Reality and documentation: Interview with a Real World camera operator

While looking for more permanent work, I worked briefly as a production assistant for The Real World during its second tenure here in New Orleans. I lasted only three weeks before quitting. (When pay is good, I have a higher bullshit threshold; obviously, this was not the case.)

For a few years now, I’ve concerned myself with reality television. Thinking about the media not as a reflection of society, but rather as an active cultural force in its production and reproduction — its realization — reality television was an easy starting point, not merely because of its pretensions of realism, but because its realism can be mobilized politically as fuel for ideological fires.

Many authors in the media studies world have written about reality television and its synchronous emergence alongside new forms of governance: namely, “neoliberalism.” Contrasted with earlier televisual forms that spoke to “the real” — and their relationship to macro-economic trends (such as the didactic documentary concerning social ills, a cornerstone of public broadcasting in the 1960s, that dovetailed nicely with Keynesian thinking) — reality television’s individualizing and penetrating formats echo post-Reagonomic thought about individual responsibility and flexible forms of capital accumulation.

Regardless of how convincing this argument is, the genre’s takeover of corporate media, beginning in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and which continues today, did not occur in a vacuum. Its low production costs and its transmutability across subgenres (makeover shows, cooking shows, travel shows, gameshows — they’ve all been inflected by “reality”) are but two factors in this coup.

Thinking less about the reality genre’s material advantages, however, there’s something about the contemporary global cultural climate of capitalism, specifically regarding its aptitude for reality entertainment. And vice versa: that there’s something inherent in reality that speaks to the cultural climes of our times.

But the reality industry is not homogeneous. From within, there are dissenting views about the nature of reality and, then, the genre’s relationship to it — how reality is portrayed.

I had a chance to briefly interview one of the Real World‘s camera operators at length about these issues, especially as they pertain to this show and some of the changes that it has undergone in the past decade or so. Bearing in mind that the Real World is one of the longest running reality shows on TV today, and is an obvious flagship for the reality genre, my interlocutor viewed the show’s trajectory as a reflection of the industry writ large.

Of particular concern to this camera operator is the difference between “documenting” reality and “producing” it.

On the other hand, of particular concern to me are the parallels that this camera operator draws between the pitfalls of reality television and those of anthropology. Whereas for this Real World Employee [RWE], traditional anthropology falls short in its attempt to document the complex interconnections and layered representations within and between pristinely-depicted and reified “cultures,” so too does reality television fail to document how its own influence has affected the individuals who volunteer and are selected to participate on its shows. In other words, social reality is inflected by reality television, as its objects (TV show contestants and participants) are also its subjects (their reality and social interactions are shaped by, and subjected to, reality television’s depictions of behavior).

Below are portions of this interview:

Me [AS]: So one of the things — I know that you feel that The Real World is of a different caliber, or genre, basically, within reality television. So what are some of those differences?

Real World Employee [RWE]: One of the things about the Real World is that it’s one of the longest lasting. It’s been around for so fucking long, it almost wrote the book on reality.

But the one thing everyone doesn’t accept about it is that it’s changed, because of that fact — because it was the original. People don’t acknowledge that the Real World then — you know, for one, the demographic changes. They [the Real World producers] fully accept within the show that every three years they have a completely new audience. Which is true. You maybe, at most, will watch six seasons and then you outgrow it.

The only issue is that for what used to be relatively genuine — it was a sociological project, no one had ever done it before. Put a bunch of people together, you film everything. What they realized the first season was that it wasn’t very entertaining because everyone got along. So, then, it’s not that — and this is where it gets interesting as to why it’s different — in a lot of reality television, things are produced, so you’ll literally — good example, right, the Kendra show, Girls Next Door. These are women who do this for a living, so they’re literally pulled in and you can say, “so, right now, we need a scene where you guys are packing to go on this trip; so, go ahead and start packing and while you’re doing it, say x, y, and z — in your own way, but just make sure you say these things.” So, they do, and it looks whatever, but it’s easy to shoot because you have someone telling them, “OK, we’re going to shoot this now and this is how it’s going to go,” and it’s very easy. Whereas with the Real World, it’s very different.

