'The Bachelor,' Golden Globes and the blurring of reality from 'reality'

"The Bachelor" returns on Monday, meaning countless tweets and recaps will be devoted to its dramatically st...

Posted: Jan 7, 2019 10:33 PM
Updated: Jan 7, 2019 10:33 PM

"The Bachelor" returns on Monday, meaning countless tweets and recaps will be devoted to its dramatically structured quest for love.

It's just another example of the way TV -- and those who watch it -- participate in various forms of unreality, at a time when objective reality frequently appears to be under siege.

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TV's distortions and exaggerations come in sizes large and small. It's been known for some time that unscripted TV employs a practice called "Frankenbiting," which involves editing sound bites -- sometimes in misleading ways -- to shape narratives and storylines.

Yet that tidbit was described as "shocking" and "surprising" last year, when it was among the revelations in Los Angeles Times reporter Amy Kaufman's book "Bachelor Nation," which also explored the ways contestants were pressured to produce desired outcomes.

"There's no allegiance to what happened to reality," an editor who worked for "The Bachelor" was quoted as saying, adding, "It's like I'm handed a big bucket of LEGOs and think, 'What do I want to build today?'"

After two decades of such programs, "The Bachelor" -- which returns with a three-hour episode -- is hardly alone, or even new, in this regard. But there has been renewed attention on the ability of reality TV producers and editors to craft stories, thanks in part to the role "The Apprentice" played in shaping the positive image that helped sweep President Trump into the White House.

A recent New Yorker profile of Mark Burnett, the producer of "The Apprentice" as well as "Survivor," noted that the series "mythologized" Trump, burnishing his image as "an icon of American success."

On Sunday, with an assist from the NFL football game feeding into it, an estimated 18.6 million viewers watched the Golden Globes, which treats the presenting organization, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and its 90 members with a level of reverence that the group hasn't always deserved, given its spotty history and track record of head-scratching selections.

For years, the HFPA was something of a punchline, before NBC struck a deal for the show in the 1990s and gave it a more prominent stage. Even then, the organization has produced its share of off-screen drama, including a protracted lawsuit for control of the telecast with the company that produces it, Dick Clark Productions, which was settled in 2014; and an embarrassment in October over a bizarre interview with actress Drew Barrymore published under the byline of one of the group's past presidents.

Yet the entertainment industry has collectively chosen to capitalize on the event's promotional benefits, while the media that covers Hollywood seldom brings up the past, instead focusing on the speculation about who'll win and the red-carpet hoopla.

Even giving the organization credit for cleaning up its act, the attention showered on the Globes feels disproportionate relative to the academy-backed honors (the Oscars, the Emmys) and the guilds representing directors, writers, actors and producers, which have the added legitimacy of being presented by bodies consisting of Hollywood's peers.

In most respects, though, it's easier to go with the tide than swim against it. Besides, with a high-rated show like "The Bachelor" or event like the Globes, ratings are ratings, and clicks are clicks.

This month also brings the return of a pioneer in the reality genre, "Temptation Island" -- a show that triggered controversy on Fox in 2001, after one of the couples was revealed to have had a child together. A new version of the dating series will premiere Jan. 15 on USA network.

Fans of these shows -- even those who consider themselves media literate -- don't much seem to care, accepting them on their terms. At this point, journalists risk sounding like holier-than-thou scolds even raising these issues.

Still, the coverage devoted to a show like "The Bachelor" or the excitement that surrounds the Golden Globes, are pieces in a larger media puzzle. Seen that way, the journey from the first "Temptation Island" to the new one has been paved with small steps, along a path that has gradually made it harder for many of us to distinguish reality from "reality."

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