Is it real or is it just reality TV? As millions of Americans sit before the TV night after night, addicted to the fights, the dates, the rejections, the alliances, the betrayals, the shocks and reversals on hit shows like Survivor, The Bachelor and The Apprentice, the little voice in your head wonders: Is this the raw excitement of real, unscripted human behavior or has the whole thing been cooked and arranged on a platter?
And the answer is ... both.
To be clear, no one is suggesting that the final results of any contests are rigged. But just as Jim Carrey's reality-TV life in The Truman Show was run by a director concealed up on the moon, these shows are manipulated by an invisible team of producers, editors and other expert tweakers. Does a ready supply of liquor encourage contestants to let loose? Can a bit of splicing transform two friends into enemies? Does that TV Romeo have a Shakespeare coaching his speeches? Maybe. "We're entertainers, not journalists," says Mark Cronin, executive producer of The Surreal Life. "We're here to show you what happened, and to do that we take liberties. But there's no defrauding the public." Here's a look behind the curtain. . . .
Are the dangers real?
In the Feb. 1 episode of Survivor All-Stars, Sue Hawk shocks her fellow contestants by drinking stagnant well water, blithely disregarding tribemate Jeri Manthey's warning that it could give her brain parasites. In fact, no harm befell Hawk, though in all likelihood there was little risk involved. "The natural water on the Pearl Islands," says Amarilis Mojica, a spokesman for Panama's tourism board, "is potable and generally quite drinkable." The producers just didn't feel compelled to share that information.
In the past, they have been accused of stronger interference. In 2001 Stacey Stillman, who was on the first Survivor, sued the producers and CBS, accusing them of unfairly conspiring with two fellow castaways to vote her out of the tribe instead of the more popular Rudy Boesch. (The producers vigorously denied the charge and countersued for defamation and breach of contract.) And during Survivor: The Australian Outback, executive producer Mark Burnett admitted to using stunt doubles to reenact challenges for the purposes of getting the right camera shots. But that doesn't happen anymore. "I don't need any twists or switches," he says. "I can just leave it like it is. What makes this great TV are the characters." And those tribal councils? What appear to be six- or seven-minute bull sessions actually take hours in real life. Host Jeff Probst explains that they're edited down "so that it appears I go right for the jugular, when really it took 15 minutes of roundabout questioning to get you to finally say that the person next to you is not contributing."
Call it a Trump l'oeil. The Donald's famous boardroom, from which the billionaire developer presided over the show's weekly firing sessions, was actually a specially built set. So was the spacious loft where the wannabe Apprentices cohabited and schemed. As for each firee's shellshocked walk out the front door and into a waiting taxi: All those exits were actually taped before the competition began last fall which means somewhere there's footage of winner Bill Rancic taking the walk of shame.
As for those weekly challenges: contrary to appearances the contestants weren't completely on their own. For instance, when Rancic was entrusted with heading an important golf tournament for his final project, he wasn't exactly working without a net. "At the end of the day, you knew it was really Carolyn's butt on the line rather than Bill's," says contestant Amy Henry, referring to Carolyn Kepcher, one of Trump's on-show advisers and the COO of Trump National Golf Clubs. "So I think there were quite a few people that were making sure that tasks that needed to be done were being done."
And when things did go wrong . . . In at least one instance Heidi Bressler claims to have smelled something "fishy. I mean, losing a rock star?" says Bressler about rival Omarosa Manigault Stallworth's apparent gaffe in failing to keep track of Jessica Simpson's preconcert airport arrival in Atlantic City. "That just doesn't happen." (Apprentice producers had no comment.)
Other dramas seem a bit enhanced as well. The woman who sealed an apartment deal with team Protege in week 7 says she already had a deal with the landlord before the show ever arrived. And did that party planner really show up to rent a 90th-floor Trump penthouse just moments before the deadline? Yes, says Henry, "it was literally five minutes before the cutoff. They paid $40,800. That was the winning bid." But, she adds, "it wasn't the only bid. It looked like we didn't have other contracts. We had two other very lucrative offers."
Unseen deals aside, the Apprentices also had a lot of hidden baggage literally. Losing teams were allowed to tote just one suitcase apiece to the boardroom. Once fired, they would return to the suite the following day while the cast was out to hurriedly collect the rest of their stuff with the help of the crew. Production people were seen throwing weeks' worth of belongings into garbage bags. "Troy [McClain] got a bra and slippers and a pair of my jeans," says Katrina Campins. "I'm missing so much stuff it's ridiculous."
