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How real is this reality TV I'm watching?
August 26, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

Reality TV: How "real" are the dangers, how "neutral" are the camera crews?

Over the last year or so I've discovered the guilty pleasure of watching several reality TV shows that feature dangerous occupations, e.g., Bering Sea Gold and it's newest variant, Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice, which has a lot of the same folks as the original series, only instead of diving and dredging for gold in open water they are diving/dredging under sea ice. Fun times.

But while I enjoy the show for a number of reasons, I find that as I watch it I'm always wondering just what the ground rules are with regards to intervention by the show's camera people, who are obviously diving or working alongside the show's onscreen participants.

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POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN EPISODE 1 OF BSG:UI

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For example, in the first episode of Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice, there's a brief interlude where one of the gold divers runs into difficulty with his wet suit, and he calls up to the surface for help, but his crew have left the radio and are back at the sluice looking at gold he's dredging. It's clear he's in distress, no one is hearing his cries for help, and his distress is being filmed both below the surface and above at the empty top-side radio. And it is strongly suggested that if he doesn't get help soon, he will be at real risk for hypothermia and his situation will become dire. Eventually (hard to say how long this takes due to editing), his cries are heard and...well, let's just say he doesn't die on camera in the first episode.

But I was left wondering...would the TV crew have stood by and filmed his death if his teammates hadn't heard his cries? Were the teammates alerted to his cries by the TV crew, or will the TV crew always stand back and let things play out? There was a similar situation in an episode of the original series, where a diver became entangled in the dredging equipment and had to free themselves, and it seemed as if the TV crew was content to film their demise if it were to have happened. I mean, I'm sure some of this is just good editing (and that near death experiences are also what many people want to see), but what I'm really curious about is the "rules of engagement" for TV crew intervention. Are there explicit instructions that the TV crew are only there as observers? Will they step in or speak up if no one else notices that a dangerous situation is moving from "looks very scary/could be bad" to "this person is absolutely gonna die if no one intervenes"?

Any insight would be appreciated, especially if it's based on interviews, stated facts, or inside knowledge, as opposed to just a "best guess" that they'd probably stop short of filming an actual death that could be prevented.
posted by mosk to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
FWIW, according to this article, the COPS camera crew have abandoned their equipment and gotten involved in emergency situations upon occasion.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:11 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Typically there are enough medics and producers standing by so that whatever needs to be done (medical attention, breaking up a serious fight) can be done without abandoning the camera. People receive serious medical assistance/evacuation all the time on Survivor (and the competitions do stop in those instances).

As far as I know only one death has occurred during the filming of a reality show, Captain Phil Harris on Deadliest Catch. He died of complications from a stroke, not anything caused by the show. Apparently he "insisted" that the producers continue filming, implying that there was a clear choice. That's the only precedent I can think of to answer your question.

Less-relevant example is the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones on The First 48. She was shot by a real police officer during the course of a raid that was coincidentally being filmed by the TV show. I think she died immediately, but in any case the police were there to take control of the situation (even though they caused it, ugh).

Finally, the drama/danger on Man vs. Wild is frequently invented, which may give you an idea of the Bering Sea Gold situation. I can almost guarantee you that one of two things may have happened: 1) The crew members heard his distress call fairly quickly, and the whole situation was edited out of proportion, or 2) the producers immediately alerted the crew members, knowing that saving someone from "near" death is a lot better for ratings/renewal than an actual death.
posted by acidic at 2:14 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


In one of the earlier seasons of Survivor one of the contestants inhaled smoke and fell into the campfire and burned off all the skin on his hands. He came to quickly after falling in and then ran into the lake to cool off his hands. The crew filmed the entire thing but the medics also showed up quickly.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:17 PM on August 26, 2012


IANAL but I am pretty sure that standing by and watching someone die when there is something simple to be done would open the near certainty of a lawsuit against the production company for negligence. (The results of the would depend on the facts, but certainly someone would sue them.) An official corporate policy of nonintervention when lives are in danger would not go over well in a jury trial. While ethics of good tv vs. human decency might up for argument in the boardroom, most businesses would try to avoid the possibility of losing a wrongful death lawsuit.
posted by metahawk at 2:28 PM on August 26, 2012


All "reality" shows are rehearsed and staged. All are shot with at least three cameras, with pre-laid trucking tracks for the wide-angle scenes, alternating over-the-shoulder cameras for face-to-face conversation closeups, plus lighting for the perfectly lit night scenes, plus directors, grips, continuity checkers, food service trucks, bathroom facilities, hairdressers, makeup artists, trailers for the stars, and on and on.

In the credits at the end, in microscopic type, you'll find disclaimers that scenes were re-shot and that the show is "for entertainment only." It's no more true than the National Perspirer checkout counter rags with headlines like "Dwarf Rapes Nun, Flees in UFO."
posted by KRS at 2:29 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


All "reality" shows are rehearsed and staged. All are shot with at least three cameras, with pre-laid trucking tracks for the wide-angle scenes, alternating over-the-shoulder cameras for face-to-face conversation closeups, plus lighting for the perfectly lit night scenes, plus directors, grips, continuity checkers, food service trucks, bathroom facilities, hairdressers, makeup artists, trailers for the stars, and on and on.

I don't think this is always true. A colleague's husband was on an episode of Alaska State Troopers, and she said he said they just sent a camera operator along with him all day. Fifteen hours of shooting for five minutes of episode, or something.
posted by leahwrenn at 3:08 PM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs falls under reality TV (yes, I know it's heavily edited), and they seem to take a few risks when it comes to getting a shot. But I've seen a few of their shows where the crew will drop the camera to help Mike Rowe out when he gets in a tight spot.
posted by patheral at 3:22 PM on August 26, 2012


Bear Grylls had to apologize because he was not actually abandoned in the wilderness and even stayed in hotels during shooting. During one of the shows, he was not actually in the boonies, but a few hundred feet from a major highway.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:25 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know if KRS is joking or actually believes that, but he is completely wrong.

