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Audiences can't seem to get enough of reality TV,
but the real people inside it have mixed opinions.
By Mark Kendall
As a contestant on The Bachelor, Anindita Dutta ’96 gave “Reality
TV” a little more reality than anyone expected.
Friends thought she was crazy to go on a show where 25 women vie for one
guy. But Dutta, a Manhattan attorney at the time, says she wasn’t really
looking for love. She wanted to stay true to herself, have some fun and
perhaps send a message. After sending in her video and passing her
interviews, Dutta was sequestered in a mansion with the other
contestants—cameras and microphones everywhere. Then Dutta went on her
first group “date” with banker Aaron Buerge and quickly realized she
wasn’t interested in him romantically.
Each episode culminates with “The Rose Ceremony,” where the bachelor
hands out roses to the women he wants to keep in the competition. Before
Buerge announced his choices, Dutta spoke up and, in a nice way, dumped
This was a first for the show. Under the glare of so many cameras in
this intense-if-artificial situation, Dutta found it quite intimidating
to break from the format. “I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever
done,’’ says Dutta, whose move created a minor media stir when the
episode aired in October 2002 during The Bachelor’s second season.
Don’t expect viewers to follow Dutta’s lead and dump reality TV.
The public seems to be settling into a surprisingly long-term
relationship with this programming genre. The tube overflows with
reality programs ranging from American Idol to Extreme
Makeover: Home Edition to Wife Swap. Reality TV not only
fills primetime network slots, but also countless hours on cable
channels such as Discovery and Bravo.
To some, these programs are just a twist on game shows that have been
around since television’s early days. Others point to PBS, of all
places, as the birthplace of reality TV. The 1973 PBS documentary
series, An American Family, drew millions of viewers to the
unfolding true story of the Louds, a middle-class clan with a gay son
and parents set to divorce. Pomona Media Studies Professor Jennifer
Friedlander notes that our current conception of reality TV emerged with
the 1992 debut of MTV’s The Real World. That show records the
antics and angst of young strangers thrown together in a house and is
now in its 15th season. The arrival of Survivor in 2000 turned
reality TV into a cultural phenomenon.
Scripted television had become predictable for viewers, says Susan
Levison ’96, an executive with the Fox Broadcasting Co. Then reality TV
came along with fascinating characters such as Richard Hatch, the winner
on the first Survivor. “Human nature is so unpredictable,” she
says. “That’s what drew people to it. You never knew what to expect.”
Levison was working in Fox’s alternative programming division when
Survivor took off, and she and others scrambled to come up with reality
hits for Fox. She worked on Temptation Island and The Simple
Life before moving over to Fox’s drama division.
With reality TV, Levison says, an idea can be turned into an actual show
more quickly. And the right idea can quickly become part of the
Known simply as “unscripted series” in the industry, the reality genre
is tough to define, mixing elements of traditional game shows,
hidden-camera comedies and documentaries.
Bry Thomas Sanders ’91 believes the term reality TV is a misnomer.
“Reality shows are game shows,” he says. “They’re not reality. Things
are very carefully controlled, and there are rules for the way people
He should know. Sanders has worked on numerous reality shows, including
For Love or Money and The Next Great Champ. He currently
is director of photography on the NBC reality hit The Biggest Loser,
in which overweight contestants compete to lose pounds and vie for the
title of said program.
Sanders says reality TV appeals to a carnival freak-show mentality,
allowing viewers—from the safety of their couch—to watch someone else
suffer. “People really like to see people get into trouble,” he says.
He has qualms about the quality of most reality shows. But he feels
relatively good about his latest gig. He likes the honesty of the show
in that, instead of quick fixes, contestants have to work off the extra
pounds through diet and exercise. And the contestants are primarily
battling against themselves instead of each other.
Sanders points out that in most reality shows, however, conflict between
the characters is key, just as in a scripted comedy or drama. “If all
these shows were about people sitting around a house getting along,
nobody would tune in,” Sanders says.
While contestants aren’t told what to say, Sanders reports, they are
oftentimes maneuvered into situations that maximize the chances for
interesting things to happen. “In many ways it’s like a big, bizarre
psychological experiment.” he says.
He also notes that the “reality” experience might not be as glamorous
and freewheeling as contestants might expect. “Their lives are
rigorously controlled,” he says. “Their every move is watched.” Some
contestants aren’t thrilled with the cameras’ constant gaze, but “they
pretty much learn to live with it,” he says. “There’s no other option.”
Dutta spent less than two weeks on the set of The Bachelor. But
even so, the constant presence of cameras had an impact on her. When she
returned to real life, “I kept on looking in corners and thinking I was
being taped,” says Dutta, who now works in Southern California for a
company that prepares law students for the bar exam.
Even as they become more aware of how reality TV really works, viewers
don’t seem to be giving up on the genre. In fact, evaluating just how
“real” the shows are just provides another excuse to watch them. “It
gives you a way of watching it without having to admit you’re taking it
seriously,” says Friedlander. “It kind of has a built-in alibi.”
