Dancing with the Devil
by P.J. Rodriguez
American TV often delivers a less than honest portrait of life and viewers seem pretty comfortable with that state of affairs. But in Britain, it's another story.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is considered by many to be the embodiment of sophisticated, classy television. So elegant, so irreproachable! But they've been accused in recent months (to be blunt) of being filthy, rotten liars.
Before I relate the latest example, let me set some context. Over the last year, there have been a series of incidents surrounding TV quizzes and call-in programs in the U.K. The "You Say, We Pay" quiz on Channel 4's Richard & Judy show was fined for encouraging viewers to phone in at the cost of £1 per call (about $2) to enter after the competition had already closed. The game show Brainteaser on several occasions announced fake names as winners or had production staff pose as winners. The BBC's venerable children's show Blue Peter faked a call-in when a producer allowed a child visiting the studio set to pose as a caller after technical difficulties had stopped legitimate calls from getting through.
This past week, the British public was buzzing over another form of deception. The program Born Survivor (broadcast in this country on cable as Man Vs. Wild) is under investigation by British broadcaster Channel 4 for its own trickery. In each episode, host Bear Grylls, a former member of the Special Air Service (SAS) and the youngest Briton to climb Mount Everest and return alive, is dropped somewhere in the wild and has to survive off his wits. He makes a fire with flint; he eats what he can catch, even if it's maggots; he sleeps under the trees, covered only with branches. But accusations have surfaced that Grylls hasn't had it all that bad. For example, in an episode where he was supposedly stranded on a desert island, he was actually in Hawaii and spent some time in a hotel. A scene with "wild" horses reportedly turned out to feature tame animals. A raft of bamboo, hibiscus twine and palm leaves was actually pre-built by the film crew.
The thing is, the first time I watched the show, my skeptic alarm went to Code Red. Grylls spends the whole time, as he wanders the wasted landscape alone, looking straight into a camera and talking to the viewers. Clearly, the guy has a big crew with him at all times. A scene where he crosses a ravine using a vine is shot from at least three different angles, so how worried am I actually supposed to be that he's going to fall to his death? As one technical adviser to the show said, "If you really believe everything happens the way it is shown on TV, you are being a little bit naive."
The quiz show scandals of the Fifties were a national scandal, but U.S. television viewers seem to routinely accept deception on so-called "reality" shows. Contestants are cast carefully for maximum effect. The shows utilize writers to draft scenarios. Events are shown edited out of sequence or timelines are compressed. Do you think the guy in The Bachelor actually lives in those mansions?
The difference is that in Britain, deception is illegal and British citizens know it. According the news reports, OFCOM, the British regulatory body that is the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, is investigating 20 shows for deception. Although Born Survivor isn't one of them, because of the call-in scandals other reality shows are coming under fire. RDF Media has taken some heat for two shows that ran on Channel 4 - Wife Swap and Masters and Servants - for manipulating events. But the production company really came under fire when a BBC documentary that RDF produced was edited to make it look as if Queen Elizabeth had stormed out of a Vanity Fair photo shoot.
I think the key problem driving all of this deception is that real life presents a real balancing act. On the one hand, people love supposedly real things. Not only is reality television a popular genre on television, one of the strongest advertising phrases that is utilized in the motion pictures is "Based on a true story." But on the other hand, reality has a pesky habit of not going quite how you would wish. And it's so tempting to tweak it a little and nudge it into place.
I'm not advocating more regulation in America to address this issue, but I do wonder why Americans - supposedly the savviest consumers in the world - are content to put up with a steady diet of fabrication and manipulation on the tube. Are British viewers more old-fashioned, expecting things on TV to be true? Does that make us more sophisticated or more more cynical?
I don't know, but I hate to think we've made a pact with the devil: Entertain me, but I don't want to know details.
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