Based on browsing through, it doesn't seem like there's a thread devoted specifically to editing/viewer manipulation even though it's always an issue on reality tv, so I thought I'd share my thoughts, for what they're worth...
I got thinking about this because I realized I already have a few favorites chosen (Ricky, Hok, Lauren) despite the fact that I haven't even really seen more than half of the contestants!!! And I know I'm not alone here.
The way I see it, the editors/producers of reality tv can influence viewer perceptions of characters/contestants in four major ways:
1. Face Time and Story Arcs
This one is obvious and effective. People care about others when we hear about their backgrounds, when we see them as people like us rather than solely in their extraordinary roles as dancers/singers/models/fashion designers/chefs/island natives on national tv. Just browsing through the 20 contestants' threads, it's clear that some of them barely got a second of air time in the pre-competition shows, while others have been tracked since their initial auditions, complete with interactions off the dance floor.
I've heard it said that the editors just show who is interesting, and if we know about a backstory it's because that contestant happens to have a good one. This was clearly the case in some of the audition round storylines (Olivia and her mom, Nancy and her arm, Miles and his dad, etc). But that's not all we get in the scheme of the show. Last year, for instance we heard a few times about the backstories of contestants like Benji & Donyelle when I highly doubt they were unique to them in particular- I'm sure at least ONE of the other top 20 had struggled with weight or been dumped (and honestly, who comes back after 2 years away and expects their previous relationship to be the same way it was when they left???). EVERYONE has struggled to overcome something. Just a little thing like getting dumped or battling weight problems can win tremendous identification points among viewers.
And it's not face time alone, but also what happens during that face time. Everyone says nice, funny, and quirky things, and everyone reaches a breaking point and says something catty or idiotic, if not intentionally spiteful. What the editors choose to show is all we get to see.
2. Judges' Comments
This one gets brought up a lot here on FORT- people talk of Simon being mean to certain contestants he wants sent home or Mia playing favorites to win the contemporary dancers more votes. I personally think this is the least influential method of manipulation. If viewers already love Heidi, they'll feel justified and empowered when the judges compliment her and will feel threatened and anxious when they criticize her. Either way, they are going to vote for her. People aren't mindless robots that do whatever "Simon says." I mean, if EVERYONE always did what Simon said, no one would ever be "out" and that would be the most boring game ever (but a good way to solve the world's problems: "Simon says flap like a birdie! Simon says hop on one leg! Simon says make peace in the Middle East!")
Then what good are the judges if not to influence viewers? They provide drama. If we just saw people dance and then cut to commercials with no feedback, we wouldn't get to see the cheers, jumps, hugs, and kisses when Shane says they are the couple to beat, or the drama of how the dancers will respond when Nigel says they should probably start packing: will they talk back with an attitude? Will they gracefully thank the judges for helping them grow as dancers? Will Cat have to console them when they break down crying? Will they turn to the audience like a seasoned politician and declare that they'll just have to see what America thinks? Without judges- whether they are mean or nice, insightful or rambling morons- these shows would be lame!
3. Subtle Production Aspects
THIS is where I think the real influence happens, and I believe that most of the time it's largely unintentional. But anyone who has taken a film theory or production class knows that the way images work- how the camera focuses, transitions, and moves- have a tremendous but subtle impact on the viewing audience. A dancer positioned in just the right spot during a group number becomes the shining star of the piece, while others literally fade into the background (or remain off the screen during their best moments).
Last year Brian choreographed an awesome routine for Jessica & Jaymz to Frou Frou's "Let Go," a routine that used the entire space of the stage, from the upper levels, down the stairs, across the stage- all over the place. It's my analysis that the camera crew was not prepared for it and got overwhelmed- you figure they only have a few hours to design the camerawork of the entire show, probably the day before shooting. When I watched this piece for the first time it just looked like a mess- the camera was shooting all over the place and the dancers were never really quite in the center of the frame- and they wound up in the bottom group that week. However, re-watching my tapes of it, I realized their dancing was actually amazing- gorgeous synchronized leaps, great chemistry, and truly gorgeous movement across the space, which explains why the judges loved it and gave them tremendous compliments afterwards. I don't think this was intentional editing to get rid of Jessica & Jaymz (whom I thought should have been in the top 3 males last season, no question). It was just hasty and poorly planned camerawork for choreography that wasn't well-considered for the camera.
Lighting has a huge impact on reception (the right shade and angle can make an average person look stunning or repulsive). Costumes can flatter a dancer's figure or not. Same with make-up and hair design. Performance order, too, could influence our viewing (we remember later routines better, a great piece early on can give the audience and fellow dancers great energy to feed off of or can make a weaker dance look even worse by comparison).
Sometimes, to be sure, this is pure luck and coincidence when editing works for or against people in these subtle ways. But given that the people who work on the editing crews of these major network shows likely went through quite a bit of film school training, I'm sure they are at least aware of how a certain lens, angle, or zoom can make a contestant look like a hero or a villain. And I'm sure that sometimes, when a certain contestant generates water cooler talk (and therefore more viewers and therefore more money), the editors play it up using everything they can in their bag of tricks.
4. Other Appearances
Any time a judge or producer mentions a contestant in an interview, or a magazine does a report on the show and features a few contestants' pictures and bios, that person gets a bit of name recognition. And when 20 dancers are vying for popular votes, any publicity is good publicity.
Like I said, viewers aren't slaves to editing. Even the dancer with the least face time only shown saying nasty things put into a horrible costume and given terrible feedback from the judges will have a few fans, and the dancer with the best editing will still have to face haters. In the end, so much of it depends on who an audience connects with and relates to, or who moves and inspires them. Obviously the actual performances and the real personalities of the contestants matter, tremendously, in these relationships.
But I want to call attention to the editing as something that does actively influence perception, even if it does not determine it. This is why I take all of these "America's Favorite" contests with a huge grain of salt. Sure, Survivor, ANTM, Amazing Race, Top Chef, and other reality tv shows create drama by building sympathy and dislike for characters, but they don't affect the actual outcome of those contests.
In regards to SYTYCD 2, I'll go on the record as saying I personally feel that Benji benefitted from positive editing as much as he earned the title, while Allison and Jaymz caught tough breaks.
I'd love to hear feedback- am I overlooking something? Do you feel particular contestants are receiving favoritism or put at a disadvantage beyond their control?