Generally, Hollywood is one of the first to latch onto whatever the latest trend becomes in marketing and technology. Trailers helped pave the way for online video. Studios were amongst the first to push the boundaries of mobile. TV shows embraced online communities and blogs well before most. But they seem to be lagging in one crucial new trend – transparency. Big brands have slowly started to open up. Even the new government is on board. But Tinseltown seems more reluctant than anyone to embrace the idea beyond a few behind the scenes features and a gag reel on the DVD.
And for the most part, it has worked out fine. We want movies and television to be our escape, the argument goes. The less it looks like real life and the more it looks like Sandra Bullock’s life, the better. Witness the Oscars this year. Recession? What recession? It was all dazzling jewelry and figuring out who was wearing who. Just like always. Just the way we like it. Ratings were up.
So the execs just keep churning out the content and give transparency the same treatment a blogger receives at the hands of Steve Jobs. But one category of entertainment might finally upset the balance and force these fat cats to finally consider the new world they live in: reality television. You know, the shows that purport to reflect reality.
Remember in the beginning when people spoke in hallowed tones about The Real World and Survivor? We regarded these shows as some hybrid of documentary and real-life socialogical experiment. A brilliantly revealing reflection of human behavior. Since then, of course, we’ve wizened up a bit and realize that situations are often somewhat staged, casting is a mad science, and editing takes plenty of liberties to up the drama. But, all in all, we have still assumed for the most part that there is still some reality left to reality television.
Until this week. First, The Biggest Loser aired footage showing Dane, a contestant already cut from the show, who had gone on to triumphantly finish a marathon in a superb time of under four hours. Except that he actually never finished the whole thing and that time would have been impossible. The full details are here but the short version is a van ride for a few miles and a digitally-insterted race clock gave producers the heartwarming (and totally false) finish they were looking for. Only days later came the finale of The Bachelor. If you don’t know what happened, good for you. You are officially free of the death-grip pop culture has over the rest of us. But for those who do know the story, it almost invariably now involves words such as “fake” and “scripted” in there somewhere. People just aren’t buying it.
And, in both cases, it is social media disrupting what were once perfectly dramatic storylines. A blogger casually mentioned the Biggest Loser contestant in a post about completing the marathon herself. She noted that she saw Dane get the ride and innocently added “I’m hoping that they televise it as a half-marathon”. Once NBC did nothing of the sort, it came to the attention of a TV critic who broke the scandal on his far more widely-read blog, pointing back to the runner as an original source. In this case, NBC admitted wrongdoing and apologized.
WithThe Bachelor, ground zero seems to be Reality Steve who, in post after post, is leading the charge to take down the producer and ABC with all the zeal of a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein. He is joined by an army of followers adding in evidence of their own to show that when you take into account the final episode, the “After the Rose” special, Jason’s (the bachelor)appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, and cast and crew interview, the official story doesn’t seem to add up. The show’s brass are on their heels, issuing denials left and right as the story gets traction on Ellen, in Entertainment Weekly and across the web. Investigative journalism at its finest. Except, instead of exposing abuses at the highest level of government, today’s sleuths seem more interested in the accuracy of their prime time entertainment. Sites like Twitter and Facebook help keep the controversies going.
So are shows like this over for good? Of course not. Just like baseball continued after we learned Bonds and company were on the juice. But, like America’s pastime, it will never be viewed the same again. People are officially on watch and social media will force the Hollywood Dream FactoryTM to change how they represent the truth. Reality television has had their “steroid moment”.