Reality TV is here to stay for the time being. Sure, the number of shows
may level off, but “I don’t believe it’s going to go away anytime
soon,’’ says Sanders.
Dutta’s viewing habits illustrate reality TV’s powerful attraction.
Dutta says she doesn’t watch a lot of TV right now, but she does try to
catch The Apprentice. She admits watching the premiere of The
Bachelorette, as well as The Surreal Life.
“We like to watch other people’s pain,” says Dutta. “We like to watch
other people make fools of themselves. You sit there and it’s just
painful but you can’t stop yourself from watching it.”
SIDEBAR: Realitv TV
doesn't just draw TV viewers; the field has pulled in Pomona alumni in
sometimes surprising ways.
Bry Thomas Sanders ’91 works behind the “fourth wall.” That’s what
camera crews call the invisible barrier between themselves and the
contestants on the show. The two unbreakable rules are: Don’t interact
with the contestants and never stop shooting.
“We’re really supposed to be like ghosts,” says Sanders, who works as
director of photography on NBC’s The Biggest Loser. “We’re there
to observe, not interact.”
Shooting a reality show presents numerous challenges. With as many as 13
cameras rolling at a time to catch every potentially interesting moment,
it’s a challenge to maintain quality and avoid goofs such as shooting
other crews. And, unlike scripted drama, you never get a second
chance.“If you miss a reaction, a particular moment or confrontation,
that’s it. It’s gone,” he says.
Sanders has been in the entertainment business for a decade, but in the
last few years more and more of his time has gone to reality shows.
“It’s definitely where much of the work is,” he says.
He enjoys the challenges and camaraderie that accompany spending 12-hour
plus days with cast and crew. “We often joke about (how) somebody should
do a reality show about working on a reality TV program. Then we groan
and change the subject. We don’t want to give anybody any ideas.”
Reality TV provided a big break to Jonathan Miller, Pomona’s electronic
music technician, who has created the music for shows such as Discovery
The bigwigs at Big! offered him the gig a year ago. Though he had done
some TV music work before, this was the first time his name rolled in
Each episode of Big! featured a team of experts racing to create giant,
working versions of objects such as blenders, guitars and electric
shavers. Then the crew put the objects to use—the shaver, for example,
was used to trim citrus trees. This crazy concept led to many musical
opportunities for Miller.
“Coming up with music for a giant shaver that’s trimming an orange grove
is about as bizarre as it gets,” says Miller, who wound up using a
dense, 1950’s European orchestral sound.
For the giant toaster episode, Miller went with a cheesy Leave it to
Beaver kind of tune. A southern-fried, Lynyrd Skynyrd-style sound
fit just right for the episode in which the team built a huge
After Big! finished its run, Miller was quickly enlisted to create music
a reality show on the male-oriented Spike TV network that revolved
Reality TV shows depend heavily on music to create different moods.
Big! had music going for about 35 of its 42 minutes. For comparison,
the legal drama The Practice, which Miller used to work on, used
about 20 minutes of music.
Composing all that music for Big! required 80 hours of work per
episode, and Miller had to finish the jobs on a very short time
frame—sometimes in only a week.
He likens each episode to taking a final exam in a really hard class and
cranking out a 30-page paper on top of that. “It’s like boot camp for
composition,” says Miller.
Attorney Philip Kelly ’95 of the Los Angeles-area law firm of Irell &
Manella spends at least a third of his time on issues involving reality
With their stunts, surprises and hidden cameras, reality shows present
plenty of potential legal issues that need to be headed off. Releases
signed by contestants have to be worded correctly. Crew members
sometimes need to get consent forms signed by members of the public
caught on camera during filming. Show producers even need to avoid
running afoul of wiretap and eavesdropping laws.
Copyright infringement is another hot topic. Some high-profile lawsuits
have been filed with one party accusing the other of swiping their
concept for a reality show. However, Kelly says that copyright
protections traditionally apply to the expression of an idea, not the
idea itself. “A lot of people have similar ideas,” he says.
Kelly started off working on other areas of entertainment law, but his
work involving reality TV took off over the last three to four years as
the genre grew. “It’s a new type of show with all sorts of new and
interesting legal issues,” Kelly says. “Not all of them have been
(worked) out yet.”
His work ranges from helping to word releases signed by contestants to
vetting show concepts in advance, explaining the potential legal
pitfalls. “I see a lot of ideas that don’t make it on the air,” he says.
He enjoys watching shows such as The Apprentice and Survivor.
“I’m actually a huge reality TV fan in some respects,” he says. “I just
think it’s cool to be working on something I actually get to go home and
watch on TV.”
His familiarity with the inner working of the genre doesn’t ruin the
entertainment experience for him. “In some ways, I enjoy the viewing
more having seen where things started,” he says.