Watching the April 28 broadcast of The Bachelor with friends, Mandy Jeffreys couldn't believe her ears when she heard the promo for the next episode, in which she takes Bachelor Jesse Palmer home to meet her parents. "They talk about Jesse finding himself in 'pageant hell' at my parents' house," she said, referring to the trove of beauty-contest memorabilia seen adorning the family's house. In fact, says Jeffreys, "the producers asked my mother to bring some of my former pageant stuff down from the attic and have it displayed. When I got there with Jesse, I was shocked to find all of that the trophies, the photos. I hadn't seen those things in years." (The producers decline to comment on the making of the show.) That's not the only bit of stage-managing that The Bachelor's creators have done. For one thing, all outside distractions are eliminated. "There was no TV, no radio, no computers or cell phones, or books even," says Jesse's designated spy, Jenny Schiralli. "They wanted to encourage conversation." Producers have also been known to nudge romance along. "There has to be some continuity, so they set up scenes like me and Trista in the shower," says Jamie Blyth, who courted Trista Rehn on the first Bachelorette. "It wasn't like we said, 'Oh yeah, let's go take a shower.' " And an open bar helps set the mood. "Alcohol got the girls to open up," says Kelly Jo Kuharski, jilted by Bob Guiney in the last Bachelor. "There was a margarita machine and a keg in the house nonstop. Champagne. We could always get as much wine as we wanted. The producers would want us to play drinking games. It created drama. And we were so bored."
Despite the recent controversy regarding the ouster of judges' favorite Jennifer Hudson on April 21, producers of America's favorite talent show insist that everything is on the up-and-up with their voting system. "You can never assume that any contestant is safe," said co-executive producer Ken Warwick. "It's imperative that viewers vote for their favorite idol every week." Though Trenyce, a season 2 finalist, has speculated that the show toys with voting results, and chat rooms abound with frenzied theories about elimination conspiracies and racial bias, "every vote counts. Every contestant has the same chance," says Sandy King, a spokesperson for Telescope, the telemarketing firm that tabulates the viewers' votes and then phones the producers with the results around midnight every Tuesday. Not that Idol doesn't have its secrets. That final montage of clips, supposedly recapping each contestant's performance before the judges on Tuesday nights, is actually taken from an earlier dress rehearsal. "Doing a live show, we simply can't edit that fast," says co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Nor can they seem to explain a mysterious transaction involving Nicole Tieri, a.k.a. Scooter Girl, during the auditions. Spurred on by the judges, she was seen giving away her namesake transportation to a stranger on the streets of New York. In fact, says Tieri, "I did not give it away. After the tape was done rolling, [Idol host] Ryan Seacrest said, 'Excuse me, sir, she needs the scooter back.'" That's not how a puzzled Seacrest remembers it. "She passed it off to that guy, and I turned around and went back to the audition room," he says. Adds producer Warwick: "I didn't know she got it back. Maybe it was a good-luck charm for her." Not lucky enough: Scooter Girl didn't make it to the next round.
Jessica Simpson is eager to join husband Nick Lachey camping in the mountains until Nick mentions the B word. "There really are bears?" she asks. Pitch a tent? Forget it. Hiking? "I'm tired right now," says Jessica. "Maybe today is a drive-around day." In another episode, the couple go skiing or at least Jessica manages to. Nick falls down, then angrily flings his poles to the ground. If the singers now in their second wacky year of marriage come off more as sitcom characters than cinema-veritι subjects, some of the credit goes to Jessica's dad, executive producer Joe Simpson. "We know the kind of situations to put them in," he says. "For instance, Jessica is not an athlete. So we know that if we take her on a camping trip, we are going to get a good show." Similarly, he says, "we know that Nick can't ski. Jessica has been skiing since she was little. Nick will fall down the mountain, and Jessica will glide by."
Nothing was as simple as it seemed on FOX's fish- out-of-Rodeo
Drive series. Take that scene where hotel heiress Paris Hilton and her material girlfriend Nicole Richie try to bottle cows' milk and make udder fools of themselves. "Bottling the milk? That's a no-no," says Danny Council, the dairy farmer who briefly employed the city slickers. "None of that meets health department standards. It was totally for the show." (The producers even had to search high and low for glass bottles, rarely used these days.) All the milk that wasn't already spilt had to be poured out afterward. At least Council got a fresh coat of paint on his barn for his troubles. The front of it anyway: "It was white, and the producers said white didn't photograph 'true,' so they painted it gray."