How do you break the rules without cheating? Change the rules.
That seems to be the working philosophy behind many unscripted TV series.
When weeks of auditions and rehearsals on the WB's talent-search show Popstars produced 10 finalists who weren't exactly the next generation of Celine Dions, producers quickly concocted more auditions, shoving three of the long-running finalists aside, to the dismay of viewers.
When the houseguests on last summer's Big Brother on CBS stayed dull, clothed, and sober week after week, producers plied them with free liquor (something they initially said they'd never do), and came up with a surprise offer of $50,000 if one would exit early (superseding viewer voting). The replacement? A curvy, tough-talking 20-something woman in a skimpy bikini. (Nobody took the dough, and Bikini Girl didn't get in.)
On ABC's The Mole, the “rules” of the team tests and cash-earning challenges often change while the contestants are playing them, confounding viewers and the team members themselves.
And on Fox's Temptation Island, when one of the “committed couples” turned out to have a baby they'd forgotten to mention to producers, the show didn't instantly kick them off for breaking the rules about disclosure. They were merely whisked away to another “luxury suite” to discuss their relationship. The lie simply was woven into the drama.
Should viewers mind this kind of manipulation on the so-called “reality” series?
Probably not too much, said avid reality-TV watcher Andy Dehnart, a 23-year-old Bennington College graduate student who created and edits the realityblurred.com Web site, which tracks daily press coverage of all the currently running unscripted TV series.
“Whatever works within the context of a show is OK. If they have to spice it up or add a dramatic element, they should do it,” said Dehnart. “First and foremost, it's entertainment. The networks have a responsibility to provide an interesting show to advertisers and viewers. With Big Brother, they clearly didn't know what they were doing. The producers learn from their mistakes. If they fail at something, they try to fix it.”
Dehnart likes The Mole, which concludes this week, because it doesn't play by a strictly prescribed set of rules. “All rules are off and it's become rather fascinating. It's Road Rules for adults.”
And so what if producer Mark Burnett may have had a hand in the final votes on last summer's Survivor?
“He knows what makes a good TV show,” said Dehnart. “Some of it has to be manipulated.”
The younger the viewers, the less they probably care about a show's rules or the sometimes shaky morality of the people on it.
“Young people who watch these shows fall into two camps,” said Charles Coletta, who teaches a course in TV and pop culture at Bowling Green State University. “They either see them as soap operas, like Temptation Island, and pick one person and follow them through the show. Or they just laugh at the people for being stupid enough to be on these shows anyway.”
Coletta said his students have grown up on Real World and Road Rules, MTV's long-running unscripted ensemble series. “They know how these shows are cast - there's a black one, the gay one - they know the rules going in. They're pretty cynical.”
The only objections Coletta has heard in class about unscripted shows lately concerned last week's episode of Survivor: The Australian Outback in which Kucha tribe member Michael Skupin stabbed a baby wild boar to death, skinned it, and cooked it.
“The students thought the producers probably put the pig out there just to get the reaction from Kimmi [Kappenberg], the vegetarian,” Coletta said. “They considered that cruel entertainment.”