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Losing Touch with Reality

On Feb. 7, 2011, truTV aired the series premiere of Lizard Lick Towing, a new reality show featuring auto repossession business owners Ron and Amy Shirley and Ron’s best pal, Bobby Brantley. Viewers were promised some drama in the first episode: “When a repo goes bad, Ron and Bobby’s friendship is on the rocks,” the preview said, in language that, with a slight tweak, might have worked for an old episode of Full House.

And the repo did go bad: the boys tried to repossess a Grand Am GT from a tattoo artist, and when Ron left the parlor for several moments, three tattooed toughs took turns punching, elbowing and kicking an abandoned Bobby before — and after — dragging him down a flight of stairs. After the ambulance workers cleaned Bobby up, he insisted on going home, angrily telling his best buddy, “You left me by myself, I can get home by myself. I’m done.”

The scene is staggering. It is also a miracle of film editing, with all the action caught on camera. But how “real” was it all? Was Bobby’s life actually in danger?

The answer, at least to viewers of what has been one of truTV’s most popular shows is, it doesn’t quite matter so much. What matters more is whether Bobby can forgive his friend by the end of the show.

It’s this odd, potentially combustible cocktail of emotional characters that also keep viewers watching everything from the sweeping Kardashians saga to Storage Wars to any of the Real Housewives series.

Reality TV has become so thoroughly scripted by producers and writers that the only unpredictability comes when actual off -camera real-life events take over — including litigation, suicide and violent mishaps. Dysfunctionality, it turns out, sells — the messier the better.

Not long ago, the reality genre was populated by bright competition formats borrowed from successes in the United Kingdom, as well as hilarious and popular day-in-the-life series. But in the past decade, the form has devolved into a landscape that, alongside smart, original fare, is populated by troubled teen moms and toddler beauty pageant contestants, docu-style backstabbing among housemates and the shameless dressing down of would be chefs and singing stars. The awful byproduct has been that television has had a ringside seat to at least 15 very real suicides, according to published reports, as well as several murders, accidental deaths, countless barroom brawls, nasty lawsuits and lots of new stars behind bars. And the result has been some sustaining ratings for cable and broadcast networks.

Reality TV has hit a fascinating crossroads, with the edginess envelope pushed to a stretching point. Just as Ron and Bobby sometimes face even harsher situations — like the episode late in season two in which they’re fired upon by angry guys with rifles — viewers turned voyeurs are increasingly confronted with situations that might test their own codes of ethics. And they’re not turning away.

“As long as viewers want to believe that they’re getting an intimate look behind the scenes of someone’s personal life, they’re going to clamor for that, because we’re a completely celebrity-driven culture now and this feeds into that,” Katz Television group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said. “Everyone tries to be as flamboyant and over the top as will be acceptable, and we’re finding now what are the parameters of what is and is not acceptable. But it isn’t going to go away.”

ALL IN THE ‘FAMILY’

Reality TV has transformed itself in the 42 years since PBS aired An American Family, which attempted to chronicle the lives of the prototypical Loud family, and ended up eyeballing a painful separation, leading to divorce.

But in many ways, it’s the same. Producers took a real situation, interrupted it with cameras, emphasized the drama and, in this case, helped capsize a family. In its basic elements, it continues to heighten the drama, making reality “unreal.”

The producers of the series inadvertently hit upon a pot of gold that was later mined by MTV in 1992 with the still-continuing series The Real World, a lesson since found in numbers of series that have increased exponentially: the unpredictable power of watching real people in a heightened sense of reality. On series then and now, a feeling of brotherhood will invariably shift when Big Brother is watching.

“Just having cameras there changes the circumstance, even if you’re just recording what happens,” Carroll said.

Still, this is television, and before the final commercial leads into the credits, everything must be tied neatly into a package for viewers. That formula, a staple of most scripted sitcoms and dramas throughout TV history, has long made reality shows go down easier, even if it also promotes the idea that the endings of these shows are too good to be, in a word, true.

“It’s funny, when shows like The Office and Modern Family came on the air, they mimicked reality TV, and I think we on the nonfiction side have taken a look at the pacing and editing style and lack of music that sitcoms like Modern Family and The Office have and have applied those learnings to a show like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” said Amy Winter, general manager of TLC, which airs the successful series. That show, about a 7-year-old beauty pageant participant and her family, fits the bill that all networks that air reality shows seem to seek at this point in the form’s evolution: a peek into the lives of fascinating people most viewers have little chance of meeting beyond their screens.

“Fiction is based on real life and everybody scours real life to try to find those compelling stories to build off of,” Winter said.

Of course, it’s not that easy. “You know it when you get it, but it’s hard to find,” Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president, development and programming for History, said. “I think if you talked to any network, they’d say the most important thing you need is characters.”