The only thing now is, Real World is in its 24th season. It’s been done, it’s been polished, the format, the approach. I mean, it’s so dialed and so systematic now that part of it has lost that — it’s not documenting anymore because the system is so built up around it. The format, the rules they live under, are so established that they’re not really living, they’re playing within these rules.

[…]

It’s genuine in the sense that it’s not produced; there’s not someone sitting there telling them, “go here, go there, you should go here, you could do this.” The only rules those kids live by are that they’re not allowed to go anywhere that we can’t follow with the camera.

[…]

AS: So, OK, so I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say that you’re making a claim that it is less of a sociological experiment because of how loaded it’s become, because of how it’s being produced — at any rate, I’m not believing you. Why is it less real than it used to be? Tell me more.

RWE: Because it’s gotten so dialed that — it’s one of the things that when you do a brand new show, when you work for a brand new company, they’re not tied up in legalities. Bunim-Murray is one of the largest reality TV — reality television production companies out there. They’re the most corporate.

[…]

Part of that is understanding that it’s because it’s coming out of a corporate structure. So things like endorsements are there. It’s not — there are certain things that you can’t show. This is a prime example — smoking. MTV does not like smoking. You can’t show smoking if it makes it look cool.

AS: Right.

RWE: So if you have two smokers on the show — which we do, it happens a lot — and they’re having a heart-to-heart while having a cigarette, you might not be able to use that scene because they’re smoking. And that’s not because of Bunim-Murray, that’s because — which for some corporate whatever, I mean, MTV’s owned by Viacom, Viacom’s owned by — who the fuck knows? But because it’s so big, because there are so many hands in the pot saying “you can’t do this.” A lot of the times, we’re told what can and cannot happen and we’re given fuck-all for a reason. But you just accept that it’s because someone in corporate headquarters, who has zero understanding of what it actually takes to make these shows — and that’s the worst part, because we get pushed to the limits. I mean, this is a very physical job. It’s demanding. It’s mentally straining. It’s just — it’s a really fucking hard thing to do. And you have someone who sits in an office with zero idea of what goes into it, telling you, “well, you need to be doing it like this.” Well, you need to go fuck yourself —

AS: Sure.

RWE: — and come down here and see what goes into this, and then tell me that that’s real. That happens a lot.

AS: So what could it make it more real? Aside from being less corporate?

RWE: Acknowledging the process.

AS: Right.

RWE: It’s what the show lost — it’s a very stressful process to have your life fully documented. And at some point — most will say it was the Vegas season — this show changed.

Suddenly in Vegas you have a bunch of kids living in a sky villa in a Vegas casino and they’re getting drunk and they’re partying. It’s really what it was. It was one of the highest rated seasons they’ve ever had, just because of that — because no one had ever seen anything like that; no one showed just unadulterated partying all the time. But what they lost in doing that was that it stopped being about — it stopped being about the process.

So where they used to show someone having a really hard time having a camera around 24-7, and that was a freak out, that’s a legitimate reason to freak out. If I had a camera around me 24-7, I’d probably flip my shit. But now, they’ve removed the fact that the process is happening so much that — last season, in DC, one of the girls was sleeping with one of the guys in the house and they stopped sleeping together, and they’re having an argument. Myself and another guy are shooting it and she basically says, “I don’t like you, you’re really not my type. It happened, blah, blah, blah, blah.” He goes, “well, who’s really your type?” She points at us. “I’d rather sleep with them than you.” So you’re standing there, you’re shooting it, you’re like, “well, that just happened,” and you’re paid to stay stoic. You just don’t show anything. At that point you get on the walkie and you’re like, “we have got to come off the floor, we are causing the scene.” That argument aired, but they never cut it to show the fact that one of the main things that set the guy off was that she mentioned the crew. It’s totally removed.