Reality shows live on a continuum of truth, with something like Cops on one end and Keeping Up with the Kardashians on the other. Some stage nothing, some stage a ton, many of them "stage" at least a few things (at least in the sense that the producer might ask very leading questions, or ask to have an answer repeated in a different way). There's no one way to answer this for all shows, but I assure you that there aren't dolly tracks, catering trucks and Star Waggons sitting around on every show as KRS seems to think.
posted by primethyme at 4:20 PM on August 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the replies so far. Let me just bring the focus back to my original question: I'm really most interested in the issue of safety/medical intervention (or non-intervention) by the camera crew. I am under no illusions that these shows are documentaries or exposés, and I understand they are heavily edited for my viewing pleasure. I totally get that. The question that has always nagged me as I watch these shows is, "if this guy diving beneath the surface really does get himself (or herself) into trouble, will the film crew stop filming and help them, summon help from someone else, or just film them suffer and/or die?" It sounds like the film crew would most likely call for help if they were the only ones to notice a situation getting out of hand, and would also intervene if absolutely necessary. No one's safety is guaranteed, and they aren't there to be someone's mother or hold their hand...but they are there, and they will step up and mitigate a disaster if necessary.

Is that about right?
posted by mosk at 4:31 PM on August 26, 2012


All "reality" shows are rehearsed and staged. All are shot with at least three cameras, with pre-laid trucking tracks for the wide-angle scenes, alternating over-the-shoulder cameras for face-to-face conversation closeups, plus lighting for the perfectly lit night scenes, plus directors, grips, continuity checkers, food service trucks, bathroom facilities, hairdressers, makeup artists, trailers for the stars, and on and on.


This is bologna; skepticism gone off the deep end. It might be true for some shows, but not all. No two television productions are the same.

What IS true is that they are edited to make viewer feel concern like mosk is feeling. They are edited to make it look like the people involved are in a lot more jeopardy than they really are.

Beyond that, the question is unanswerable, because it is asking what another person would do in a hypothetical situation.
posted by gjc at 5:36 PM on August 26, 2012


I found this reddit thread where a Survivor cameraman answers questions about what happens behind the scenes.
posted by la petite marie at 6:05 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


mosk, what I was saying is that it's never *just* the camera crew. There's always someone else there (a producer, usually many more). Even on the Amazing Race, which gets really bare-bones when teams are on their own driving around, each car comes with one camera operator and one producer. So, barring absolute catastrophe/disaster/chaos involving multiple lives at risk, there's really no need for the cameras to ever stop rolling.
posted by acidic at 6:11 PM on August 26, 2012


All "reality" shows are rehearsed and staged. All are shot with at least three cameras, with pre-laid trucking tracks for the wide-angle scenes, alternating over-the-shoulder cameras for face-to-face conversation closeups, plus lighting for the perfectly lit night scenes, plus directors, grips, continuity checkers, food service trucks, bathroom facilities, hairdressers, makeup artists, trailers for the stars, and on and on.

Having worked on several, I can tell you this would make post-production A MUCH EASIER JOB than it actually is. This is so not true, I don't even know what to tell you. For The Hills? Maybe. For a TON of others? No. Do you know how many hours I've spend searching for footage of someone on the phone but not speaking so I could cut together a scene where two characters are on the phone but we didn't happen to send Camera B to be with the person on the other end that day? A lot.

As far as your actual question goes, I think it's good to bear in mind that everyone who works on reality shows is a human being, and there is more than one person there generally. The very vast majority of human beings would stop doing their job in order to save someone's life, and a reality crew is no different. Because there is generally at least a camera person, a sound person, and a field producer, however, it IS possible to save someone's life AND keep rolling at the same time, potentially. I worked on a doc several years ago where one of our subjects had a seizure and went into a coma (she is fine now). We got it on tape for a couple of reasons: a) it happened in a hospital to begin with and the cast member was surrounded by doctors (she was one); the crew just had to get out of the way, and b) our DP was extraordinarily experienced and realized that his jumping in wouldn't help, so he might as well keep shooting. When there is someone OTHER than just the camera guy in the field (which is often the case), any camera person worth his or her stuff will ALWAYS keep shooting, so you COULD potentially get footage of this sort of thing, without it meaning that the crew wasn't helping if their help was needed.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 7:06 PM on August 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


Thank you, Countess Sandwich! That is exactly what I was hoping to read. I did not mean to imply that the crew was heartless, just that I wasn't clear on their role w/r/t stepping in and helping. Thank you for setting me straight.
posted by mosk at 7:27 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was just about to say something similar to Countess Sandwich. I happen to be on the road working on a reality tv shoot right now. This particular show doesn't involve the inherent dangers you mention, but we do spend time in rugged terrain and if someone is about to get injured nobody is about to stand there and watch it happen. If something were to happen though there are usually several people around so I guess the camera/s could keep rolling while other folks helped out.
I wish we had all the stuff KRS mentions, but one of the reasons networks and production companies love "reality" so much is the low cost of production compared to a regular scripted drama or sitcom or whatever. We don't have a medic standing by on location or anything like that.
Bottom line is that someone could get seriously injured or killed, but it won't be because the crew refuses to step in.
(Oh and Countess Sandwich I'll try to make sure we get that telephone listening shot for you this time.)
posted by zoinks at 8:10 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Steve Irwin died by a stingray barb while shooting his TV show; the death was caught on camera. (The link is to a news article; I've noticed YouTube videos purporting to be the footage of his death but am too squeamish to see it for myself)
posted by divabat at 8:25 AM on August 27, 2012


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