In the past we've talked about the role of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in fashion, such as its requirements for labeling products made of cashmere, cotton, down, feather, fur, wool, etc. Its guidelines also extend to the disclosures that must be made by bloggers when they accept compensation in exchange for a blog post (aka when they endorse something). Also, the FTC governs the posting of sponsored tweets. It does all of these things (and more) in furtherance of its main goal: "to prevent business practices that are anticompetitive or deceptive or unfair to consumers; to enhance informed consumer choice and public understanding of the competitive process; and to accomplish this without unduly burdening legitimate business activity." So, why then doesn't the FTC or maybe better yet, the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) step in when it comes to "Reality" TV.
A couple notes before I go any further: 1 - I do believe that the FTC is a relevant party here, to some extent, even if the FCC mainly handles TV, because TV networks are essentially using the notion of "reality" as a selling point (and key aspect of advertising) for many programs when the reality aspect simply isn't true; and 2 - I am not writing to abolish reality TV (even though that could arguably be nice). I know that the FCC is legally barred from censoring broadcast material, in most cases, and from making any regulation that would interfere with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. I know that. What I am interested in is the labeling of reality TV as "reality" when it is largely ... not.
The reason I come up with to explain how The Hills, The Jersey Shore, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and every other obviously carefully produced reality TV show are legally permitted to be labelled by TV networks, in particular, as "reality TV" is because everyone knows they're fake. I liken it loosely to the legal doctrine of puffery, which is advertising statements and claims that express subjective rather than objective view. Think: "We make the best dresses in the world." This statement, if made by a designer in an ad, for sentence, would likely not be a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act because no "reasonable person" would take literally. In the same vein, calling The Real Housewives of wherever a reality show may not be misleading because everyone knows it not all that real.
This reasoning, however, assumes that most people are cognizant of the fact that reality TV isn't actually reality; they know that individuals are cast as characters, filming is heavily edited and often presented in a manner far different from which it was initially captured, scripts exist, scenes are staged, etc. They also know that Real Housewives contracts include the following language, “The rights granted herein shall also include the right to edit, delete, dub and fictionalize the Footage and Materials, the Program and the Advertisements as Producer sees fit in Producer’s sole discretion."
Celebrated journalist and media critic Jennifer Pozner spoke to this point not too long ago, saying:
If you ask most people, “Do you think reality TV is real?”, they’ll say, “Oh, no, no, I know it’s fake”—but in the next breath they’ll say, “Oh, but that bitch needed to get eliminated,” or, “Oh, but that guy was such a douchebag.” Well, if you think you know anything about any of the people you’ve seen on reality shows, you don’t know that the shows are not real. These shows aren’t any more real than Mad Men, without the cool clothes. But Mad Men, at least, is intentionally scripted.
So, is it not entirely clear that the majority of people watching reality TV know just how fake it is. Thus, is it misleading to call something a reality TV show?
Writing for Vulture, Gavin Polone, an agent-turned-film producer (he's worked on “Panic Room” and “Zombieland"), television director and television producer (think: “Gilmore Girls” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), further commented on the lack of reality in reality TV shows: "While watching June’s season finale of The Real Housewives of Orange County, my experience in TV production told me that much of what went on during the fight-filled episode had to have been staged. The camera angles were too planned, the plot was too linear, the interpersonal drama too heightened." He also posed some relevant questions: "When does 'producing' a reality show cross the line into the territory of fabricating character, plot, and incident as one would with a scripted show? And does the distinction even matter?"
For us, this distinction matters, as it changes things, legally. Aside from the fact that reality TV shows would have to be marketed differently (and arguably more accurately) if they were deemed to be not real, other concerns come into play. The categorization of reality TV shows as scripted programs would subject the show to union rules and pay scales. So, while reality-show participants (as non-union members) have relatively few legal protections, professional actors work under union rules that specify how much you get paid, how many hours a week you can work until overtime kicks in, how many weeks in a row you can work, and what kind of health and retirement benefits you get. This is one difference that comes with the reality vs. scripted program distinction, and because there are few government safeguards in place to monitor these productions because of their middle of the road classification, a lot more would potentially change if the shows were considered scripted.
In addition to the treatment of actors over age 18, minors would be affected by the categorization of reality TV shows as scripted shows. According to a recent piece by the Los Angeles Times, an array of children consistently appear on reality programs without legal safeguards because of widespread uncertainty about how to classify the shows. The Times found that 11 shows filming in eight states had not filed paperwork to hire minors. Furthermore, while there are state laws in place that protect child performers, due to the nature of reality TV in contrast to scripted TV, there are no state-mandated instructors or union representatives on set to limit the number of hours the children are on camera, to make sure they get meal breaks and go to school, or to prevent exposure to dangerous situations. Most reality show children are not guaranteed that they will be compensated or that any money they do earn will be set aside for them.
So, with all of these things at stake, I really do wonder why reality TV shows are labeled as such. Thoughts?