AS: Do you think they used to do that [expose the crew’s influence on the cast members]?

RWE: I think they used to do it to the extent that when someone would have a breakdown, if someone would yell at the camera — if these kids go to a bar, they don’t just go to a bar; they go to a bar with a camera crew following them. The experience they’re going to have with people with cameras following them is hugely different from the experience they’d have otherwise.

AS: Sure.

RWE: Right, and there’s no denying that. But if you don’t acknowledge that within the final product then it stops being a true document, because our presence there — the process is just as much about us as it is about them. So, not showing — you know, last season I remember, we took the kid to a bar one night and some guy is like, “Oh, the Real World,” and just starts going off on one of the girls, purely because she was a Real World cast member. And she handled it relatively well, but it really fucked with her. She was really upset. That will never make it — and one of her roommates trying to help her — she tore their head off and it created a lot of tension. But explaining that can’t happen because they won’t —

AS: The fourth wall?

RWE: Yeah, the fourth wall must be maintained. Whereas before, it wasn’t so dialed, it wasn’t so loaded that there aren’t — “Well, you know, we have these people coming in, they might agree on this point, they might disagree on this point, they might whatever” — they would take any story they got. Now, it’s so well cast that the lead director on it is a licensed psychiatrist, or psychologist.

AS: He picks out types?

RWE: They cast them a certain way. For one, it takes a very specific type of personality to say, “I am fine with being on camera 24-7,” but then on top of that — it’s funny too, because the people who, in my opinion, seem the most sane, the cast members I’ve always enjoyed the company of, are the ones who never end up on the show because they’re not entertaining.

AS: Yeah.

[…]

RWE: So that’s really — it’s the thing that gets me about this show specifically, because plenty of other shows are highly produced, and they acknowledge that. They’re not trying to be anything but that.

AS: Like what?

RWE: Produced. Like, I said, the Kendra Show, Girls Next Door — these reality contestant shows where you go on and you’re working for a prize or something.

AS: Right.

RWE: Those fully acknowledge they are produced; this is the way they are.

AS: But they’re still qualified as —

RWE: — as reality. Whereas the Real World is struggling with what it is, because it used to be something and now it doesn’t want to accept that the show is run by a bunch of fifty-plus-year-olds. I mean they have these theories on, “well, we’ve seen this all before” — but it’s like, by going into it thinking you know what’s going to happen and doing all these things to pretty much predetermine it, what’s the point? Now it’s — they’ve done it so much, it’s so mechanical, between the casting, the set-up of the house, the personalities they put in there, how they have cameras — it’s just so loaded — the opportunities they help them find. So, one thing they found was, they stopped getting them a group job —

AS: Oh really? I didn’t know that.

RWE: Because the group job, some of them would be into it, some of them wouldn’t be into it, and because of it, they were like, well, we’ll just let them do their own thing, which has two — there’s an up to it and a down to it for [the producers]. The up is, they’re all a bit more engaged or they’re just not engaged, which shows a level of character on the kids’ side. On the downside, they’re not all together interacting —

AS: — All day everyday?

RWE: Yep.

[…]

I guess it comes down to — what originally enticed me about the Real World was doing a genuine document, doing something that — because it’s one of the first things that people say to me, “oh, so you guys get the kids and blah, blah, blah” — people don’t realize how hands off the process is, which, at first, is amazing, because it really is unlike anything else. It’s just, “here’s everything,” and then back away. [The cast members] don’t know the crewmembers’ names. Their mode of communication with production is to “call the bat-phone” — there’s a phone in the house and when they pick it up, it rings in the control room, and whoever is there, the producer on duty —

AS: There’s someone there 24 hours?

RWE: There’s someone in that room 24-7, so, even if the house is empty, there’s someone in that room monitoring, because if they come back, if there’s anything. All of the cameras throughout the house, you can roll on them from that room. See, this is the stuff I’m really not supposed to say. They show it on the making-of specials, but these are the things you’re really not supposed to say to anyone. So everyone used to — you know, everyone asks me, “well, do you guys get them to do this, or this?” — we really don’t get them to do shit.

