Legal Fictions

by: Eric M. Greenfield

Fear Factor

Contestant on Fear Factor

“Based on a true story.” “Inspired by actual events.” “The [insert name of real person here] story.” Well, maybe.

Networks love to market a telefilm’s roots in actual events and real people. A production can be more compelling when the audience believes that the story really took place. Never mind that the films often depart so far from the events that inspired them as to better be considered fiction. Verisimilitude is rarely a goal. Entertainment always is.

In fact, those who know the real facts behind a production typically have no interest in, or are contractually proscribed from, setting the record straight. The starting point of a production ostensibly “based on” someone’s real life is the contract with such person to tell his or her “life story.” The signatory to a “life story agreement” gives the producer unlimited control over the telling of the story without obligation to stick to the facts. S/he acknowledges that the story may be altered to the point of being “fictionalized.” S/he waives any right to sue as a result, even for defamation arising from the fictional aspects of the production. I have made many such deals over my 20-year career in Hollywood, and I always make sure that the person signing away life story rights understands the implications of doing so. The camera may never lie, but the screenwriters, directors, and editors behind them certainly do, for artifice is intrinsic to dramatization. Lawyers are there to be sure the studio, producers, and network suffer no consequence as a result.

Reality TV takes the “Based On a True Story” form and turns it up a notch. To eleven. The “Based on Actual Events” pronouncement becomes superfluous in connection with a scriptless show featuring “real” people as cast members. Perhaps, though, “Based on Actual Events” is just the kind of pronouncement that ought to come with Reality TV shows, but as a disclaimer.

Reality show drama is created by carefully selecting cast members from thousands of applicants to achieve a mix of ostensibly guy/gal-next-door contestants who will generate dramatic tension and interpersonal politics, then by teasing out storylines from hundreds of hours of footage. The result can be a funhouse mirror reflection of who these people really are and what really occurred. This process is supported by a legal structure in which cast members waive their right to complain about it.

The legal process begins at the beginning, with the casting of the shows. Applicants are put through a battery of physical and psychological tests. This isn’t merely to cull the herd or to discern who might work well on the show. Networks and the insurance companies that cover the shows want risks minimized to avoid lawsuits. These include obvious physical risks –Fear Factor’s producers, for example, don’t want a cast member with a hidden heart condition (even though it might make for dramatic television). It also includes psychological risk. Cast members often sign up to live in conditions meant to be psychologically trying. Such reality shows are often staffed with a clinical psychologist who offers on-set “after-care” counseling to eliminate cast members who are, after all, probably on the show for ego gratification more than anything else. But the real shock to their egos may come later when the show airs and the cast members face humiliation on national television.

In fact, the greatest likelihood of injury may be to a cast member’s reputation. A cast member may think the producers unfairly edited episodes to show her in a bad light. She may even be right. The art of reality TV comes in making editorial choices to shape a tense, dramatic narrative “reality” that may also be a distortion. Out of the endless hours of footage there may emerge a “you” that is such a one-sided view that it is hardly fair to call it “you” at all, just as the “reality” of the reality show isn’t really all that real, either. The law has a specific tort for this: it’s called “false light.” The producers may have buttressed this “false light” with scenes in which fellow cast members speak disparagingly of one another. Thus a villain emerges, fairly or not. The law has a name for that, too: defamation.

This is where the lawyers come in.

In addition to signing “assumption of risk” waivers covering every possible physical calamity from dismemberment to catching an STD, each cast member agrees to the kind of provisions that underpin biopics and other productions based on actual people. S/he waives the right to sue for being misrepresented, depicted in a “false light,” or being defamed. In effect, to appear on a reality show, you must acknowledge that you are like a character in the hands of a filmmaker working on a piece of narrative fiction.

Libel law does more than afford redress to individuals whose reputations have been unfairly tarnished. It imposes on the media a duty to adhere to the truth. In so doing, libel law engenders public confidence in reportage. The system is far from perfect and public confidence in the veracity of reporting can sometimes be misplaced. But were the public to believe that the media have been unshackled from these legal obligations, consumers would be far more skeptical of the information they receive, whether from broadcast news, print media, or what I like to call “fact-based entertainment.”

And yet it is the “fact-based” nature of Reality TV that makes it so entertaining.

For it to be so entertaining, Reality TV has to engender a new kind of suspension of disbelief, just as it suspends the law of defamation. The audience has to buy into the conceit that it is “real.” We are back to the conceit of “Based on a True Story” MOWs. Audience acceptance of the factual underpinnings of these productions changes how audiences read them. “Based on a True Story” productions alter audience pleasure by creating a false relationship between viewer and a story that becomes inherently believable. Reality TV productions alter audience pleasure by creating a false relationship between a cast the viewer perceives as consisting of “real” people responding spontaneously to the contrivances that serve as the shows’ plots. In effect, the “Based on a True Story” moniker and Reality TV both enhance viewer pleasure by relieving them of some of the need to suspend disbelief demanded by productions pitched as entirely fictional. Simply put, they make it easier for audiences to swallow.

Yet for these shows to air, the obligation to be truthful must be suspended. While producers are making an implicit contract with audiences regarding the essentially “real” nature of Reality TV, they need formal written contracts with those who appear on the programs freeing them from legal obligations to adhere to the truth. To assure that this illusion remains intact, the contracts include confidentiality provisions, too.

If a person doesn’t like the way s/he has been depicted in a movie, at least s/he can remind friends that the movie was a fictionalized dramatization. But when you appear as “yourself” on a reality show, how do you explain that it, too, was a sort of fiction? You can’t, because the “Based on a True Story” fiction has been cranked up to eleven. Audiences buy it, and by signing the contract granting “life story” rights, cast members have joined the conspiracy to create legal fictions.

