The Seamy Underside Of Reality

  • by February 24, 2006
The road to making a reality TV show is paved with more than a few bumps, dyspepsia, and plenty of mind-numbing ironies. So too, it turns out, is making a film about the underside of reality TV.

"American Cannibal: The Road to Reality," a searing new documentary film premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, goes behind the scenes of an ill-fated reality TV production and raises provocative questions for a media industry and advertisers that have seemingly insatiable appetites for the reality genre.

The film, directed by Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro, who've worked in TV news and for VH1, offers a compelling glimpse into the American mindset and the white-hot obsession with manufacturing fame and celebrity, especially that of the C-list variety. The story is told from the perspective of writing partners Gil S. Ripley and Dave Roberts, who realize after rounds of fruitless pitching to cable network execs, that reality TV concepts are the only currency that matters.



Grebin and Nigro's documentary examines the innards of a reality TV production to probe the media industry and America's fascination with the genre, ultimately pointing out the insidious manipulations of reality TV, and how it has co-opted truth, and surely, scripted programming. The directors chronicle Ripley and Roberts' travails and struggle to get work over the course of 18 months. The duo eventually score a writing opportunity, if you can call it that: they become involved in "American Cannibal," a "Survivor"-esque reality TV show backed by Kevin Blatt, best known for peddling the Paris Hilton sex tape that turned the heiress into a cottage industry.

Adult Connection

The audacious Blatt, whose production company is mainly involved in adult entertainment projects in So-Cal's San Fernando Valley, is by turns hysterically funny, pathetic, but always shrewd. He offers some of the film's most unforgettable moments. This viewer was left wondering whether Blatt realized he was bordering on self-parody. One particularly surreal moment occurs as Ripley and Roberts are invited to a party with Blatt and his people. Nubile young women shake their enormous breasts at the bewildered writers, who can't quite process the madness. At one point, one of the women appears sans panties, white tampon string dangling before the camera. Hyper-reality sets in.

Blatt's production company held nationwide auditions last spring for the show, which was then dubbed "The Ultimate, Ultimate Challenge." The casting call sought strong, able-bodied people ages 18 and up. The directors introduce viewers to a gaggle of would-be contestants--clowning and ebullient, heady in their voracious desire to make it, or at least break through via a reality TV show. They want attention so badly, they appear ready for anything.

The production, touted as "Survivor" meets "Fear Factor" via "Eco-Challenge," commenced shooting last August on an island off Puerto Rico. What follows is a sweaty, nausea-inducing sequence of events as the cast and crew, Ripley and Roberts, host George Gray of ESPN's "I'll Do Anything," and the film's producers and directors try to keep up with the chaotic shoot. After six days of shooting, there is a calamity: a young woman is injured in a fall during an extreme challenge. She falls into a coma and is transported to a hospital in Puerto Rico. Production is halted, the crew is confused, and few details are released. The aftermath of the accident is documented on camera--the young woman writhing in pain on the beach. The production becomes shrouded in secrecy and its backers sort of back away.

Viewers and the directors are left with nagging questions: What happened to the injured woman? Will she be okay? Is a lawsuit pending? Will the footage be repackaged as part of another show? What happens to Ripley and Roberts? (The film shows the stressful effects on their relationship). Lengthy post-scripts are likely to be written right up until the final print is made. In the end, the viewer empathizes with the writers and production crew whose livelihoods depend on keeping production going, but also with the woman who gets hurt on the shoot. We also feel badly for our pathetic reality-lovin' selves.

Grebin and Nigro's biting and often painful commentary on the TV industry's shift to all reality, all the time (okay, okay, so we now have the bubbly and feel-good "Dancing with the Stars and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition") is a thoroughly absorbing meditation on the substitution of reality for truth. A phalanx of TV executives, producers, agents, writers, and the always camera-ready Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse's Center for the Study of Popular Television, turn up to comment on America's preoccupation with reality TV. Their harshly ironic comments are pure entertainment.

The filmmakers attempt to show people on all sides of the reality equation--producers, agents, networks, writers, crew, contestants--in order to cast a light on the human cost of accepting reality (TV) for truth. "There's a spiritual, creative, and cultural cost to this form of programming," says Nigro in a recent interview. "What is America willing to accept as entertainment?"

Enlightening, engaging, and thought-provoking, "American Cannibal: The Road to Reality" is charged with human pathos that makes it a critical must-see work of nonfiction cinema. The film is bound to send viewers, the TV/media industrial complex, and advertisers into a relentless round of questioning--or at least a debate, the directors hope. "We're not trying to take a polemic stance, but there are a lot of issues we'd like to talk about," says Grebin.

Why So Popular?

"The Amazing Race," "Big Brother," and "Survivor," three of the best-known and most popular CBS reality shows, exemplify America's fascination with and addiction to reality TV. These shows got us hooked. Fox's megahit "American Idol," NBC's "Apprentice," and ABC's catfight drama "The Bachelor" have just as surely reeled us in. The voyeur in us wants more, more, more.

We like to watch others struggle for a shot at minor celebrity. But what is it that makes most of America, including this writer, want to tune in to watch suffocating banality? Is it the escape from reality to what? Hyper-reality? Why do we buy the artifice reality show producers promote? Why don't we actively process the fact that they are packing as much drama into the challenges as possible and editing aggressively to build the maximum suspense?

After several seasons of both "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," there's a whole new crop of reality shows being sprung from production obscurity to living rooms, including a new FX reality show, "Black.White," in which makeup artists enable a black family and a white family to swap skin colors for six weeks. Ick. More aspirational properties like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Dancing With the Stars" have also made their way onto the scene. There are still plenty of wannabe models, actors, and musicians angling for a break on "Idol," while struggling single moms, financial analysts, and truck drivers make a pitch to be on "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race."

The film doesn't really strike at the heart of the economic rationale for the forcefeeding. It subtly implies that reality TV productions have lower production costs and overhead for the Hollywood/media/TV industrial complex. But it doesn't actually discuss the fact that the productions are easy for advertisers to support--and perhaps this is because advertisers don't know what goes on behind the scenes.

Reality programming is less expensive to produce than scripted dramas, but these days only marginally. According to Wayne Friedman, MediaPost's "TV Watch" columnist and West Coast editor, production costs for reality shows are now as high as $1.5 million per hour--not that much lower than the $2 million an hour minimum for scripted dramas like ABC hit "Grey's Anatomy." Location costs for reality shows are also skyrocketing. It costs a small fortune to keep the cast and crew in a mud hole in Africa.

The flip side? Ratings gold for shows like "Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars." There is tremendous viewer interest in shows with participatory components where viewers weigh in with their votes via text messaging and online actions. For "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," the exotic locales and nifty sets are big draws. Reality shows are also perceived as advertiser-friendly, Friedman notes, with decent opportunities for product placement.

Reality continues its relentless pace: an ad for a casting call for "Survivor" 13 recently appeared in a Southern California newspaper. Wanted: "Strong willed, outgoing, adventurous, excellent mental and physical health." The ad fails to mention the lengthy psychological exam and the necessity of signing a liability waiver within an inch of your life.

"American Cannibal: The Road to Reality" is produced by Grebin and Nigro's Acme Pictures, along with Denis Jensen, and Gill Holland of LasalleHolland. The Pacificap Entertainment Holdings-backed film is set to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival April 25-May 7. To access the film's production blog, go to:

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