My Big Fat Obnoxious Prank

The Lawless and Ever Expanding World of Hidden-Camera TV

A few weeks ago I had a bizarre run-in with a taxi driver. He took a totally roundabout route and, along the way, started asking increasingly odd questions. By the time I arrived at my destination, I was convinced that I'd been nabbed by one of the many hidden-camera TV shows. Turns out my cabbie was just an average weirdo New Yorker who drives badly and asks inappropriate questions. But my experience could easily have been a segment from MTV's recent hidden-camera series Boiling Points. Shot mostly in New York, the show attempted to rile normal people by putting them in aggravating situations—dealing with an inept drugstore cashier, say, or riding in a taxi that's going in circles. If the unwitting "contestants" managed to suppress their rage for 10 minutes or so, their saintly patience would be rewarded with a crisp $100 bill.

Somehow we've grown accustomed to violation as prime-time entertainment. Violation of privacy—not only do we contend with security cameras in public spaces, the invasive threat of the USA Patriot Act, and cell phone users covertly snapping photos of people, but we also have hidden TV camera crews prowling through once anonymous city streets, looking to catch us at our most vulnerable. And violation of trust—more and more reality shows weave blatant deception into their basic premise, throwing unwitting victims into situations that range from the surreal and embarrassing to the downright traumatic.

Reality TV is entering a chilling new phase. The old format of shows based on voluntary participation isn't producing the kind of spontaneous, voyeuristic thrills it once did. All traces of naturalism are gone; nowadays people play up to the camera, so that producers have to go further and further in pursuit of the "real." The only way to find unselfconscious reactions today is to catch people unawares. "Reality TV is now so unreal, that our show is almost more real," says Barry Poznick, co-producer of Girls Behaving Badly, Oxygen network's popular hidden-camera show. "Our marks have no idea they're on TV, whereas when you go on The Bachelor and Survivor, you know everything you say and do is being recorded." Girls Behaving Badly sends a team of female actresses into the street to pull pranks. Poznick calls it "mindfucking—the girls play with what people expect a woman to do." The show wrings humor out of mild embarrassment, with particular emphasis on female taboos: convincing a male mark to pick up a tampon, or, in one segment, asking a male passerby to help search on the ground for a dropped ovary.

Be afraid, be very afraid: scare tactics tests the limits of hidden-camera ethics.
photo: Shulamit
Be afraid, be very afraid: scare tactics tests the limits of hidden-camera ethics.

Girls Behaving Badly is just one in a swarm of series that entrap unsuspecting victims. Some programs, like Boiling Points, Game Show Network's now defunct Foul Play, and Spike TV's Oblivious, style themselves as undercover game shows. (Oblivious, just starting its second season, calls itself "the game show you don't even know you're on.") MTV's One Bad Trip allows parents to spy on their college-age kids' debauched spring break antics, while Punk'd exploits our love-hate feelings about the celebritariat by pranking the young Hollywood brat pack. In Comedy Central's Crank Yankers, comedians like Jimmy Kimmel and Wanda Sykes make crank calls to real people and then use puppets to protect the identity of these dupes. Plenty of other shows incorporate covert footage to hone their humiliation factor: What Not to Wear (on BBC America and TLC) prefaces each episode with hidden-camera images of the makeover victim in her schlumpiest attire, sometimes even observing her getting dressed. Talk about catching someone with her pants down.

Embarrassment and minor humiliation are just the lightweight end of the reality-TV scale. Increasingly producers are looking to induce violent emotional reactions in their victims—you know, panic, disgust, terror. Aimed at the Sci Fi Channel's young male demographic, Scare Tactics is the hidden-camera equivalent of extreme sports, staging murders, hauntings, and alien abductions. In one scenario, host Shannen Doherty is kidnapped in front of her new personal assistant. In another, a stripper is bludgeoned at a bachelor party, and one of the guys is accused of the deed. Incredibly, all of the Scare Tactics victims are set up by someone they know. Scott Hallock, the show's co-producer, says they have an "accomplice department" that does extensive interviews with the friends or family members who volunteer the victim and help pull off the pranks. "We ask, Do they like thrill rides, do they like scary movies? If they don't, they're not a candidate for our show. We want everyone to have a good time."

Judging by the lawsuits that have emerged over the last few years, not everyone is amused. Last year, a woman filed a suit against Scare Tactics, citing severe emotional damage after she witnessed a fake alien attack. Contestants in a U.K. dating show called There's Something About Miriam—in which men competed for the affections of a woman later revealed as a pre-operative transsexual—recently sued the program's producers, claiming conspiracy to commit a sexual assault, breach of contract, personal injury, and defamation. (They settled out of court.) And a couple sued Ashton Kutcher and MTV for $10 million after they found what looked like a mutilated murder victim dumped in their Las Vegas hotel room, planted there as part of a show called Harassment, a predecessor to Punk'd. Forget the quaint hidden-camera shows of yore like Dick Clark's TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes—these recent shows veer dangerously close to snuff-movie territory.

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