Image Credits:
1. Contestant on Fear Factor

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54 comments

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  • Real Worlds

    Eric Greenfeld makes a great point about the work both producer and audience must do to suspend disbelief while producing/watching a fictional story, and how reality TV absolves both of this work. It’s important to recognize the gap between the black-and-white world of legalese and the gray world of audience reception. Audiences need to make a paradigm shift from believing that “facts are facts” to understanding that “facts+context = reality.” Our conception of “reality” is based on patterns of events. We infer meaning from the arrangement and repetition of facts (both of which are regularly manipulated in reality TV.) As audiences watch more “reality-based entertainment,” will they begin to realize this on their own, or will they need a reminder?

  • I used to be addicted..

    Watching an episode of The Apprentice last night, I rememberd this article…Well, now that I know about “Legal Fictions” it has really ruined reality tv for me, sort of. Let’s just all remember that at the core of it all is entertainment value. If “reality TV” were really reality tv, I’d rather be watching myself. Turning the notch “up to eleven” makes it desirable. If only audiences knew what they were really watching, we’d all miss the days of All in the Family and programs with scripts–and “reality tv” producers wouldn’t be able to milk this trend. Anyway, it’s about the relationship between fantasy and viewer’s ability to relate AND that little moment you think you can catch a glimpse of true reality! Here’s a difference between TV and the movies: not when you pay $10 you don’t want to see “reality”, at least for me; I want fantasy and big budget stuff like when I used to get blown away and idolized everything when I was little–back in the days.

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  • Samantha Taylor

    I think that remembering that ‘reality’ is not our reality, but the reality of the producers, who can essentially play god, is a hard thing to accomplish. We are so used to thinking we can trust what we are told, but the truth is we really can not trust anyone anymore. It’s a depressing idea, but truth is a hard thing to come by nowdays. To remember that when we bash a ‘trashy’ reality star is nearly impossible. It is so easy to get sucked into this producers reality, and so hard to remember it is not real. I think this article is very successful in reminding it’s reader to think about our actual reality and the reality of the alternative world of the producers. The idea of ‘based on a true story’ is a way to get the audience to let down the walls of mistrust, and producers are very good at it. But it is deceitful and wrong, rather we care to remember that or not.

  • “Reality” is not an image. images are non living representations of reality that when consumed as if they are real actually become part of reality (the klein bottle). As soon as you place a camera on someone they act different than they would if the camera was not there. Reality T.V. is just a moniker given to a program to catch the attention of the viewer. We all feel like we are the star of our own lives so reality T.V. plays right into each of our myopic views of reality as being based around are actions. We need to stop watching t.v. with the unconscious mind set that hails us to relate what we view on t.v. and through other mediums where media is consumed to ourselves. The problem is it is human nature. Why does traffic slow for a car accident on the side of the freeway? T.V. and media is what it is, we can change it because without us it would not exist.It reacts to us before we react to it. Our subconscious and conscious needs ,wants and fears that is the basis for the creation of content. The sooner we all end our passive consumption the sooner we can control the media. Passive consumption allows the media to control us by having us react to it.

  • It is important that no matter how villainous we as audience can sometimes assume the networks to be, it is truly up to us to believe or disbelieve what we are shown. The tag line “based on a true story” should never mean a thing to us. Who is verifying this if we don’t? It is our choice to even watch to begin with. If we then choose to accept what the screen projects because we assume it will never lie, then we have much more to fear than television. We will then, after missing an evening of television, begin to rely on such phrases as, “It’s true! I saw it on t.v.!” Such trusted sources as the History channel can then begin to sell “truth” in the form of Hitler’s Alien Technology shows, and viewers’ discussions on the topic the next day turn a bit of the fare into common sense. That, is our fault.

  • Jeff, it’s not so much that we need to disregard that tag line, but rather that we need to universally acknowledge its actual meaning. “Based on a true story” does not mean “is a true story.” It could be argued that almost every TV show and film is “based on a true story” to some degree. But those core stories are generally not what audiences want to see. Audiences love spectacle and drama, so for TV shows to be successful, they have to ramp up those elements. Success means money, and as we all know, the primary goal of TV shows is to make money…

    Reality shows have to trim down an entire week’s worth of events into roughly 40 minutes of footage. It is unfortunately inevitable that the participants’ personalities will be stripped down and made relatively black and white. It is this process that really turns them into characters and creates the “legal fiction” that Eric wrote about. The show’s producers and editors will want to look for the clips that tell the most interesting story, a story that involves the most interesting characters.

  • As an avid fan of reality television, I completely understand the fun of perceiving “real” people in a certainly fictionalized light. It is a strangely satisfying experience to believe that average humans can partake in the overdramatic world of reality television. However, it is critical to distance one’s pleasure and one’s critical thinking. Although it is enjoyable to believe in the “based on a true story” line, it is crucial for one to read beyond it and develop a critical stance towards the supposed entertainment they are viewing. In this case, the article suggests that hooks like “inspired by actual events” have an under analyzed layer to them. It is pushing the reader to challenge the ideology that is attempting to hail us and find the strength to resist the supposed concept of a “real” person who is actually being depicted in overtly false manners. I agree that it is important to resist those hooks we generally take for granted, to force ourselves to search for a deeper understanding of what that motto means, and to develop one’s own position on whether or not they are willing to simply allow that deeper understanding to block their enjoyment of any television show that employs such a technique.

