What is real, really?
Complaints of rigging raise the specter of applying FCC rules to reality shows
By Joe Schlosser and Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/26/2001 8:00:00 PM
With reality shows facing more and more questions of authenticity, last week's complaint to the FCC by a contestant on UPN's Manhunt could prompt the agency to place those shows under the same federal rules that govern TV game shows.
At the same time, a number of top network reality executives are questioning what constitutes "rigging" a reality show and what are simply "beauty" shots added to improve a show's on-air appearance.
Jacqueline Kelly, a contestant on Paramount-produced Manhunt, complained to the FCC that corporate officials had rigged the competition, basing many of her allegations on statements by co-executive producer Bob Jaffe.
Jaffe had alleged that Paramount Network Television President Gary Hart and Paramount TV Group Chairman Kerry McCluggage urged him to intervene to help another female contestant reach the final rounds in a bid to boost ratings.
Network officials have admitted adding scripted scenes shot in a Los Angeles park (Manhunt was originally taped in Hawaii) but deny rigging the outcome. Jaffe stepped down when he refused to shoot the added scenes, which were intended to create the impression of personal disputes among the 13 contestants.
Manhunt is the second Viacom-controlled reality show to face allegations of manipulation. Stacey Stillwell, a contestant on CBS's Survivor, claims network bosses arranged her eviction from the show. Her lawsuit is pending in California Superior Court.
So far, the FCC hasn't said that "reality" programs are bound by the game-show rules created in the wake of the 1950s quiz-program scandals. But penalties for rigging game shows range from fines to revocation of station licenses, and the FCC's eventual ruling could affect the entire game-show genre.
Some FCC officials predict that they will simply decide whether Manhunt itself is bound by the anti-rigging laws and that the decision won't necessarily have sweeping implications.
Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of alternative series at NBC, says he has approved shots that have been added after the fact to some of the network's reality series, such as Fear Factor. "It hasn't happened a lot, maybe two or three times. I've only done it when I've been told that there wasn't a wide shot of a helicopter landing or something like that and that we can substitute a generic shot that doesn't affect the outcome of a show in any way."
Adding "beauty" shots doesn't change anything, Gaspin maintains, adding that editing a show down from hundreds of hours of video is a form of manipulation anyhow.
"We all have to sort of establish our own rules," he says. "One of the things that you do to cover yourself is to put a disclaimer on there. You need to be fair to the audience, and you need to tell them whatever you have done. And it shouldn't necessarily be in fine print that you can't read."
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