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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Reality Check

Audiences can't seem to get enough of reality TV, but the real people inside it have mixed opinions.

By Mark Kendall

As a contestant on The Bachelor, Anindita Dutta ’96 gave “Reality TV” a little more reality than anyone expected.

Friends thought she was crazy to go on a show where 25 women vie for one guy. But Dutta, a Manhattan attorney at the time, says she wasn’t really looking for love. She wanted to stay true to herself, have some fun and perhaps send a message. After sending in her video and passing her interviews, Dutta was sequestered in a mansion with the other contestants—cameras and microphones everywhere. Then Dutta went on her first group “date” with banker Aaron Buerge and quickly realized she wasn’t interested in him romantically.

Each episode culminates with “The Rose Ceremony,” where the bachelor hands out roses to the women he wants to keep in the competition. Before Buerge announced his choices, Dutta spoke up and, in a nice way, dumped the guy.

This was a first for the show. Under the glare of so many cameras in this intense-if-artificial situation, Dutta found it quite intimidating to break from the format. “I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’’ says Dutta, whose move created a minor media stir when the episode aired in October 2002 during The Bachelor’s second season.

Don’t expect viewers to follow Dutta’s lead and dump reality TV.

The public seems to be settling into a surprisingly long-term relationship with this programming genre. The tube overflows with reality programs ranging from American Idol to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to Wife Swap. Reality TV not only fills primetime network slots, but also countless hours on cable channels such as Discovery and Bravo.

To some, these programs are just a twist on game shows that have been around since television’s early days. Others point to PBS, of all places, as the birthplace of reality TV. The 1973 PBS documentary series, An American Family, drew millions of viewers to the unfolding true story of the Louds, a middle-class clan with a gay son and parents set to divorce. Pomona Media Studies Professor Jennifer Friedlander notes that our current conception of reality TV emerged with the 1992 debut of MTV’s The Real World. That show records the antics and angst of young strangers thrown together in a house and is now in its 15th season. The arrival of Survivor in 2000 turned reality TV into a cultural phenomenon.

Scripted television had become predictable for viewers, says Susan Levison ’96, an executive with the Fox Broadcasting Co. Then reality TV came along with fascinating characters such as Richard Hatch, the winner on the first Survivor. “Human nature is so unpredictable,” she says. “That’s what drew people to it. You never knew what to expect.”

Levison was working in Fox’s alternative programming division when Survivor took off, and she and others scrambled to come up with reality hits for Fox. She worked on Temptation Island and The Simple Life before moving over to Fox’s drama division.

With reality TV, Levison says, an idea can be turned into an actual show more quickly. And the right idea can quickly become part of the zeitgeist.

Known simply as “unscripted series” in the industry, the reality genre is tough to define, mixing elements of traditional game shows, hidden-camera comedies and documentaries.
Bry Thomas Sanders ’91 believes the term reality TV is a misnomer. “Reality shows are game shows,” he says. “They’re not reality. Things are very carefully controlled, and there are rules for the way people interact.”

He should know. Sanders has worked on numerous reality shows, including For Love or Money and The Next Great Champ. He currently is director of photography on the NBC reality hit The Biggest Loser, in which overweight contestants compete to lose pounds and vie for the title of said program.

Sanders says reality TV appeals to a carnival freak-show mentality, allowing viewers—from the safety of their couch—to watch someone else suffer. “People really like to see people get into trouble,” he says.

He has qualms about the quality of most reality shows. But he feels relatively good about his latest gig. He likes the honesty of the show in that, instead of quick fixes, contestants have to work off the extra pounds through diet and exercise. And the contestants are primarily battling against themselves instead of each other.

Sanders points out that in most reality shows, however, conflict between the characters is key, just as in a scripted comedy or drama. “If all these shows were about people sitting around a house getting along, nobody would tune in,” Sanders says.

While contestants aren’t told what to say, Sanders reports, they are oftentimes maneuvered into situations that maximize the chances for interesting things to happen. “In many ways it’s like a big, bizarre psychological experiment.” he says.

He also notes that the “reality” experience might not be as glamorous and freewheeling as contestants might expect. “Their lives are rigorously controlled,” he says. “Their every move is watched.” Some contestants aren’t thrilled with the cameras’ constant gaze, but “they pretty much learn to live with it,” he says. “There’s no other option.”

Dutta spent less than two weeks on the set of The Bachelor. But even so, the constant presence of cameras had an impact on her. When she returned to real life, “I kept on looking in corners and thinking I was being taped,” says Dutta, who now works in Southern California for a company that prepares law students for the bar exam.

Even as they become more aware of how reality TV really works, viewers don’t seem to be giving up on the genre. In fact, evaluating just how “real” the shows are just provides another excuse to watch them. “It gives you a way of watching it without having to admit you’re taking it seriously,” says Friedlander. “It kind of has a built-in alibi.”