  • I think the big question reality TV poses for viewers is; what is the difference between “real” and “reality”. For the majority of reality TV, it attempts to answer this question for the most part by saying that they are one in the same, discouraging viewers to differentiate between something as it is and how something appears to them through the experience of watching the show. I think why reality TV works so well as a mode of television is that it achieves an immediate verisimilitude with audiences. The little idiosyncratic qualities of the way people act that a fictionalized work can’t replicate have an immediate recognition with the audience and I think in many ways that feeds most people desire and enjoyment to watch other people interact. Yet, reality TV as a whole in a lot of ways attempts to cut out the banality of everyday living and in doing so constructs a sort of “hyper reality”. Such constructions I think enviably end up impacting modern consciousness and how we live our lives.

  • It’s interesting to think about the fact that these contestants on reality T.V shows sign their rights away, knowing of the full risk of humiliation and misrepresentation, but still go through with appearing on the show anyways for a chance at fame. Reality T.V has become a genre for non-professional actors to become stars, but when I think about it, actors on fictional T.V shows very often are directly associated the personality of their character, just like reality TV stars are. If you look on fan websites of hot T.V shows like Lost, Modern Family, or CSI, people critique or praise certain characters depending on what they do on the show. When fans think of the actors themselves, they cannot help but think about the choices that their character has made on the latest episode, and at times will directly ask the actor why they made those decisions. It is the same for reality TV stars. While they consciously sign their rights away to be portrayed in a certain way on a particular reality TV program, they have to accept that people will never be able to fully set their reality-TV star persona apart from who they actually are and will live the rest of their lives being questioned on the decisions they made on that show.

  • I think that ultimately it is the responsibility of the viewers to figure out their own reality in television. At the end of the day, we decide how logical or produced an episode can be, and how we want to digest that in relation to the real world. While reality television is shaped by society, it is also television that affects society. Television not only portrays aspects of the real world, but viewers absorb television and consciously or subconsciously bring it into their everyday reality. Television has become a tool that can push consumers to become attracted to particular lifestyles or products simply by labeling it as reality. It is the network’s responsibility to keep us entertained, interested, and informed, while it is our responsibilities as viewers to challenge ideas and concepts that may not be accurately portrayed. Producers bring forth isolated cases of particular people, and will never be able to set forth the reality of an entire group of people. It is up to the viewers to use or disregard this television information while formulating their own perceptions of the concepts displayed.

  • Ashley Mauricio

    As an occasional reality TV viewer I take what I see with a grain of salt. 99% of the time these people are told how to act and the editing on this show is so extensive that anything really unscripted is processed to the point of no return. In films that claim to be “based on a true story”, which is always code for “we are taking the liberty to stretch the truth”, I always like to read up on the true story. I am not surprised to find that the film made many things up. In the film “The Blind Side” the people who’s story was being portrayed said that some of the narrative was misleading..if not wrong. But because viewers want to see outrages and extraordinary things on screen we will keep watching these shows. Regardless if the are a fake version of “reality”.

  • The editing and story making process for reality television is quite simple really. Film countless hours of footage an cut them up for an hour of the only the juicy bits and saving the rest to contextualize the “reality” presented within the show. You can practically tell any story you want because that’s entertainment and it makes money. But what I find hilarious if not a bit sad is the fact that these poor folks are unaware of it all. Take the show “Scare Tactics” for example. That was a fine example of pushing for authenticity for the price of screwing over a friends representation. We all know that everyone who watches has a sense of skepticism in the back of the heads until a friend or family member appears at the end to console the victim from not soiling him or herself, whether its fake or not I can’t say. But the fact that produces set up these shows in a way that milks these poor contestants for a laugh from the audience is just sad. And the worst thing is, it’s our fault as viewers too.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....re=related

    I think Charlie Brooker sums it up quite well.

  • I think we can all understand the attractive quality of “Based on a true story” that this article critiques. When we go into a film or an episode of television, it gives us a false sense of comfort and connection to the characters that are on screen, because we feel that somewhere they are going through what we are watching. This idea brings the text into our lives, and insists on an intimate connection, because the truth aspect of it reminds viewers that “this could happen to you”.
    However, this article is using the legal framework of that “based on a true story” narrative to expose the falsities of this industrial trend. It is easy, at least for me, to blame the producers, directors, etc for the misrepresentation of characters or reality TV personalities on screen, but this article explicitly implicates those on-screen personalities. Although, we feel a connection to the people on screen because it “could happen to us”, it cannot be forgotten that they are an involved party in this construction of falsity.

  • Honestly, these actions of producers that are described seem quite natural given their intended goals and desires. The producers wish to create a sense of “reality” for the viewer, that cannot possibly be created in any other genre. However, real life is not always as exciting as the producer desires, so they have to compromise. By hiring “real people” and relieving them of legal power, they are able to shape these people into any character they wish. They gain the freedom that they would normally have with other television genres, but with the added tag of “realism”. What the producer wants is to deliver to the viewer a concentrated essence of real. The producer does not want to show the regular every day activities of going to work, buying groceries, reading a book, or eating breakfast. The producer wants to show conflict. Arguments, fights, and strife. This results in the selected hiring of conflicting personalities, as well as the strong uses of editing to morph the reality stars into character archetypes. It is all done in the spirit of creating a fake representation of real life for the enjoyment of the consumer.

  • The idea of “based on a true story” and “reality t.v.” reminds me of a lecture we recently had in our T.V. Culture and Society class on Advertising. Each embodies the same concepts, that producers and advertisers utilize the different demographics and psychographics of an audience so as to make the show more appealing and “real” to those participating in the show as well as those participating in the viewing of the show. The show works as a monopoly, dominating every aspect of their programs by creating this appeal (i.e. everyone wants their “15 minutes of fame”) that essentially coerces participants to sign away all of their rights as human beings, for the “15 minutes of fame” is pretty much made to sound so appealing that being embarrassed on national television isn’t even made an option–until they are. Its interesting to see the amount of control programmers/advertisers have over consumers as well as the amount of control consumers are willing to give up just for some exposure- that in most cases they are only remembered for if they do something embarrassing/editors and producers decide to create a storyline around something that happened to them.

