watching an E True Hollywood Story or some sort of history of the Real World in which the producers admitted they switched gears after the London season because that particular cast created no drama. Either they got along too well, were too well adjusted or too boring (or some combination of all three).

  20. Linda Holmes7:01 PM

    Hey, Isaac. All the things you cite are in there specifically for health and safety reasons, not necessarily exploitation reasons.

    The reason I included a piece about not having to appear in reunion shows has nothing to do with financial exploitation. (At one point, I was going to explain why all these pieces were in here, but the piece would have been even longer.) It has to do with the fact that I believe it's more mentally healthy for people to be free to leave at the end and return to their lives without having to keep one toe in it. It has nothing to do with being ... whatever, slave labor.

    The thing about increasing appearance fees for subsequent seasons is the same. That's in there SOLELY because I honestly believe it's much more damaging for people when they're maximizing their personality disorders to try to stay on TV for as long as possible. I tend to believe that the shows that do the least harm are the ones, like Survivor, where for the most part, you're in and then you're out. I believe one of the reasons the Real Housewives shows are so bad is that it encourages people to muck up their personal lives to stay on TV. So the idea was to make it more expensive to bring people back and back and back, and less expensive to let those people go and keep everyone's exposure relatively minimal. Make sense?

    And the parts about manipulation -- hey, I totally see Adam's point. I like Adam's provision better, of course. But I'm trying to think of something that might be REMOTELY plausible (even though I agree my provision is also not very plausible), and I think it's more likely they'd agree to let people who are hugely upset (again, a potential emotional distress issue) provide some raw-footage context than it is that they'd agree not to manipulate. My reasoning was that having the raw footage online hasn't hurt Big Brother -- why should it be such a big deal to provide it to other people who feel they've been treated unfairly?

    Hi, I'm a complete nerd.

  21. Linda Holmes7:04 PM

    I agree with you, Matt. I think the plain language requirement would be a stellar addition. And honestly, one of the reasons I included the whole panel-appeal thing is that I honestly believe very few people would use it if they knew the remedy would be raw footage, which -- in my personal opinion -- usually makes people look WORSE, not better. There's a bit of, um ... diabolical stuff going on in that choice of remedy, y'see.

  22. Marsha7:34 PM

    Yes, but you're absolutely our kind of nerd. And I mean that in the best possible way.

  23. Anonymous12:15 AM

    And that is Dr. Drew's reasoning behind Celebrity Rehab, he has admitted that it is not at all the best case scenario for recovery for the celebs BUT if it causes one person watching it to get help for their own addiction (and hopefully many more than one) than that is a tradeoff he is willing to accept.  

  24. Heather K12:16 AM

    That guest is me (posting from the fiancee's computer).

  25. isaac_spaceman3:04 PM

    Thanks, Linda, who I still have trouble not calling Miss Alli.  But if you want to prevent people from coming back to extend their fame, why not just prevent them from coming back?  I don't know whether wanting to be on TV forever is evidence of a personality disorder.  I think of Spencer Pratt as a dick, not as a person with a real disability.  But even if it's evidence of a disability, I don't really understand why you propose to tie marginal increases in exploitation to increases in marginal compensation.  It would seem like that's backward from the mental health perspective, since what you would want to deter is the initial exploitation.  

    Incidentally, and this is really kind of off-topic, it's interesting that you use Survivor as your example of a show that does the least harm, because the most egregious example of contractually forcing somebody to come back out of exploitation -- the one example that made me almost agree with you that it was a mental health instead of a fairness issue -- was when Survivor made the first person voted out (Deb?) come back for the reunion in Season 2, and she was in tears about the way she had been treated over her personal circumstances.  I believe her words were "it ruined my life." 

    Anyway, I was really hoping you would have something to say about Helen Mirren as Ennis Del Mar.