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 Badlysends 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.

Critics may mock hidden-camera shows as the lowest rung of reality schlock, but the daddy of them all—Allen Funt's Candid Camera—began with noble intentions. Funt believed that by secretly filming, he could reveal how average people respond to societal pressures and conflicts. "The worst thing, and I see it over and over, is how easily people can be led by any kind of authority figure," Funt once said. "We need to develop ways to teach our children how to resist unjust or ridiculous authority." According to NYU professor Anna McCarthy's essay on Candid Camera in the forthcoming anthology Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Funt's work was much admired by social scientists of the 1950s and '60s. One of his biggest fans was Stanley Milgram, engineer of the notorious "obedience" experiment, in which people were ordered to administer electric shocks to strangers. McCarthy notes that the film of Milgram's experiment often produced hysterical laughter in viewers, suggesting another similarity between those ethically tenuous experiments and today's hidden-camera shows.

Milgram's experiments triggered a change in the academic world: Universities developed institutional review boards designed to supervise experiments and defend the rights of participants. As McCarthy points out to me, "Networks have standards-and-practices offices to oversee things like swearing and sexuality and violence, but there's nothing comparable to the institutional review boards that looks at the ethics of these programs." It's left to the shows' producers to think about where to draw the line—or not.

Television has struggled with ethical quandaries before. In the 1950s, when sociologists were lavishing praise on Candid Camera, the TV world was convulsed by the game-show scandals depicted in Quiz Show, when it was revealed that a number of programs were fixed. Audiences were outraged by dishonest practices back then, but nowadays deception is a key component of reality TV, and it's spreading like a bad virus. Joe Millionaire's producers lied to their female contestants about everything from Evan Marriott's name to his bank account. Then there's the case of Matt Gould, who thought he was a contestant on a show called Lap of Luxury, when actually he was being framed as the unwitting star of the series Joe Schmo. All of his co-contestants were actors following a script outline, and all of the show's competitions were fixed. (Although he appeared somewhat shaken and betrayed after the ruse was revealed to him, Gould now claims to be happy about his inadvertent participation—perhaps sweetened by a $100,000 "prize" and a contract to appear on other shows on the Spike network.) And the poor suckers on Average Joe have the rug pulled out from under them nearly every week, as the producers lob an endless series of unexpected "twists" at them.

My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé takes one step further into moral cloudiness. Catholic-school teacher Randi Coy signed up for a reality dating show but found herself in another scenario altogether. She was offered half a million dollars to convince her close-knit family that she's fallen in love with a jackass. (Unbeknownst to her, the "fiancé" is an actor hired to behave as repulsively as possible.) With these kinds of shows, the justification—both for the producer and for the viewer—seems to be that the participants asked for humiliation by signing up for a reality show in the first place, so they deserve whatever they get. Once Coy agrees to the Faustian pact, she's fair game.

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More scare tactics: never too tied up for his five seconds of celebrity
(Photo: Staci Schwartz)
In hidden-camera shows, though, the subjects don't put themselves forward. The really big mystery is why these victims of televisual ambush almost invariably agree after the event to let their reactions be televised. The producers of both Girls Behaving Badly and Scare Tactics assure me they have no problem getting people to sign release forms, even though most don't get paid. Hallock says that several victims from Scare Tactics' first season have even volunteered to pull hoaxes on other pals: "Being on our show is like a thrill ride, it's exhilarating. And once they step off the ride, they think, 'Man I want to do that again.' " It's also a chance to snag five seconds of celebrity—you can tell your friends you've been punk'd, just like Britney and Beyoncé.

Punk'd is the one hidden-camera show that really makes me laugh, and it's not hard to figure out why. It messes with celebrities who are utterly insulated from everyday hassles and thrusts them into impossible situations that they can't weasel out of with an autograph or a call to their agent. Punk'dpulls off the mask, flustering people who pride themselves on their cool (e.g. Halle Berry panicking when banned from her own movie premiere, or Justin Timberlake sobbing like an infant when the "IRS" repossesses all his worldly goods). And yet it's a win-win setup for the stars who allow their bits to be shown on TV: A nod from Ashton Kutcher confirms their place in the slippery pop pantheon, and lets them flaunt their good sportsmanship.

The other side of our obsession with celebrities is our desire to put ourselves in their place. If reality TV has proven anything, it's that a lot of Americans have exhibitionist tendencies and will happily subject themselves to demeaning situations if it gets them screen time. In a grotesque role-reversal, Punk'd makes stars into chumps, and the predatory hidden-camera shows turn chumps like you and me into stars for a day. That's TV for you: the great leveler.

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