  • Decisions made at casting time have a huge impact on the stories that ‘reality TV’ editors tell. Reality While shows are sold on the premise that they are filming any average Joe off the street, a lot of thought goes into each contestant. Because shows usually have big casting calls, producers can choose any personalities they want to represent a cross section of the average population. They will always choose personalities that will clash, or people with character traits that will react in a way that will capture audience attention. Each week, producers will present 40 minutes of fighting, drama, and everything else audiences love to watch, out of a week’s worth of footage. As they do they tell you “this is what is what it would be like in this situation.” With the same number of random individuals in the same situation, the results would probably be much closer to everyone working together to make the most of the situation. Producers pick the people they need to tell the stories they want you to hear.

  • It is important to note that though the public believes they want reality, they in fact want scripted reality. Actual reality is tedious- every single one of us sees this reality every day of our lives. We want sensationalized versions of the mundane activities we do each day. For example, an uneventful night out to a club may be fun to those involved, but it’s not exciting enough to sell ad space for. A night out to a club on The Jersey Shore, however, is filled with drunken escapades, fights, and public displays of affection, all with a comedic narration of the action by those involved, many days later. This is what this generation of technology users has proven time and again they want; characters they can relate to, but deal with problems on a daily basis that seem ridiculous to us. Is this not the very nature of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter? To portray a heavily edited version of oneself for the satisfaction of people that for the most part, they do not see or talk to on a regular basis?

  • Greenfield makes several good points. Most Reality TV does quite an excellent job of depicting an illusion of the real. However, just because “real people” are cast does not mean that these individuals are portraying reality. Those who sign up to be on a certain Reality TV show are conscious prior to shooting that they will be exposed; they know what type of show they are on and how the show typically portrays people. Moreover, these cast members are obviously aware that an exaggerated performance makes for better TV. The more “their character” stands out amongst others on the show, the more screen time they will receive. While it is significant for viewers to know that they are actually watching another form of fiction, it would most likely ruin their viewing experience. Perhaps what viewers enjoy is the illusion itself. Watching real people do ridiculous things is overall much more entertaining, as evident in ratings.

  • I think the author makes a great argument about what we define as ‘reality TV’. In shows like Jackass, or Fear factor the characters are real people, but are definitely influenced and are acting in a certain way to catch more audience and sell more money. They advertise their programs through jersey’s that they wear, sodas that they drink, and many more things. Everything such as mise-en- scène, lightning, costumes are pre planned are serving a purpose. We also realize how very little these shows are actually reality. Everything is pretty much preplanned, and things such as the health issues of each character is strongly important because all the sponsors of the shows want to avoid any kind of law suits. When watching these shows we have to be able to define the difference between ‘real’ & ‘reality’, and not get confused by words like based on true story.

  • I can attest the the “reality” posed by producers/writers/directors for so-called “reality TV”. I’ve known a few people who were used as characters for reality programing and can honestly say that attempted reality is often far from perceived reality, but the way producers manipulate that fake reality does a great job to attain the appearance of what we commonly see as reality on TV. A long time friend of mine was featured on the show “Trading Spouses” on FOX and their supposed “accurate” depiction of family life was far from the truth. From things like inserting my stock footage of my friend skating from past years in replace of going out and actually shooting, the time frame of a week only being filmed in three days and the exclusion of an entire family member were just a few of the things that were unable to hold up to my own viewing of my friends actual life. While the narrative was successful for TV (sort of, it was the very last episode of the show… ever) I couldn’t help but feel a sense of betrayal myself after viewing the program, and I know that my friend and his family did not bode well after the airing. It’s unfortunate that inaccurate depictions are a commonality in television today, but I suppose the success of reality TV hinges on a successful, engaging narrative, and well, normal life can be pretty boring.

  • Tyler Malinoski

    I love Greenfield’s comparison between reality TV and made for TV films that are supposedly based on “true” stories. Both genres are incredibly good at manipulating emotions and convincing viewers that the exaggerated actions occuring are entirely true to life. Both genres are guilty of painting distorted pictures of real life people; featured cast members in the case of reality TV and the individuals the “real life story” is based on in regards to biographical TV films. This is especially the case with reality TV, as I’ve heard countless examples over the years of reality TV stars complaining to the media or even suing over how they have been inaccurately portrayed. Some reality TV shows are more obviously manipulated than others, but many people percieve these shows to be the absolute truth. There is a great risk that participating in one of these shows will unfairly cause irreperible damage to one’s character.

  • I am always surprised at the amount of ridiculous content today that begins with “Based on a True Story”. It is ironic that this simple phrase is so effective in influencing our perceptions when it is laughable to say that some of the content that it is paired would ever be considered even near-factual. Also it is unfortunate that the people who participate in reality tv shows often end up being humiliated, but this day and age it should not be surprising. Countless former reality stars go on talk shows and other mediums after the show has finished airing and complain that being a part of the show has “ruined their life” or something of that nature. What more of a warning to upcoming reality stars need? Yes producers/writers do have their own agendas which often come at the expense of the reality star that is being portrayed as “real”, but by signing that contract these people in desperate need of their 15 minutes of fame renounce the right to call the show “evil”.

