What, if anything, is the difference between an old reality show like “Candid Camera” and a new one like “SPY TV”?
As the former proves, so-called “reality TV” is nothing new.
Allen Funt’s “Candid Microphone” actually started on the radio in 1947. One year later, it debuted on ABC as a 15-minute show called “Candid Mike.” It later assumed the title “Candid Camera” for obvious reasons.
Funt delivered gags like posing as a waiter who’s out of everything on the menu, or as a hairdresser who suggests outrageous styles, according to Newsweek’s coverage of the show’s TV debut.
Newsweek concluded that “Candid Mike” was “just about the best thing along to enliven lagging video programs.”
Other reality shows followed Funt’s enterprise. They included “Truth or Consequences” (1950), “Queen for a Day” (1956), “An American Family” (1973), “That’s Incredible!” (1980) and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (1990), according to a list compiled by Entertainment Weekly.
Things got more personal with “Real World” (1992), then others including “Blind Date” (1999), “The Tom Green Show” (1999) and “Survivor” (2000).
Then along came NBC’s “SPY TV” on June 21, 2001.
“In this inventive hour of covert comedy, real-life people react to outrageous situations, while viewers are clued in on the hoax from setup to payoff,” according to the “SPY TV” Web site. “From ‘Get-back-at’ stunts to smaller ‘Gotcha!’ gags, hidden cameras reveal hilarious hoaxes that are fun, spontaneous and totally unpredictable.”
“We drop the bait and wait for a sucker–I mean good Samaritan.” That’s how host Michael Ian Black introduced a segment in which passers-by try to help a man (an actor, of course) whose electric wheelchair is spinning out of control.
To date, one of the most infamous segments showed a young man, known by his friends as a daring driver, suckered into riding along on a seemingly normal test drive. But the driver was actually a professional stunt driver who took the sucker on a hellish trip that drew the attention, and chase, of cops.
The unsuspecting man gripped the door handle for much of the chase, looking for an opportunity to exit the vehicle. He also repeatedly screamed at the driver to stop the car and let him out.
Such shenanigans prompted Variety, the Hollywood trade publication, to remark: “As [the reality] genre grows, so does the chance that someone will be hurt.”
The New York Daily News has similarly taken reality shows, including “SPY TV,” to task. “The producers’ assurance that the driver would have stopped the car, preventing harm, is laughable,” it wrote of the daredevil incident above.
The Chicago Tribune referred to “SPY TV” as “‘Candid Camera’-with-a-cruel-streak.”
E! Online joked that NBC stands for “Nothing Beats Cruelty.”
“Must See TV has been replaced by Hurt Me TV,” Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs told Entertainment Weekly.
Safety might be an issue with these new shows, but there’s also that pesky matter of integrity.
USA TODAY’s Robert Bianco said “SPY TV” and another NBC offering called “Fear Factor” exhibit “the vilest form of human desperation and an absolute disregard for human dignity.”
But consider that “SPY TV” must get every camera subject to sign an appearance waiver. Those who refuse to sign are disguised with blurs and dots.
And “there wasn’t one instance where someone didn’t sign the waiver afterward,” David Goldberg, “SPY TV” producer, told New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. “There are a lot of steps that go into it before we execute the stunts to make sure these people are likely to sign.”
Safety. Integrity. And what’s in a name, Merriam-Webster?
Candid: “relating to photography of subjects acting naturally or spontaneously without being posed.”
Spy: “to watch secretly.”
Candid emphasizes the viewee. But spy introduces and emphasizes another dimension, namely that of the viewer as well as the viewee.
The camera no longer exists for mere candid photography. It exists so we can enjoy watching–not just candidly, but also secretly. And there is a difference.
It’s a difference cultivated by 50 years of television’s experience, experiments, expectations and excitement.
It’s a difference that comes from the progression of a medium that’s coming to terms with its voyeuristic tendency and potential.
And it’s a difference that is responsible for the recent questions over people’s safety and the integrity of these shows.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.