AS: Yeah.

RWE: They do what they do. It’s totally — it’s totally on them. But like I said already, the whole process under which they’re doing those things is so loaded that it’s — it’s not free will; it’s not whatever they would do. They’re cast to be a certain way. The other thing is that after you do something this long — this is the mother of reality shows — every single kid on the show now has seen this show. They’re not going into it fresh, they’re not going into it for the experience; they’re going into it to be on the show. The show in and of itself has become something.

AS: Sure.

RWE: So to do it now, every time it’s done, it becomes less and less of a document, just because — by nature — it’s slowly growing and nobody wants to accept that. You know, it’s — no one accepts that — you’ll have people who have watched it say, “when I was younger, the show was X.” But the people making it don’t acknowledge that every time it’s made, it’s not the same. It’s dying. And I — personally, I think it’s dead. They come; they party; they feel like fucking rock stars because they have a camera crew behind them. And it’s just — I don’t — personally, I think it’s dead.

AS: So what do you see for the future of reality, then?

RWE: The future of reality television? I don’t really know.

AS: Or documentation. Documentary.

RWE: Well, here’s the thing — reality has become a genre and it’s going to keep going. You know, television — entertainment — goes in these swings. Legitimate reality is still legitimate reality. It’s funny — people laugh at me — I think Jackass is an amazing reality show because it really is a group of friends who beat the shit out of each other and it’s very genuine. And a lot of the moments you see in their movies or shows, whatever, is them traveling. It’s — yes, they set a lot of stuff up, but there’s a lot of moments hidden in it where it’s just them fucking around that you see a glimpse of — this is these guys, in a hotel, for whatever reason, they’re on a shoot, whatever, but this is really how they are with each other. That’s a genuine moment. That’s a document. And it accepts that this is a group of guys that — Steve-O, for example, fascinates the shit out of me. He, through all his drug issues and everything, always kept a camera on himself. So, they just released something where basically it’s him, through his intervention, everything, but having filmed himself. They have every bit of it.

AS: They released this as a —

RWE: He released it — it was released as a documentary film. And that’s fucking amazing because it really is genuine. I mean, here you have Johnny Knoxville, who’s now famous, wealthy, whatever, doing an intervention with a friend. He’s legitimately saying that he’s scared shitless about what’s going to happen to him — it takes down — it humanizes everything they do. Because you wonder, oh, they’re so crazy. But to actually watch them and see — I mean, he has a movie that he did before Jackass got big on just him as a younger guy being retarded. And it’s absolutely amazing because of the glimpses into him. It’s a true document.

AS: So now — so what we’re talking about now is a little bit different. You’re not talking about recognizing — the people being filmed recognizing the camera’s presence or the process of making —

RWE: The thing with reality television now is that it’s all made for the camera.

I bring the Steve-O example because that’s what they were doing; they just happen to film it. So, it’s not about the fact that they’re filming, it’s that’s what they’re doing. And who knows? The camera might play a part in it, where they wouldn’t have tried the — but then again, you figure with the consistency with which it’s done, it’s not all really all about the camera. Or maybe it is. And, I mean, fuck, dude, the camera made careers for all of them. But it really is the way they are. It’s a document, whereas when you look at reality television now, it’s for the camera. The scenarios, everything, it’s for the camera. It’s not a matter of — it wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the camera. It just wouldn’t. And nothing’s going to change that — that’s the thing, it’s that now that we’ve done this, there’s no going back.