  • I have always been skeptical from the time I was young, about the statement “Based on a True Story”, as movies have used this term to hook audiences in a way in which they believe what is presented to them is in fact, reality and the truth. Realness, and liveness are what keeps people watching. This notion of reality within television often departs so far from realness that it becomes fictionalized; and an altered dramatization of footage taken and edited by producers of a particular show. With the whole legal process surrounding this genre of reality TV such as the waiving of each actor to sue the program for distorting the truth, it is definitely apparent that these types of shows are staged. It is also very disturbing that a majority of viewers watching these types of programs also believe in the “credibility” the shows have to pitch to them. It is within the human capacity to empathize with other humans, however this genre of “reality TV” is socializing people to empathize with fake representations of people on these reality shows; this genre constructed on a set and edited to our own viewing pleasure, and not of those on the show.

  • Reality television is definitely a cookie-cutter approach for networks and producers to make money. However these shows would not be pulling in the large amounts of revenue they do if audiences weren’t watching them. As disturbing as it is to have so much bad television on the airwaves, what is right down perturbing are the amounts of Americans watching this bad television. It’s as if reality television is the tip of the iceberg in a more sinister, yet incognizant plot. When audiences start holding “reality” television responsible for the “real” content they are airing, only then will the production aspect behind this ridiculous phenomena change.

  • Television to Microvision

    When I was younger I often wondered how television made money. How did the act of people watching a screen make money for the people behind it?

    After sometime, I became familiar with the way in which the seamless advertisements were responsible for “paying the commission.” To realize that the reason for television and its programming was commercial advertisements was a wake up call in the way I watched and still watch television.

    Now how does this relate to the blog? Well, I realize that with the change in the way we watch television also comes a change in which advertisements try to maintain their presence. Most of us are familiar with the commercial interruptions while watching shows on a television screen. As technology changes, such as the rise of TiVo/DVR, there is a threat to commercial advertisement, and advertisements try to remain present through the strategic product placement within television shows. Even while watching television on-line we are bombarded by ads around the website, and as we wait for the show to load. Even You Tube videos on occasion require us to sit through a 19sec commercial. So, whether or not our consumption of “TV” programming changes in the technological sense, or despite the growing options on what we can consume, we are still “consuming.” And it appears that no matter what way we choose to consume shows, (via tele- or micro- vision) we cannot escape the constant reminder to consume.

  • OOps wrong article!!! My bad

  • Nicholas Nelson

    Nowadays I rarely watch reality television. But when I was younger I watched a lot of it. One show I watched that I found particularly ridiculous was The Bachelor. For one thing I always thought that the premise of him dating all these women at the same time was, in a way, a form of polygamy. On top of that, the women were selected by the network, ABC. As was stated in the article, networks select people that will provide the most drama in the show. So these women were not selected based on what the male preferred. Besides that there is also the question of how they selected the male that would be appearing in the show. In the seasons that I did watch the men were always representative of what is considered to be the ideal male. Tall, handsome, and somewhat muscular, these men solely functioned to enforce what the network considered to be the ideal male. Not to mention the suggestion that if you, as a male, look like that man in the show, you too could have a harlem of beautiful women wishing to be your wife.

  • Real post for this article:

    Don’t Suspend You’re Disbelief
    While I watch some of this “reality” “trash” TV, as a spectator I constantly catch ways in which the representation of the so-called “reality” is inconsistent. The sound bites of conversation between character and their reactions sometimes don’t match. Most prominently, I’m usually distracted by the inter-cuts between “look-back interviews” and the “action;” especially when I notice that every time they cut back to the interview the speaker is wearing a different outfit. It’s hard to believe that a person is asked to comment about the same scenario in so many occasions.
    So, the “reality” of the shows is usually suspended for me. Of course my contributions to ratings aren’t helping my case, but watching television critically can also allow one to question the ways in which television shows reconstructed depictions of “real people.”
    It’s not just about the representations we see on television, but the way in which us as viewers choose to accept, reject, or put into question such portrayals of “reality”.

  • This is a very interesting look at reality television. I always had a sense that participants in reality TV shows were somewhat portraying a stereotype or a exaggerated character of some sort. However, I never thought of it being a legal part of being on the show. “S/he waives the right to sue for being misrepresented, depicted in a “false light,” or being defamed. In effect, to appear on a reality show, you must acknowledge that you are like a character in the hands of a filmmaker working on a piece of narrative fiction.” I thought I felt bad for the contestants on shows like Big Brother or Real World, but now I feel even worse for them. Later in this article, Greenfield mentions how it’s hard for audiences, who are also your friends, to distinguish what was real and what was “your character.” Personally, I wouldn’t go on a reality show or have anyone dear to me go on the show because it really can get to your head and misinterpret the kind of person you really are. Take for instance, Heidi and Spencer from ‘The Hills.’ I’ve seen some hollywood interview where the two of them professed their anger and regret for doing these ‘reality’ TV shows on MTV. It’s all really sad to see entire lives taken over by the vision of someone for just a season or two.

  • I have never really thought about the idea that reality television is so altered. I guess that means that the producers of the show are doing their job well. I think that it’s rather unfair that producers have unlimited control over how they can represent a person, but then again, the people on reality shows know what they are signing up for.
    The philosophy that I have always taken is that no matter how much editing is done, there is no changing the hard facts. What they are showing actually occurred. That is a fact. What I didn’t realize is that what they choose to show represents people as heroes, or villains, or idiots, or any other kind of stereotype that the producers wish to fill. For instance, in one show I watched, a character was portrayed as clumsy, because the show displayed her tripping over and over again. At the reunion show, the character complained that she was misrepresented, because they had taken footage that was days apart, and spliced it together to make her seem like a stumbling idiot. It’s very interesting now that I know that reality shows have contracts to guard against misrepresentation, because it is so easy for a producer to present a character anyway he/she wishes.
    I’ve always wanted to audition for Survivor, but this really scares me. I wouldn’t want to be misrepresented to the entire nation.