Reality TV is here to stay for the time being. Sure, the number of shows may level off, but “I don’t believe it’s going to go away anytime soon,’’ says Sanders.

Dutta’s viewing habits illustrate reality TV’s powerful attraction. Dutta says she doesn’t watch a lot of TV right now, but she does try to catch The Apprentice. She admits watching the premiere of The Bachelorette, as well as The Surreal Life.

“We like to watch other people’s pain,” says Dutta. “We like to watch other people make fools of themselves. You sit there and it’s just painful but you can’t stop yourself from watching it.”

SIDEBAR: Realitv TV doesn't just draw TV viewers; the field has pulled in Pomona alumni in sometimes surprising ways.

The Cameraman

Bry Thomas Sanders ’91 works behind the “fourth wall.” That’s what camera crews call the invisible barrier between themselves and the contestants on the show. The two unbreakable rules are: Don’t interact with the contestants and never stop shooting.

“We’re really supposed to be like ghosts,” says Sanders, who works as director of photography on NBC’s The Biggest Loser. “We’re there to observe, not interact.”

Shooting a reality show presents numerous challenges. With as many as 13 cameras rolling at a time to catch every potentially interesting moment, it’s a challenge to maintain quality and avoid goofs such as shooting other crews. And, unlike scripted drama, you never get a second chance.“If you miss a reaction, a particular moment or confrontation, that’s it. It’s gone,” he says.

Sanders has been in the entertainment business for a decade, but in the last few years more and more of his time has gone to reality shows. “It’s definitely where much of the work is,” he says.

He enjoys the challenges and camaraderie that accompany spending 12-hour plus days with cast and crew. “We often joke about (how) somebody should do a reality show about working on a reality TV program. Then we groan and change the subject. We don’t want to give anybody any ideas.”

The musician

Reality TV provided a big break to Jonathan Miller, Pomona’s electronic music technician, who has created the music for shows such as Discovery Channel’s Big!

The bigwigs at Big! offered him the gig a year ago. Though he had done some TV music work before, this was the first time his name rolled in the credits.

Each episode of Big! featured a team of experts racing to create giant, working versions of objects such as blenders, guitars and electric shavers. Then the crew put the objects to use—the shaver, for example, was used to trim citrus trees. This crazy concept led to many musical opportunities for Miller.

“Coming up with music for a giant shaver that’s trimming an orange grove is about as bizarre as it gets,” says Miller, who wound up using a dense, 1950’s European orchestral sound.
For the giant toaster episode, Miller went with a cheesy Leave it to Beaver kind of tune. A southern-fried, Lynyrd Skynyrd-style sound fit just right for the episode in which the team built a huge motorcycle.

After Big! finished its run, Miller was quickly enlisted to create music for Boom,
a reality show on the male-oriented Spike TV network that revolved around blowing
stuff up.

Reality TV shows depend heavily on music to create different moods. Big! had music going for about 35 of its 42 minutes. For comparison, the legal drama The Practice, which Miller used to work on, used about 20 minutes of music.

Composing all that music for Big! required 80 hours of work per episode, and Miller had to finish the jobs on a very short time frame—sometimes in only a week.

He likens each episode to taking a final exam in a really hard class and cranking out a 30-page paper on top of that. “It’s like boot camp for composition,” says Miller.

The Lawyer

Attorney Philip Kelly ’95 of the Los Angeles-area law firm of Irell & Manella spends at least a third of his time on issues involving reality TV.

With their stunts, surprises and hidden cameras, reality shows present plenty of potential legal issues that need to be headed off. Releases signed by contestants have to be worded correctly. Crew members sometimes need to get consent forms signed by members of the public caught on camera during filming. Show producers even need to avoid running afoul of wiretap and eavesdropping laws.

Copyright infringement is another hot topic. Some high-profile lawsuits have been filed with one party accusing the other of swiping their concept for a reality show. However, Kelly says that copyright protections traditionally apply to the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. “A lot of people have similar ideas,” he says.

Kelly started off working on other areas of entertainment law, but his work involving reality TV took off over the last three to four years as the genre grew. “It’s a new type of show with all sorts of new and interesting legal issues,” Kelly says. “Not all of them have been (worked) out yet.”

His work ranges from helping to word releases signed by contestants to vetting show concepts in advance, explaining the potential legal pitfalls. “I see a lot of ideas that don’t make it on the air,” he says.

He enjoys watching shows such as The Apprentice and Survivor. “I’m actually a huge reality TV fan in some respects,” he says. “I just think it’s cool to be working on something I actually get to go home and watch on TV.”

His familiarity with the inner working of the genre doesn’t ruin the entertainment experience for him. “In some ways, I enjoy the viewing more having seen where things started,” he says.
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