(CNN)After “Survivor” and “Big Brother” ushered in the new generation of reality TV, I mounted a campaign to label such shows “staged” and “unscripted,” worrying that calling programs that were so conspicuously shaped, planned and molded by editing “reality” bordered on misleading readers.
The effort proved fruitless, but 20 years later, we’re seeing the impact of having stretched the word “reality” to accommodate this popular genre, and being reminded that with television, seeing is often believing, even if what’s being presented isn’t precisely true.
The conversation arises again — or should — given recent New York Times reporting on President Trump’s taxes, and revelations that the image created by “The Apprentice” didn’t necessarily reflect his status in the business world when the show made its debut in 2004.
Another reminder came this week, as news anchors such as CNN’s Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Brian Williams observed Monday that the president’s return to the White House appeared choreographed for the cameras — as Williams said, reflecting the “first-ever president who came from a 14-season reality-show hosting career.”
Producer Mark Burnett, the mastermind behind “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” artfully built the latter around then-citizen Donald Trump, casting him as the ultimate example of jet-setting corporate success. It was a persona Trump had cultivated throughout his adult life, but one uniquely seared into the public consciousness through exposure to millions each week on NBC. (Jeff Zucker, who oversees CNN as WarnerMedia Chairman of News and Sports, was President of NBC Entertainment when the show premiered.)
As a viewer, the artifice that went into producing reality TV always bothered me. On “The Apprentice,” for example, I remember Trump asking to get Joan Rivers on the phone, followed by a cut to Rivers answering and chatting with him.
How convenient that the comic somehow had a camera crew with her at the very moment when Trump decided to call.
Such criticisms, though, were generally dismissed, and critics who bothered to question those practices could easily be branded as scolds and worrywarts. Everyone knew this was just entertainment, the refrain went, and as the boilerplate disclaimers stated, the editing didn’t affect the outcome.
Still, the assumption that the public was wise to the tricks of the trade always sounded unduly optimistic. That point has been driven home over the years by media coverage of “reality TV” (just putting it in quotes was another imperfect solution), chronicling the latest developments on major hits like breaking news when a closer analogy would be plot twists on a scripted soap opera.
Indeed, when the Los Angeles Times initially proposed calling reality shows unscripted, a producer who worked on them took exception to that designation as well.
“I write nonfiction television programs,” Joan Owens-Meyerson, also a member of the Writers Guild, wrote in response. “I also produce and direct them, and I know that any good film — nonfiction or otherwise — begins with the story. We nonfiction TV writers script our stories using real people and situations; our job is to create a compelling story out of that reality without compromising the truth.”
The TV industry, notably, has taken some steps to acknowledge variations under the “reality” umbrella, including changes in 2014 to the way they are identified for Emmy Award consideration. The categories range from “reality competition” to “structured” and “unstructured” reality, indicating whether series adhere to a specific formula or merely follow people with a camera, although even those distinctions entail shades of gray.
In the early days of “reality TV,” there were also a number of scandals, where producers were caught staging or manipulating situations in a questionable way.
In one case, a former producer on a competition show titled “Manhunt” said the program, which was shot in Hawaii, wrote and filmed scenes in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, then added them later. Questions arose about the background of the bachelor in Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” and whether, among other things, he was as wealthy as advertised. (At the time, the network said his net worth totaled $2 million, which would be the bare minimum to meet that designation.)
So it went, but people grew accustomed to the genre, and nothing seemed to shake its appeal. In September, Fox’s “The Masked Singer” returned, creating the appearance of a studio audience by digitally inserting crowd shots — a case of unreality if there ever was one.
A Fox spokeswoman noted that the network acknowledged the practice in advance interviews, and included an on-air disclaimer saying that “Due to health restrictions, visuals of audience featured in this episode included virtual shots as well as shots from past seasons.” Even so, many viewers expressed confusion on social media about whether the show had ignored Covid-19 protocols.
Is that a problem? Broadly speaking, perhaps not. Yet whatever the facts are about Donald Trump’s history as a businessman, it seems undeniable that many people knew him as the Donald Trump they saw on “The Apprentice.”
Trump has always been a showman, even before becoming a TV star or politician, and as the latest flurry of events illustrated, his presidency has exhibited an acute consciousness of how things look on TV. Yet to the extent “reality TV” has blurred the line between perception and reality, Burnett and the modern version of the genre he helped pioneer served, in a sense, as the president’s too-rarely-credited running mates.