  • Melanie Tepperman

    Naturally, as a story is told and retold, the truth is bent and reworked until eventually the truth becomes an illusion to truth. What remains are the ‘truths’ which were worth telling. In this way, Reality TV is not so different in that it too retells a story, with all the ‘facts’ chosen and retold on the basis of their “worth.” Of course this “worth” is measured differently for different people, but generally we can agree (as it has already been pointed out), that we prefer TV reality to our own personally-lived reality based on its entertaining qualities. If entertaining enough, it is therefor worthy of our attention, (otherwise we could probably care less). Whether the characters give up their rights to portray these ‘lives’ does’t have a real bearing on the viewership because most of us can agree that they are indeed (on some level), channelling a performance which they themselves have created. In exercising this limited authorship, as seen in the success of Pedro Zamora in MTV’s Real World, there does remain a certain quality of realness. Aspirations of the reality cast are there, hiding under it all. I think Reality TV will continue to operate effectively under the premise that, whether cut and pasted into a new arrangement, we as viewers believe what we are seeing (specifically the personalities of cast members) is genuine at its core.

  • I commend the author for stating what should be obvious, to an otherwise oblivious society. I don’t know if the majority of viewers are that ignorant that they can’t discern the falsities of reality TV, or if they simply choose to believe the what they see. John Berger writes, “seeing is believing”, however I think the line has to be drawn somewhere, and reality TV seems like the an appropriate boundary between fact and fiction. There should be a more extensive disclaimer that exceeds ‘based on true events’, and establishes that the writers have merely taken ordinary lives, and transcribed their basic existence into scripts of prolific tales.

  • This article sheds a lot of light for viewers of reality television and films based on a “true story.” A lot of people when going to a movie based on a true story will believe everything to be real when they see that movie, but that is really not the case. As Greenfield states, this is loosely based reality. One movie for example that I have seen is “Julie & Julia.” It is a real life story about a woman by the name of Julia Powell that does a daily blog about Julia Child. Her tasks is to do a recipe a day out of Julia Child’s cookbook and also write about her experiences. In the film, Amy Adams does show what Powell went through, but not to a great extend. In reality Julie Powell wrote the blog, but her writings carried more vulgarities than the movie and in the end she divorced her husband. In fact, Julia Child never wanted to meet this woman because of the vulgarities used in her blog. In the film, a rose filter is put on to put better light on Adam’s character. The producers behind the film buy the rights to change what they please. Powell may or may not have been happy with the film, but by signing the contract they can take what they please from her life. The media will always change something so that the mass audience will be happy with the outcome because in the end it is all about “The Green.”

  • Gabriel Laverdy

    I honestly feel that their is no actually reality in any of the Reality programs because all of them give the heighten sense of what it is that these “contestants” do for the shows they are on either for a monetary value or for a chance to be on television. I feel sorry for anyone who feels that these are the real life actions of these people and I hope that they will one day realize that in many ways the people on the shows are conditioned to act in a certain manner and are manipulated by the editing of things they have said on these shows.

  • While attempting to experience the elevated status of having ones story be told through the lens of a popular media form, often times one must sacrifice the essential and intrinsic qualities of that narrative which make it unique. As this blog describes entertainment is the key goal for standard productions which in hand sacrifices the authenticity of a story to retain that readability by the audience. This article succeeds in establishing the qualities of realism, which create the illusions of credibility. Reality TV is a complex regurgitation of cultural trends, which intrigue audiences because of their relevancy. After reading this article, understanding how media uses the term based on a true story to bend our understanding of actual fact would immediately be exploited by the television networks.
    As the article states networks utilize the poaching to maneuver through viewer pleasure, utilizing the elements of their narrative to pick and choose that, which is offered as authentic truth and manufactured realism. Now when I watch shows like “The Jersey Shore” I would recall this articles statement that reality tv only succeeds because its viewership allows it to be through recognition. This suspension of disbelief is the manipulation of culture trends and figures, which establish an intimate connection with the real, and the medias understanding of current events or real events.

  • Having read this article only cements my affirmation to have no desire attaching myself to a reality TV program. While it is exciting to call up your friends and say, “Hey, I’m going to be a contestant on a TV show airing tonight! You should watch it!” You’d probably hang up the phone and then think back on what you had just done. You’d think to yourself, “Oh wait, what about that one part of the show where I thoroughly embarrassed myself, where I dont appear to be ‘myself’ at all! I forgot to tell my friends…” but before you can call anyone back to warn them, they’ve already seen it, and because its plastered all over television, it Must be true. I think that audiences forget that with the explosion of Reality TV came the explosion of people who only want to be on TV for their fifteen minutes of fame. Almost all you see on Reality TV these days is fabricated. So why is it that I don’t let myself get addicted to Jersey Shore or The Bachelor? because its really just a bunch of average people who are horrendous actors. Greenfield states above,”In effect, to appear on a reality show, you must acknowledge that you are like a character in the hands of a filmmaker working on a piece of narrative fiction.” The individuals who sign up to be on Reality TV programs are no longer themselves, they are simply characters.

