How real is reality TV?

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      Vancouver producers face a vexing challenge: how to give mild-mannered Canadians more razzle-dazzle

      Cathy Snow’s wedding dress was too small. Well, really, she was too big, so it was serendipitous when her dress store e-mailed her with a proposal from Vancouver’s the Eyes Project Development Corp. asking, Are you a bride who wants to lose weight? That’s how Snow got hooked up with a new reality-TV program, Buff Brides, which promised to bring her from a size 10 down to a size eight in a single month.

      “When I bought my wedding dress, I thought I’d be slimmer,” she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, explaining why she agreed to appear in spandex on national TV. “It [the dress] was really quite tight”¦and I’d always wanted a personal trainer.”

      Snow filled out a food diary for the show’s producers that reflected what she calls her “normal diet”. So far, her reality-TV experience was firmly planted in truth. But, she recalled, it soon started to become distorted. When she met on-camera with the show’s nutrition coach, Nadeen Boman, Snow didn’t recognize her “normal” diet anymore. In the show, Snow recalled, Boman pulled two giant steaks out of her fridge to illustrate her “bad” eating habits—but the steaks were not hers, nor did they resemble anything she had ever eaten. Snow also received a phone call two weeks before the show aired, informing her that the show had been renamed Bulging Brides.

      “They portrayed me as an overindulgent pig, like all I do is eat my face out,” she said. “They send you down the ”˜aisle of shame’. They basically doubled what I ate and drank. They planted things in my cupboards. You know the whole time what’s happening. I’m a normal-sized person who eats a normal diet, but they need to make it good TV watching.”

      Snow has put her normal-sized finger on the gargantuan problem facing the makers of Canadian reality TV, according to the Eyes’ president and the show’s producer, Blair Reekie: how to make Canucks, who tend to be mild-mannered and docile, into good reality TV participants, in a medium that thrives on conflict and drama. Reekie, who opened his interview with the Straight by booming, “Do you want to lose weight?” into the phone, produces The Last 10 Pounds Bootcamp, Makeover Wish, Love It or Lose It, and Campus Vets.

      “I’d be terrible TV,” he admitted from his studio near the Fraser River. “I’m not going to strip down to my underwear and show my fat.”¦Americans, on the other hand, will just go for it. They’ll hurl chairs at each other. We are too nice to each other, which is not good TV.”

      So how does a producer deal with that reality? According to Reekie, he allows for some editorializing.

      “The food diary,” he said, “the ones [days] we choose to illustrate could be a worst-case scenario.”¦To be honest, we always pick the day where she’s like, ”˜Oh my God! Did I eat that?’ If the audience thinks that’s what she eats for every meal, well”¦” That said, he noted, “You can’t lie in your skivvies”. At the end of four weeks, the “star” has either lost the weight or she hasn’t. And at that point, it’s all real. “A really good episode is when a woman has said, ”˜I am thrilled and I did it myself!’ We want her crying with joy and saying, ”˜I’m going to stick with this.’ ”

      Audiences can be confident that most Canadian reality TV is real, according to Reekie. He says producers do not cast actors in these shows, though he believes some do in the U.S., where, he said, “the stakes are higher.”

      However, the genre has no standards or code of ethics set out by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council or the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. In 2004, CanWest’s Global Television Network authored a definition of reality TV in an application to the CRTC for an all-reality station. (The application was approved on February 3, 2005, but was deferred. Global has until fall 2008 to launch the station.) It said that reality TV “shall include: (a) the presentation of contrived circumstance(s), which may be competitive or non-competitive in nature; and/or (b) dramatizations and/or recreations of real situations or events”. In other words, the reality of reality TV is not paramount.

      To Reekie, reality TV is essentially entertainment, and making the shows is fun. The success of the genre, he said, comes down to a truism he once heard from the head of a major U.S. network (he’s not saying which one): “No American wants to think after 7 p.m.”

      But Reekie’s counterpart at Vancouver’s Paperny Films said the more real the show, the more interesting it is to viewers. To Cal Shumiatcher—who has produced Crash Test Mommy, Kink, 100 Mile Challenge, The Week the Women Went, and one-off situational documentaries such as Devil Plays Hardball—ratings depend on veracity.

      “Canadians want to see stories they can relate to,” Shumiatcher told the Straight in a phone interview. “They’re interested in real relationships. Everything we impose is just a way of getting the story.”¦It’s funny: something I’ve learned is that a reality show can be good even if it’s just okay, but a drama has to be brilliant. Half of TV drama is really intolerable, but most reality TV fare has something redeemable. There’s so much real life that you get when you just roll a camera.”

      Shumiatcher has grown to respect reality TV, which he recognizes as a broad genre that encompasses both old shows from The $64,000 Question (a quiz show that attracted controversy when there were accusations of rigging) to Candid Camera and newer programs like Intervention. He noted that even Canadian Idol isn’t really a singing competition. “It’s really about people and their aspirations. The game itself is nothing.”

      On his CBC show The Week the Women Went, 117 women left Hardisty, Alberta, the men staying to care for the kids and the homes. Shumiatcher called it “a large-scale social experiment”, but noted that the most interesting aspects of the show had nothing to do with the experiment. It was what the show revealed about relationships, reactions, and Albertan life. To him, that’s real—that’s the “reality” part of reality TV.

      But even Shumiatcher gets frustrated when his shows fall flat. His company, he said, works hard to cast outgoing, fun people who understand what they’re getting into, but “every once in a while, you make a mistake”, he said. Trying to hide bad casting by making things up, he noted, isn’t only problematic from a standards point of view, but it also won’t make a show interesting. Reality, he said, is what’s interesting.

      Reflecting on her Bulging Brides experience, Snow said she knew what she was getting into. In fact, she didn’t mind being portrayed as an overindulgent pig. She found the experience fun, and describes it as a “lifetime opportunity” she’s glad she took. The experience will stay with her, but her physical transformation soon slipped away. After working out hard six days a week and having a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet, Snow succeeded in going from a size 10 to an eight and fitting into her too-small wedding dress. “For about a week,” she recounted. “The diet and lifestyle was unsustainable. I’d rather weigh a few pounds more”¦it’s too much for me to be a bone rack.”

      The experience has, however, changed how Snow perceives the reality-TV shows she watches, including America’s Next Top Model.

      “You know everything is set up,” she said, noting that this realization hasn’t diminished her enjoyment of Top Model or other programs. “It’s cheap entertainment. That’s all TV is anyway.”