History has scored big-time with classic sitcom characters on series such as perennial ratings winner Pawn Stars, where the drama of negotiation and history about pawned items becomes generational fodder for the crusty granddad, arch-browed know-it-all pop and a son and his wacky friend trying to make good. That the show’s Harrison family — along with the hilarious and oddly knowing Chumlee Russell — succeeds is a testament to their interaction and evolution, making the staged nature of everything from the bargaining to the jokey wrap-up of each episode somewhat superfluous. What matters is that these “characters” play their parts well, and the audience eats it up.

“The characters have to be authentic,” Hoogstra said. “Every network will have a different filter and different parameters. You have to make sure you’re capturing dramatic moments, the shows are edited well, we have expert producers, but there are lines we can’t cross.”

REAL TROUBLE

On some networks’ shows, those lines appear to be getting murky. History’s sister network, A&E, airs the hit Storage Wars, which is presently being sued by former star Dave Hester, who claims valuable items were added to some of the storage lockers being bid on, presumably in an attempt to increase the show’s drama. So far, the legal wrangling in the case has much more to do with whether or not the network has the right to do anything it wants (under First Amendment protection) than with whether items were planted.

Also taking up valuable court time is NBA star Kris Humphries’ contention, in his divorce from Kim Kardashian, that scenes were staged in the E! series Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The staging allegation may disappoint some fans — although it hasn’t appeared to hurt Storage Wars ratings — but the competitive nature of reality shows has too often taken a much more tragic toll.

Coincidentally or not, there have been at least 15 suicides involving reality-show contestants in the past decade, from The Contender boxer Najai “Nitro” Turpin in 2005, to U.K. Wife Swap participant Simon Foster in 2008, to Kitchen Nightmares chef Joseph Cerniglia in 2007, to Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker contestant Wesley Durden Jr. in 2011, to Storage Wars co-star Mark Balelo in February.

It doesn’t make it easier that reality stars are rarely aware of what they’re getting into once the cameras are turned on. “Reality folks are just regular people,” Hoogstra said. “The day before the show, they were a guy who lives in Louisiana; now they’re on a show, and there’s an adaptation they go through in dealing with that and figuring that out, vs. an actor who has been doing this for years and has a team of people and very clear rules in Hollywood on how things work and how they should go, versus someone who is figuring this out for the very first time.”

When a death or other tragedy strikes a TV show, like the helicopter crash in February that claimed three people working on a potential Discovery Channel series, victims earn a black-screen “in memory of” tribute at best.

But when Russell Armstrong, costar of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, hung himself not long after his wife Taylor filed for divorce, the end of season two was re-edited and special additional postseason reunion shows were added to Bravo’s schedule to help explore what it all meant to the cast members. The network weathered accusations that not enough attention was paid to the financial and emotional issues Armstrong was dealing with off -camera, while on camera, the couple’s rocky marriage made for startling drama.

And while there have been no shouts of direct culpability in any case, the myriad pressures of performing and being judged on reality shows would seem to be at least a contributing factor. “I would say that most of what has happened has been regrettable but probably perceived to be — and I don’t mean to be callous — but incidental,” Carroll said. “It is not, at least as I’ve seen it, purposeful in what’s being done. It is a consequence of what happened. It was people who agreed to be a part of something, then the stress or the circumstance was beyond what they were able to deal with. It doesn’t excuse it but it sort of puts it in a certain context.”

THE OK FACTOR

It also makes it somehow “OK” to keep watching, without guilt, in the same way viewers have long sat on the edge of their seat, waiting for the man who’s getting busy with the married woman to emerge and get punched on Jerry Springer. It kept viewers coming back for years to watch the antics of cast members on Jersey Shore.

But it didn’t, however, make it OK for Oxygen to begin airing All My Babies’ Mamas. The network ultimately decided in January not to air a single episode of the series which would have looked at rapper Shawty Lo, who has fathered 11 kids with 10 different women.

There have been few other examples of series that could not get much of a hearing with audiences or advertisers — MTV’s Skins in 2011 is such a rarity — but Babies’ Mamas may just represent a different kind uncrossable line, one drawn in the sand by viewers — and by extension, advertisers — who are starting to push back on the envelope of what is and isn’t acceptable.

“I think there has to be some sort of question of how far is too far, but I’m not sure that question exists for every show,” Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, said. “Skins got a lot of publicity because these people were under age, and it got people talking but the show also didn’t get the numbers that Jersey Shore did and so it kind of disappeared.”

Added Carroll: “What’s acceptable keeps changing. There was a time where standards were, for the most part, pretty much agreed upon. I don’t know that we have that point right now and as a result, the entertainment industry and certainly unscripted television is finding its way. And in the end, I would hope that we wouldn’t get to the point where dangerous behavior would be considered entertainment.

“But reality will continue,” he said, “there’s no question about it. Like any other genre, the most successful shows will continue to be around and the economics really dictate that you’ll put as much of it on as you can get away with. Then the audience will decide the survival of the fittest.”

TAKEAWAY

Reality shows are pushing the envelope on edginess — and despite concerns over behavior by some programs’ subjects, viewers keep tuning in.