Wednesday, August 5, 2009

RE: Treatment of Reality Show Contestants

Back on August 1, the New York Times took some space that could have been devoted to a precious column about raising a puppy dog and published a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism revealing the "Harsh Reality" of reality television.

Long workdays and communication blackouts are largely the rule for contestants on reality shows, a highly lucrative genre that has evolved arguably into Hollywood’s sweatshop.

"Sweatshop"? Really? That sounds harsh. These contestants must be beaten if they don't produce compelling television on cue.

During the 2006 season of the popular ABC dating show “The Bachelor,” the contestants waited in vans for several hours while the crew set up for a 12-hour “arrival” party where, two contestants said, there was little food but bottomless glasses of wine. When producers judged the proceedings too boring, they sent out a production assistant with a tray of shots.

Wait a second. Reality show contestants are provided with free alcohol? That sounds great to me. Unless, sweatshop style, the contestants were forced to drink it?

Contestants on all of the series acknowledged that the producers never forced them to drink.

Okay, so these producers provided contestants with free alcohol. So far that doesn't sound so terrible. Free alcohol is my favorite kind. But that's just one of the "sweatshop" aspects. What else have producers done to these people?

“They locked me in a hotel room for three or four days” before production started, said Jen Yemola, a Pennsylvania pastry chef who was on the 2007 season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a cooking competition. “They took all my books, my CDs, my phone, any newspapers. I was allowed to leave the room only with an escort. It was like I was in prison.”

She was so discombobulated that she doesn't even know how many days she was locked in the hotel room? Was there no clock in the room? Were the windows blacked out, so the sun couldn't be seen rising and falling every day? What hotel was she in? Los Angeles has some pretty sweet hotels. I wouldn't mind spending a few days in the W, for instance. There's a hotel on Ocean in Santa Monica, the name escapes me right now and I'm too lazy to look it up, but I have some fond memories of that place, too.

But, the contestant admits, in her second to last sentence, that she was allowed to leave the room. In prison, you are not allowed to leave. In fact, prison is quite astonishingly awful. Being deprived of CDs and a phone (she doesn't mention not getting to watch television- did they take that away?) is not the same as being in a freaking prison.

What else?

Chloe Dao, the winner of the 2005-6 season of “Project Runway,” said that the filming would usually start at about 6 in the morning, “and we finished sewing every day around midnight.” The contestants then would tape the “confessionals,” in which they speak directly to the camera. “We would get to sleep at 1 to 3 a.m., and wake up again at 6 or 7.”

I have a very hard time believing that the classiest man on reality television, Tim Gunn, would allow the contestants on his show to be mistreated.

That sounds really bad. It could be why "Project Runway" contestants are sometimes shown sleeping on couches during their work time. Maybe we can give the producers the benefit of the doubt, and they're just trying to give their contestants a taste of actual "sweatshop" conditions, so they'll think twice before allowing all their future lines to be created in them.

But the producers say:

Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, the principals of the company Magical Elves, which produced the first five seasons of “Project Runway,” said in a written statement that the show kept contestants isolated “to ensure fairness and prevent cheating,” as well as to prevent results from leaking.

“We always give contestants the best conditions we can,” the executives said. “Our budgets are less than half what a similar network show would have, and that means very long days for cast and crew, but our contestants are fed at least every six hours, and there are always snacks and water available.”

Okay, so maybe it's not quite as bad as Chloe Dao suggests.

Still, what the article really needs is an impartial observer of reality television shows. Someone who examines the phenomenon from a detached, maybe even academic point of view, who can give us a serious and frank analysis. Where on earth would you find such a person? How about the University of freaking Iowa?

“The bread and butter of reality television is to get people into a state where they are tired, stressed and emotionally vulnerable,” said Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa and the author of “Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched.”

“That helps make them more amenable to the goals of the producers and more easily manipulated.”

