Reality TV producers should be forced to be contestants on their own shows. Ditto the network executives who put the programs on the air.
I came to that conclusion late last month after surviving a hostage ordeal on a soundstage in Studio City, Calif.
Seven other journalists and I were held against our will and forced to play a sped-up version of the long-running CBS reality game “Big Brother.”
By the time we regained our freedom some 12 hours later, tears had been shed, lives had been destroyed and none of us would ever be the same.
OK, that might be a bit dramatic. But what would a column about reality TV be without a zinger about the genre’s reputation for artful embellishment?
In truth, I’m an unabashed “Big Brother” junkie who has watched every second of the show since it debuted in 2000. I hold Allison Grodner, the evil genius in charge of the show, in the same sort of esteem my colleagues reserve for Aaron Sorkin or the guys who do “Lost.”
So when a CBS publicity executive e-mailed me to ask if I wanted to take part in the show’s annual press day, I didn’t even bother replying. I just showed up at the “Big Brother” set and waited outside until the blessed day arrived.
I told my boss I’d come back with a fun little feature story about one of TV’s longest-running reality shows. “It’s big on the Internet, so we’ll get lots of hits on the Web site,” I vamped, playing to my target audience.
But that half-day in the “Big Brother” house gave me more insight into the world of reality TV than I bargained for.
For one thing, after a decade filled with dozens of different reality shows, producers in 2008 don’t have to do much to get contestants to cough up the TV drama so vital to a show’s success. Within seconds of entering the fake home, my fellow houseguests and I immediately began living a life of unscripted cliches.
It’s almost comical the way we immediately ostracized one of our own, labeling People magazine writer Reagan Alexander a “rebel” and a “bad boy” who needed to leave the house. His sins? A quietness that we took as aloofness. Fashionable clothes and a couple of tattoos that set him apart from his less trendy colleagues.
Paranoia set in almost immediately. We began counting various objects in the house because we were convinced that knowledge would prove key at some point in the game.
And then there was the whining.
When locked in (or out) of the house, we’d begin droning on and on about what evil plans the producers had in store for us. Half of the housemates were told they could eat only a vile Play-Doh-like substance during their stay, resulting in all manner of pained looks and kvetching about “the hunger.” (Did I mention we were in the house for only 12 hours?)
Playing the game gave me new sympathy for the countless civilians who have participated in “Big Brother” and other reality shows. While many of these folks are fame-seeking idiots, I now understand how perfectly reasonable people can so easily lose sight of actual reality while trapped in a TV show.
If producers and executives were forced to participate in their own games, they would better comprehend the psychological impact their plotting has on players. They’d experience first-hand what it means to be a hamster trapped on a wheel controlled by someone else.
And they could then use that knowledge to make their shows even more outrageous, more sensational, more likely to send viewers’ jaws dropping in disbelief at what they’ve just seen.
While the many critics of reality TV would argue that the genre has already gone too far (Exhibit A: G4’s “Hurl!,” premiering July 15), my short stint in the “Big Brother” house convinced me of just the opposite. Reality TV has grown far too comfortable in its current skin.
My fellow houseguests and I, having collectively watched thousands of hours of unscripted TV, often acted not as real people but as people who were playing a reality game.
Likewise, actual reality show contestants, as well as viewers, have become painfully familiar with the genre’s various story riffs and plot beats. We know voting results never arrive until “after the break.” We expect that the most obnoxious players always find a way to survive until the end of the season. The power is always up for grabs, fire still represents life and moving that bus is always followed by tears of joy.
It’s rare that anything surprises anyone anymore in reality. Everybody in reality knows how the game is played, and everybody plays their part far too well.
That doesn’t mean reality TV is completely broken, or that producers still can’t find ways to make entertaining television within the current format. I will watch each and every episode of “Big Brother” this summer and, in much the same way McDonald’s French fries rarely disappoint, I can predict with almost complete certainty that I will love every minute of this year’s show.
But if producers got their hands dirty and experienced first-hand how their own shows work, maybe they’d be inspired to create the next generation of “Big Brothers” and “Project Runways.”
At the very least, I can guarantee they’ll never see their genre in the same way again.