Sunday, March 05, 2006

America's Next Top Model (Cycle 6) - HYPE: Online Press Conference Edition, Part 3

Third in a three-part series

In the long and proud tradition of bands who attempt and fail at ambitious projects that involve going outside of what made them successful in the first place, I'm going to ditch the faux-journalistic bent that I lazily adopted and resume my quasi-intellectual musings, which ostensibly is my bread and butter when I'm not comparing Audrey Raines to the poor man's Rickey Henderson. For my purposes, I've always been interested in how reality tv relates to real reality, and so whenever anyone asked about how the show was put together into a narrative, I got really interested.

As with many reality programs that feature hosts, the judges on ANTM don't see what's going on in the house. For starters, that would be a lot of footage to sort through for the judges, who probably still keep a day job in addition to their ANTM gigs. Second, Nigel said that he wished to make an "honest assessment of a model's performance," and that too much behind-the-scenes knowledge could sway his judgment away from the contestant's modelling skills. And of course, if the girls knew that the judges had access to how they behaved outside of panels, they would censor themselves, which would be boring television (see: Big Brother 1). Fortunately, the show separates public and private spaces for the contestants (though not necessarily for the viewers -- and the appeal of reality tv probably derives a lot of its appeal from this voyeuristic disparity) in the name of good competition, though it also produces good television.

However, making good television is not the primary intent of the creative team behind the show, which actually helps drive ANTM's success. In a statement that reflects a fundamental rule of good reality tv, Jay said of ANTM's enduring quality, "We don't do things just for the sake of television," which ironically leads to captivating narrative. (Whether his assertion is wholly accurate is another debate that I'm less interested in.) The stated aim of ANTM is to help girls establish working careers, and subsequently the show entertains us. But if external forces encroached on the show's narrative world -- say, if the viewing audience became a part of the elimination process (as one caller wondered), or if the show introduced structural twists every cycle like Survivor does -- the contestants would react more to the alien element than to each other. (And remember: interactions between the contestants is without a doubt the most important part of reality tv.)

Take for example the notorious "romantic" dinner from the first Survivor. The producers believed that Jenna and Dr. Sean were the best candidates for a romantic encounter (I suppose because the producers thought she was slutty and he was stupid) and actively pressured their respective tribes to elect them for the dinner. But instead of sparks and ooh la la as hoped, the meal between the two of them was platonically stilted. Thus, in the case of Survivor, the producers should have left the proceedings alone to allow the contestants stir up their own drama.

The contestants, after all, are already in highly contrived situations by virtue of being on a reality show (e.g. the extended tedium of being confined to a limited space with the same people all while being filmed almost constantly). As Ken said, put 12 or 13 ambitious young women in a pressure-cooker environment, and fireworks will naturally arise. It's not a matter of being contrived, it's more about being too contrived.

Representative Reality

To return to the question I posed to the panel (which was how the producers chose the protagonists for the show), Ken affirmed that in order for a reality program to be good, it had to let the personalities of its contestants come out on their own. This laissez-faire approach to contestants can result in unexpectedly classic surprises. Take, for instance, Robin. Before season 1, when Ken first met Robin in casting, she came across as the "sweetest Southern belle" with the most wonderful manners -- and we all know how she eventually turned out. (The same phenomenon happened with Camille in the next cycle.) Surprises like Robinn reflect the axiom that underlies most reality programs, that unscripted drama can be more unpredictable than scripted drama.

(Even Nigel copped to a similar experience. Being a judge, he doesn't get to see the behind-the-scenes (or behind-the-panels) action, so the girls are on their best behaviors during panels. And although he can usually see past a polite "party face," he still is on occasion "delightfully surprised" when he actually watches the finished show.)

Of course, my entire argument depends on the accuracy of what the show depicts in relation to what actually went on. After all, the producers have the challenge of compressing two months of shooting into 13 one-hour episodes, so the question of inaccurate portrayals is inevitable. However, Ken replied to this very question by saying that he had heard no complaints from the girls about being portrayed inaccurately on the show -- ANTM was and has been an accurate representation of what went on in the house and what the contestants did.

Indie rating: Cocteau Twins/Massive Attack - "The Thinner the Air/Protection"

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