I will be interviewing Al Walentis, author of The Secret World of Jon and Kate: The Stupidest Story in the History of the Universe and the People Who Covered It. If you haven't read it, Al worked as a reporter covering the story of the Gosselins for US Weekly. His book, which is the only book about the Gosselins other than those "written" by Kate, chronicles the story during the crazy summer of 2009. I contributed a chapter to the book which covers psychological aspects of the impact of reality TV on the family. The book can be purchased by clicking on the amazon link to the right (look for the little green book.)
What would you like to ask Al Walentis? Now is your chance. Leave your questions in the comments here, or email them to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This is part II of my interview with an anonymous television producer. The producer works for a network other than TLC and s/he has worked on reality TV shows as well as other forms of programming. This segment of our conversation goes more into how ratings work and how realistically reality TV participants are portrayed on their shows. I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to our discussion.
TVP: The ratings are an interesting thing. I noticed there's a question about how far the ratings have to drop before a show is canceled. It doesn't matter. Ratings don't have to drop for a show to be canceled. It can be canceled for any reason or it can be kept on if they see a viable interest in it.
WG: Even if the ratings aren't good?
TVP: Absolutely. They don't have to have a show go into the black to keep it on the air.
WG: How is interest in a show expressed, if not in ratings?
TVP: DVD sales, among other things, cross-over promotional types of things.
WG: So in other words, if the TV commercial revenue is only a small part of the revenue generated from a show, as long as the overall revenue is good...
TVP: Yes, the show doesn't have to generate any revenue to keep it on the air. Is it as good investment? No. But the rules set by the shareholders and set by the heads of development determine whether they'll keep it on the air or not. So, there's no set rules that if it drops below this rating, we have to take it off the air.
WG: But don't low ratings encourage them to move on to shows that will rate higher ratings?
WG: It's just not as black and white as most people think it is.
TVP: It doesn't have to make sense, that’s the thing. To you and I, if something doesn't make money, we try something else. Ultimately you have to decide to stop doing it. [In this case] TLC has to make that decision. Do we keep the show, as far as the ratings are concerned? In the cable market a 1.4 is actually a decent rating going across the board. You can make money off that. Now if you're comparing that to what their high was, like a 10.6 or so, that's a dramatic drop. But 10.6 was a dramatic high, too, when you're averaging a 3 or 4 before that.
WG: Speaking of the 10.6 ratings high, that was what the viewership was on the Hawaiian episode when Jon and Kate went to Hawaii to renew their wedding vows, and later on when looking at the time line it was apparent the marriage had already dissolved before that, but they kept producing shows.
WG: What do you think about that?
TVP: As a person or as a producer?
TVP: As a producer you have a responsibility to deliver a product for your network.
WG: Even if you have to blatantly lie to do it?
TVP: I'm not defending the ethics of everybody out there, but for me, that's not something I abide by. But there are people who will fight you that the truth is relative, and nowhere is there an actual affidavit at the top of the show saying “everything in this show we promise to be true and nothing but the truth.” It's not there. So it can be completely fabricated because they're not telling you that this is a testimonial. There's a lot of loopholes. As a producer, you have say as far as your content goes, but you always answer to a higher power, an executive producer, or to a head of development, or to the shareholders. There's always somebody above you who makes those decisions.
WG: So as a producer, you can excuse it, more or less.
TVP: You can fight it, but ultimately you'll lose the battle. The network gets what the network wants, and if you're not going to do it they'll find someone who will. So it's black or white in that way: Either you do it or you don't.
As a person, I'd feel morally pretty bad about putting stuff out there and showing it as the truth and knowing full well that it isn't. But, I don't work for TLC, so I really don't know what their motivation was or even what the nature of the relationship was that morning. It may have been what the tabloids said, who knows.
WG: I think one of the differences between this and other shows is that the viewers have really been emotionally invested in this show. They feel like they've seen the kids grow up, they've come to love the children, they've been through the marriage, they've been through the divorce, they've been through all kinds of important life things, so they're more invested than they might be for other shows. So when they find out that something like that, and it's part of such a big production, in an hour long episode of a show that's normally just a half hour, that the whole thing was fabricated, that the kids were taken to Hawaii to be a part of it, that they bought those pretty outfits, that they stood on that beach and did the whole shebang, viewers feel manipulated.