  • The article makes a good point on the creating a false image of a “real” person on reality television. Remembering certain shows such as earlier seasons of The Real World, I would wonder how the cameramen and producers could let the characters do dangerous and awful things. However in the weeks to come, the questionable behavior was usually the main focus of discussion on message boards. After awhile many shows such as Jerry Springer showed certain “villainous” characters, rumors later arise that they were actors payed to play a part. Certain show characters even state in interviews that money was a key factor in convincing them to play the part. Despite the fact that many reality shows are unveiled as being staged that does not stop audiences from watching. The truth is people like seeing the villain in shows because despite the fact that they may be acting, it doesn’t change the fact that the audience want characters that they love to hate. Although it may not make sense to some why someone would play the “villain” role, it shows that there are some extreme things people are willing to do for fame and money.

  • Playing the role of devil’s advocate, there have been many people who have harnessed the genre of reality television to make an impact. Yes, ultimately the network controls what representation a particular character will have on the show. Film, especially television with its constant ratings and demographic evaluations that determine advertisement slot prices, is extremely competitive. I am certainly not denying the economic motivations of this profit-incentivized industry or that the spectacle is at play; however, there have been fairly successful utilizations of reality television. For instance, Pedro Zamora on The Real World successfully embodies the counterpublics for both the queer, Latino/a, and AIDS communities. Though there were certain elements of his “real” (here used to mean “nonfictional”) experiences, like constant harassment from another housemate and inconsideration for the fact that he requires a clean living space due to his illness, that were downplayed he still was able to use reality television to educate. He revealed what it was like to take the daily medication required, how he interacted within the Cuban community, and the depth of his relationship with his colored and HIV positive boyfriend Sean. Reality television is what made this representation possible because the network casts the participants specifically to see clashes amongst people with dissimilar ideologies. Conflict sells. It therefore makes sense to represent homosexuals and racially diverse people with different backgrounds to see them interact. Zamora represents a counterargument to the posed in that, though there can never be “real” portrayals of people on television because it innately produces representations, there is something to be said for what Greenfeild seems to see as a medium that almost entirely separates the real from the constructed.

  • The “Based on a True Story” ploy really is a main staple in ‘legal fiction’ as this article puts it. Every time I see that ‘disclaimer,’ I have to remind myself of the same device being used in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Dude Where’s My Car?. Often, it’s just a marketing ploy to scare the audience more or sometimes even satirically (or just to freak out all of the stoners in the audience). But, I really agree with the point that this same idea applies to how “reality” tv shows take a situation that actually happened and take it out of context, alter view of an individual/group to some degree, or even fictionalize the situation. In the case of Puck, from the third season of the Real World, his homophobic remarks in regards to his housemate, Pedro Zamora, were edited when he actually made such remarks regularly. Now, wether this was intended to keep him from appearing too homophobic to protect his image to an extent or to help prevent the show from entering some unwanted controversy is unclear. However, the intention by the producers/editors/etc. to make the situation/person appear differently than it actually hapened in order to tell a story they feel is better than the real reality exists as this article suggests.

  • I never knew this stuff about Fear Factor, I but I can definitely believe it. The producers, writers, and everyone else creating all sorts of forms for participants to sign, psychologist of set when filming, and all sorts of things they have don’t surprise me. Fear Factor manipulates everything they have on the set, but all shows do that. The way Fear Factor changes the “Real person” is what most shows do too. They make people into what they want; a villain, an angel, or just the “average Joe.” It is not hard for them to do. They have soon much film from just one day that they can pick out the part of a person personality that they want. So, all the bad someone has done can be what the audience only sees, even when there is more film of the person maybe doing some good. The reality show is controlled as like every other reality show. We, the viewers, believe we are seeing what is really going on but it isn’t real. The show’s editors, producers, writers have control of what is shown on television but we, the viewers have control to watch what is on or just walk away.

  • While I do not think that Reality TV are entirely pointless, I feel that they have some work to do in order to keep up with an increasingly critical audience. We continuously log onto the internet, get straight facts, hear critiques, and, most importantly, become so conditioned to these false truths that they naturally start to show their weaknesses after years. The majority of Reality TV and “Based on True Story” programs rely on drama and character relationships to engage their audiences. However, unlike pure fiction stories, these dramas are naturally not of the highest quality in terms of symbolism, intensity, stakes, twists, or thematic relations to plot. What these Reality TV shows try to do then, is make up for their loose drama with the notion that it is all “real”. Something about the lesser need to suspend disbelief allows lower quality happenings to be accepted by audiences.
    Obviously, the overarching story is not tightly knit like that of a decent play, novel, or movie, but through self-identification as “Based on a True Story” or “reality”, it doesn’t have to be. However, the big flaw of these programs is that, in fact, they are not true to their word. They stretch the limits of what is acceptable to comply with the terms “real” and “based”. Anybody who knows this usually cannot watch these shows in the way they are meant to be watched.
    I think the “genre” (if you want to call it that) needs to take a new direction, one not so easily forged. They need to stop looking to produce fake but interesting scenarios and instead focus on delivering actual reality. And no, they don’t need to put people in bad lights, incite dramatic meaningless tensions, or damage reputations. There are plenty of entertaining activities or real-life scenes that happen in the world without caricatures. They are rare, but in being so, programs managing to capture them for what they are would feel less cheap to us knowledgeable audiences.

  • Monica Cordova

    I had never actually taken the time to think about how producers/ screenwriters, etc. manage to take on a hubristic god-like role in making their audience believe something that is totally false. This article clearly does a well job in exposing the truth about reality tv or “based on a true story” shows. It seems that they create this story plain and simply to get ratings and money…nothing else. For example, something that stood out to me was the show Fear Factor. These producers manage to get their participants by testing their physical endurance as well as psychological and then go about to create a show. Meanwhile, the audience thinks that these participants are just any ordinary people. But the truth is that they are actually quite healthy and in shape in order to participate in Fear Factor. So while we think that this show is “real” it has actually already been set up and is only aiming to get rating and fame. This article was extremely interesting because it shows the behind the scenes in producing a reality show. It shows how much power producers have in playing with roles and the image of people that come out in these shows.