You know, within anthropology there’s the idea of an untouched people. So, you find an untouched group and you go and you live with them and you study them. And it’s your influence, so you as an outsider, within the document, acknowledge yourself — this is — “I’m white and thirty five and married and blah, blah, blah; this is my point of view,” and you go and you look at them and they’re untouched. They have no opinion of me other than me. So, “here’s me and here’s them, and here’s everything I observe about them.” Reality television started like that. Here’s a bunch of people, we’re going to make a TV show about them. But it’s not scripted; it’s just what happened. So, then you show that to someone and they watch it, and they’re like, “I’m going to do that; I’m going to be the person on the TV.” Suddenly, it’s loaded, and no one wants to acknowledge that. The kids on the Real World now grew up watching the Real World.

AS: Right.

RWE: So what they’re doing for the cameras is a result of what was done. The people were entertaining, endearing — fuck it, any of it. The vacuum is broken. It doesn’t exist anymore. And there’s no getting that back. And that’s the thing that everyone’s in fucking denial about, where it’s like, “well, we can still make this thing.” No, you really can’t because what made it possible — you basically need a group of people who’ve never watched television to get that same genuine result. The first few seasons of it, where it’s done and, okay, not everyone watches MTV, it wasn’t the fucking monster it is these days, where it’s totally reasonable to say, you know, not everyone who’s on the [Real World] has seen the show before. That’s not that far flung.

But in the age of DVRs and Hulu and all these things where — you know, I film the kids a lot and they’re talking about, “well, on DC [the Real World season in Washington, DC]” — that was a recent quote — “we need to clean the house, because the kids on DC, that place was so fucking disgusting, we’re not going to be like that.” Well, are you normally a slob or do you just not want to look like one on national television? But that’s a product of the fact that it’s already happened.

AS: I understand what you’re saying.

RWE: So it loses —

AS: So would something like that be included?

RWE: Them mentioning the other season? Absolutely not. But that’s why I say, if the show could be reflexive — what the show was is gone, because the show was touching untouched people. Everyone’s been touched now. And it’s one of the things where — you know, it happened in anthropology — everyone was so determined to find the un — “we’re gonna have a document, and these people are untouched.” People would go and write these ethnographies ignoring the fact that these aren’t untouched people, but they make them seem untouched, which just isn’t the case.

AS: Yeah.

RWE: So —

AS: — I see the parallel.

RWE: But with ethnography, the thing is, we then discover a whole new era. […] So, now, let’s look at the new times and look at all these things that have arisen because of [those changes]. You know, so, the same way, where people just — as soon as everyone got out of their own way — and this is — I used to butt heads all the time with the head of our anthropology department, because he was very old school; he studied the Nuer. He was an old school, untouched civilizations guy. He got to do that study. But he never accepted that the world changed once he did that. There is no going back there. It’s done. But because of it, because that difference has now been made, what’s the world we’re living in? What do we need to look at? We need to look at media. Media is the new frontier. We’re connecting on all these levels; we’re influencing each other on all these levels — so, very similar to that idea. Anthropology changed because, suddenly, there’s no more untouched people. But that’s what happened with reality and no one wants to accept it. Everyone feels like they can just keep making the same show.

AS: And it requires more and more work to keep up appearances?

RWE: Because the fourth wall gets taller and taller and taller. Now, if they accepted that this is the process — and some people would say, “well, you have Big Brother,” they’re all slammed into a house, they’re all doing this, the whole thing’s shot through two-way mirrors so that they never see the operators, who are sitting on a dolly-track behind the mirror — that’s a sociological experiment — that’s a mental mind-fuck. You’re trapped in an enclosed space, no daylight, mirrors everywhere, knowing that there’s cameras everywhere, and it’s a question of who will get kicked off first. But at least it acknowledges that — “here are the rules, here are the people put into the rules” —

AS: — the parameters.

RWE: Right — “let’s see what happens.” But the Real World is breaking further and further away from what it actually is. Where it used to be interesting was that no one’s done this and we’re going to do it and acknowledge it. But now, okay, it’s been done, but if they just came out and said, “we have a group of people, we’re gonna put them all together, they’re going to try and go and party, whatever” — but if they acknowledged the presence of the camera, then it would become a document again.

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