WG: Because that feels to them like a lie because of their emotional investment.
TVP: Right. And that's completely understandable to feel that way, it makes sense. But at the same time, there's no affidavit saying “this is the truth.” So it's kind of shady, that's the best word I can use, but there's nothing against what they're doing, and you can't sue somebody for putting a show on TV and then lying to you in it, unless they're trying to demonstrate this as the truth.
WG: But don't you think that part of the appeal of it is that they call it “reality TV.” I mean, why not then instead have a sit-com about this Asian-looking dad and Pennsylvania Dutch looking mom, and then have the mom have all kinds of gizmos done to herself to become a barbie, and then take the kids to the farmer’s house and get chickens, or whatever. Why not just have a sit-com like that? But we call it realty TV and the implication is “this is real.”
TVP: It's based in reality. You could do a sit-com like that and nobody would watch it. To a lot of people, reality TV is escapism, it gives you the ability to be a voyeur, to see how other people live, that's why these shows with the “real housewives” and the celebrities are so enticing. Because they're showing you another side of society, the “what-if.” You're fantasizing about a life that you don't have. If you put them into a sit-com you'd know right away, here are the lines, this is an actor who's playing a character. The lines are a little bit more gray for a reality show. You've probably heard of the show The Hills. It's constantly being put down for being scripted and heavily produced, and there's no apologies for that because there's no guarantee or promise about what happens.
I think the best thing viewers can do is educate themselves about reality TV, what is and isn't real life vs. reality television. To know that reality TV is a snapshot of somebody at their very worst or very best. In essence, they're playing an archetype of who they really are.
WG: When someone comes across as a villain, like Spencer Pratt or Danielle Staub, do they allow themselves to be portrayed that way just for the money? Because in essence what you're saying is that the Spencer Pratt we all know and hate isn't really Spencer Pratt.
TVP: I'm saying that what you see on the show is a heightened version of who this person really is. Now you're talking about individual choice. Some people can decide they're going to play a full-blown character for a show, and you have others who are just going with the flow. You just don't know, it's very individual, so you can't make one judgment about them all.
WG: But why would someone continue on a show when they're portrayed poorly? Why do a Spencer Pratt or a Danielle continue on for further seasons when they appear so unattractive and unlikeable?
TVP: Because a key part of infamy is fame. I think that to be a household name and be hated is almost as good as to be a household name and be loved.
WG: If you want fame that badly. So basically you're saying they’re' fame whores. [WG and TVP both laugh.] I said that, you didn't.
TVP: And you can't make a statement like that about someone specifically, because you don't know. I don't know these people, I can't say this is why they do it, but there was a recent study done of high school students and what they wanted to do later in life and what was most important to them after they graduate, and overwhelmingly the answer was to be famous. That tells you a lot about the society we live in right now, and it's as important to be noticed and validated as it is to be successful and autonomous. So in some ways reality shows are a reflection of who we are as a society as much as the reverse.
WG: I personally think it would be wonderful to be incredibly rich and have nobody know who I am, because then you could really enjoy it. But fame changes your life.
TVP: It doesn't have to. If you look at Los Angeles as a city, there are places there where people go where they know they'll be photographed and they know there’s going to be paparazzi there, and they know that if they frequent this club, they're going to be in the magazines. That will keep them relevant, their names will be in the tabloids. And then you have the others, who are successful actors and musicians and entertainers who decide they're going to live outside of that area. They still go about their regular lives. We go to the grocery store here and there [around L.A.] and we see celebrities on a regular basis. Why? Because they're not [promoting anything and they're just living their normal lives.]
WG: Yeah, but we're talking reality TV. You can't be a Housewife of Atlanta and not have people know who you are. It's the nature of reality TV that causes people to associate you with your character. You can't get away from it.
TVP: And that's where reality TV is a very different medium from traditional scripted television, or films for that matter. Because that line isn't drawn in the sand, you don't have that privacy, because I'm inviting you into my house every week, to see my bedroom, to see my husband, to see my family, to see us in our intimate moments, in our emotional strife. You're giving that up by letting the cameras in? Why do people do it? They want to get a point across, or they want to sell a product, or they want to get money, who knows what the reasons are and they vary from one side to the other. But that's one of the issues of reality TV in general: You're inviting speculation about your life, and inviting infamy, by doing it.
p.s. don't forget to submit your questions for Al.