The goals of the producers being to create interesting television shows that people watch. Those jerks. And the contestants, well, they're just morons who can't make informed decisions for themselves.

While contestants sign contracts with boilerplate warnings about physical dangers and emotional stress, Mr. Andrejevic, the Iowa professor, called it “disingenuous” for producers to suggest that contestants were adequately warned of the conditions they would face.

“Reality TV cast members are subject to totally unequal terms of negotiations,” he said. “They are essentially a disposable commodity, and if they don’t sign the contract there are hundreds of other people lining up for their spot.”

The contestants are given warnings about the conditions, but those warnings are "disingenuous" because they're not specific enough? I don't get it. I especially don't get the next part of his statement. They're being manipulated and mistreated by producers, and the proof of this is the fact that "there are hundreds of other people lining up for their spot"? It must be really and truly terrible, if there are all those other people lining up for their spot.

It's so bad that people are lining up to participate. Besides that, what does he know, he lives in freaking Iowa.

When I first moved to Los Angeles many years ago, I got a job at one of the studios. It was a crummy job, part time, no benefits barely above minimum wage, but I was happy to get it because it was a foot in the door. And, as I was often reminded, there were literally hundreds of other people lining up for my spot. And I wasn't even on television, for crying out loud. That's the way it works in Hollywood. (Seriously- have you ever seen "Swimming with Sharks"? The stuff Kevin Spacey does in that movie is mild compared to some things I heard about and saw.) I knew it. The people going on these shows know it.

Far from being disgruntled, many contestants — particularly those on the skill-based series — say the experience has paid off. Ms. Yemola, who finished third in 2007, says she does not regret her “Hell’s Kitchen” experience, which has allowed her to occasionally host her own local cooking show in Pennsylvania and has led to her being hired to perform cooking demonstrations.

Andrew Bonito, another contestant from the 2005 “Hell’s Kitchen,” said being on the series “helped me grow professionally.”

“It definitely contributed to my success,” said Mr. Bonito, who is now a manager at a Manhattan restaurant, The Palm. “And I got an opportunity to be a part of popular culture.”

And that's all you need to know. They are on television. For awhile, at least, they're famous. How they're treated is beside the point.

They're on television!

Tim Gunn pic source.


shampoo said...

I think the actual situation is too many contestants are surprised (somehow) that being on a show where you are being taped virtually around the clock is more like work than hanging out at home. by now, enough people have come off these shows and said what they're really like: no outside distractions, "confessionals" are actually interviews with leading questions, being on someone else's schedule, having more (free) alcohol than food, and being purposely put around people with clashing personalities. irene from the real world seattle (that was on in ... 93, maybe?) has made this a "crusade." but by 2009, anyone who hasn't figured out what it might be like is a moron. I guess that's why they don't know what a "sweatshop" actually is. I don't mean to say that the producers treat the contestants with loving kindness because most of them are probably unacquainted with the concept. and i don't mean that things couldn't be improved, but some people need to take off the hairshirt already. the thing I see as the biggest problem that really needs to be address is that sometimes a person with an "interesting personality" is actually mentally ill. it seems they do screen for it, to an extent, because so far nothhing too horrifying has happened, but it seems they might be taking that as a sign to be more lax in what they're doing to screen because some of the hotestants need meds stat.

A.Jaye said...

What does the New York Times know? If 'sweatshop' conditions ever involved alcohol then I'm giving up drinking for fun. I'd love a job that paid me to booze. I'd work hard and diligently at it as opposed to all the jobs where I turned up hungover and got sent home on the sick.

shampoo said...

god I am moving to enland. they fire you here. unless you're a hotestant and then they give you more free alcohol.

I don't think sweatshops gave the employees anything for free. well, I guess if you were horribly injured someone might give you a quick drink of cheap gin if your anguished cries were really getting on their nerves.

shampoo said...

I don't know where "enland" is, but I guess i'll have to find it to move there. my typing very bad. sorry.