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Today's Lesson: The Definition of Reality

May 04, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY

Fox, which had magicians tearing out hair (as opposed to hares) by prying open their bag of tricks in its "Magic's Secrets Revealed" specials, is getting a little payback from an unusual source: an "Inside Edition" expose about some Fox shows, which might be called "Reality Programming's Secrets Unmasked."

While hardly rivaling the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, Monday's "Inside Edition" featured a report alleging that producers of the Fox series "World's Wildest Police Videos" as well as the specials "When Animals Attack" and "Busted on the Job" may have staged or fabricated aspects of those shows, in some instances using reenactments or training video that weren't labeled as such.

The report also charged some segments of "When Animals Attack" involved animals and trainers, and that circumstances on the "Busted" specials have been puffed up to make them seem more dramatic.

Fox told The Times the allegations were either inaccurate or overblown, calling the most glaring incident cited, in "Police Videos," simply "an honest production mistake."

Still, this raises some legitimate questions, among them just whose reality we're watching, anyway? More precisely, when do these TV reality shows--slickly produced, intercut with simulations and set to dramatic music--stop being reality?

Fox has reliably garnered big ratings with "reality programs," which usually offer footage of actual events. Other networks, which at first criticized Fox for the genre, have followed suit with similarly themed fare such as NBC's "World's Most Amazing Videos," unable to resist the allure of big ratings at a modest price.

Fox Has Previously Faced Similar Criticism

According to Fox, its policy is to "clearly identify all re-creations, reenactments and training video," either through narration or on the screen. Network officials seemed a little exasperated based on the source and timing of the controversy--a syndicated magazine program that wallows in its share of tabloid sleaze targeting popular programs during a rating sweeps period. As "Busted" producer Erik Nelson put it, "What's the title of their piece? 'Pot Calls Kettle Black'? "

Indeed, being questioned about ethics by "Inside Edition" does seem a bit like being teased about your hair by Don King. Even so, this isn't the first time Fox has been accused of passing off fiction as fact, or at least playing fast and loose with its definition of "reality."

Last year, the network admitted its 1995 special "Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?" was a hoax perpetrated by the producer. Fox stated the network didn't know if the video was authentic or not, but that probably didn't stop some of the lunatics who listen to Art Bell from buying bus tickets to Roswell, N.M., to await the next landing.

In September, an actor working on a proposed Fox show was arrested by sheriff's deputies in Ada County, Idaho, after disturbing local residents by masquerading as a deranged new homeowner on their quiet cul-de-sac, filling his frontyard with a trampoline, mud wrestling pools and 52 plastic pink flamingos. Actors rented the house as part of a hidden-camera special, "World's Nastiest Neighbors." The program never aired, but that didn't do much to improve Hollywood's image in and around Boise.

The "Inside Edition" investigation contends the Fox programs cited have duped viewers.

"We showed [the video] to a focus group of 13 volunteers," said Matt Meagher, the reporter on the story. "Not one of them got [that it was a reenactment]. . . . To a person, they all felt deceived."

Those behind "Wildest Police Videos" admit to some inadequate (and inadvertent) labeling of simulations, saying they had already initiated changes to clarify this after e-mail messages from viewers.

Producer Paul Stojanovich also acknowledged that the program enhances sound elements like sirens and skids to heighten the show's dramatic effect. While stressing the program is clearly presented as entertainment, not news, he concedes the increase in both news and reality programming can easily lead to confusion.

"Being that we're in such a video-oriented society now . . . I think the lines do get blurred," Stojanovich said.

Network Isn't Alone in Altering Reality

Indeed, whatever dubious practices Fox has engaged in, the network isn't alone when it comes to using production techniques to augment or manipulate the entertainment value of reality.

National and local news programs, which operate under different guidelines, have also relaxed standards in this regard. Prime-time magazine shows will depict a car driving down a lonely road or have a camera pan a hallway to convey a criminal's point-of-view, put to music that establishes a properly dramatic, creepy mood.

As a visual medium, TV needs pictures to connect stories, which often entails staging a scene. This can be as simple and seemingly harmless as taping a friendly subject strolling down the street, as if he doesn't notice a "60 Minutes" camera crew following him.

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