  • Reality television has its grounds in both fans and haters of the genre. Both simultaneously make them strong. Reality becomes blended with the genres of drama and feel-good-ness. What comes close to the audience but at the same time, a step above the viewers is the sense of above-the-norm qualities. This ties into ours, well at least my desire, to see a person rise to the type because of all the characteristics that make the individual pleasant to watch: start from an hard life, work diligently, and rise to success. As a viewer, I like to see success, but achievement that is well earned.
    “Based on a true story” is such a great open-ended term that is so loved and hated. I love to love it and love to hate it. Is it realistic? That depends on what part of the United States of America viewers are from. There is such a cultural importance and divide. The American Dream to achieve success through hard work, individualism, and strive through spite. (Not always spite, but many times, yes). Is this so in other cultures? At least my own stresses community, family, and sharing. I keep my cards closer to the table.
    But I love to love the American Dream. I love to think of success and hardwork. If you want something, work hard for it. If you wanna change, it starts from within. I think reality shows often make viewers realize that the story of rags-to-riches maybe outrageous and unrealistic, but the take-home-message is still the same: Success has to be earned, otherwise it won’t be fulfilling.

  • Marjorie Molmen

    It is scary how people, including myself, are so quick to accept reality tv as “real” when footage, and characters are so obviously manipulated as to entertain and get the highest ratings. Shows like The Hills focus on “real” people, but are completely scripted and fabricated in order to get the attention of female viewers who idealize Hollywood life and fashion. When reading this article, I was immediately reminded of the show America’s Next Top Model. Tyra and her accomplices pick around a dozen contestants who compete to become the next top model. Often there are stock characters: the intelligent girl, the rude girl, the immature adolescent. These girls are sometimes depicted horribly, especially in rants during video confessionals, which are often edited in order to be as controversial as possible. This article helped shed light on the contracts these contestants must sign, essentially giving the producers full power over video footage, to manipulate and create “reality” of who these girls are and what they are willing to do to compete for thousands of dollars. I guess to many people it is worth the fifteen minutes of fame to be seen by America as a villian, because in all reality, what viewer really remembers the past contestants when the next cycle rolls around. We, as the viewer, are willing to accept this false reality because it entertains us. We often forget the psychological harm these contestants may feel after the show airs and they have no control over how they are represented once the papers are signed. Reality TV is a manipulation of the real, but both the contestant and the viewer accept this fact, and participate.

  • Armando Torres

    It is often overlooked that reality television aims to distort the line that separates “real” from “reality.” Personally, this is one of the reasons as to why I abstain from watching reality TV programs; they are being presented as something they are not. They are presented as if the cast members (in Real World, for example) are average, “everyday” people with whom the audience can relate, when they have actually been carefully screened and selected by its producers. The cast is chosen based on how much conflict, attention, and dramatic effect that these characters can create when chosen to star in the spectacle that is reality TV. For example, the producers of the Real World San Francisco (1994) cast Pedro Zamora, a homosexual Cuban-American (and the first televised gay man who was diagnosed with AIDS), alongside Puck, the heterosexual, radical white guy who completely opposed everything that Zamora stood for. Greenfield makes a good point in saying that reality shows are under these “life story agreements,” which gives the program’s producer complete control over the way in which its characters are portrayed. They were chosen because the producers knew that the cast would produce conflict, and through the power of editing, these conflicts are amplified, and sometimes distorted to perpetuate the idea of hyperreality in the sense that this program functions to blur the line between the real and fiction.

  • James Rothbart

    I have always been skeptical about the “truth” of reality TV. Sometimes it seems like reality, but most of the time it seems scripted or forced. However, I never really thought about the legal implications regarding defamation. It is unfortunate that so many people who participate in reality shows are portrayed in a negative light. But at the same time, for most reality shows, the casting directors pick controversial or rude people to play the villain. So, editing and music can help vilify a character for the sake of drama, but I feel like the producers choose people who are naturally eccentric or dramatic in order to create an exciting narrative. Like the author said, he makes sure the prospective cast member knows that their image will be altered to make for an exciting story. This possibility of defamation should be clearly articulated and emphasized in order to avoid unforeseen psychological trauma and humiliation.

  • Isaiah Masters

    I think that this was a really interesting article because reality television is something that is so easy for society to simply accept simply for the reason that it is entertaining. I believe that we all know in the back of our minds that what we are watching is completely fabricated by producers and company executives, yet we choose believe the narrative that they set up for us. When we watch reality television, we are still watching television that is meant to entertain. If we watched real reality television it would consist of boring everyday activities but we tune into reality television to escape our own reality, and live vicariously through characters that we watch. It is easy for viewers of reality television to make connections with these characters because of the belief that they are a normal individual just like themselves. This human connection gives reality television powerful influential capabilities in that as a viewer, no longer is the experience consisting of fictional characters with a plot, but a seemingly random experience of viewing random individuals in interesting situations. I also believe that the capabilities of the editor to split and splice the footage into any narrative he/she wants is an amazing tool. The only reason that we watch reality television is to consciously trick ourselves into watching seemingly “random” people either fighting, competing, and deceiving each other for cheap entertainment value, and i think that because we know this, instead of perceiving the misleading nature of reality television editing in such a negative light, i believe that we should embrace this amazing tool an appreciate how every awkward moment that we witness of television, was just THAT much more awkward and funny because precise and calculated editing.

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