June 23, 2011

Producing Emotion: What's Real on Television?

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

As a trained marriage and family therapist and social science researcher who sometimes conducts in-depth interviews, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to ask questions that are likely to provide the most revealing answers. As a result, I am interested in TV interviews.

However, as I watch interviews on television, I wonder how it is that the interviewers always seem to know exactly which path will lead to such funny, thoughtful, pithy, and poignant tales. And how is it that the interviewers always seem to avoid the exact controversy that drew me to watch this or that celebrity in the first place? Are their interviewing skills that stellar?

Given that many of the interviewers are comedians, I can’t see why they would have the expertise to be especially great at this job. All of this makes me intrigued by the ”backstage” of TV. How does what we see get produced? Even apart from the many ”reality” shows that abound, there are many other shows that we might consider "real" such as talk shows...at least the less trashy ones. How “real” are they?

Fortunately, I have lived in the two major show TV producing cities in the US. When I lived in New York, I attended a taping of The Morning Program—the CBS morning show of that era. And when I lived in Los Angeles, I attended a taping of The Arsenio Hall Show. I watch behind the scenes shows or “bits” with interest, so when The View dedicated one recent episode to giving us a glimpse at their inner workings, I watched with rapt attention. And Oprah Winfrey has allowed cameras to document some of what it took to produce the last season of her fabled talk show.

clip_image002The most surprising thing I learned watching the behind the scenes of The View involves the “Hot Topics” segments at the beginning of the show. The show garners lots of attention for the off the cuff remarks made by one or more of the hosts during this segment when the women discuss headline stories. I was stunned to learn that backstage they discuss the topics. And I have noticed that that they usually have research/notes on the topics. This is not exactly the way conversations occur in the real world.

Guests on these shows are “pre-interviewed”. Most hosts make it seem that they are hearing whatever their guest is saying for the first time, oohing and aahing in the right places, seeming surprised, exhibiting the appropriate emotion of someone who is learning the details the same time that we are.

Carefully listening to Oprah Winfrey is what let this cat out of the bag for me. On her talk show, Winfrey would say things like, “According to the producers this is what happened; tell us that story.” Or, “One of the producers told me...” Ah, the producers! In watching Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, I have learned that at least on The Oprah Winfrey Show—and I have no reason to believe that the show is unique in this regard—producers interview guests and write scripts for the host. This is how the host (Winfrey, in this case) knows exactly what questions to ask. Here is a peek at a negotiation of what will be discussed on a show.

Many shows are filmed in front of in-studio audiences, particularly sitcoms and talk shows. In the real world, audience response would be a chance to garner opinion on whatever is discussed and reviewed. Shows employ a “warm-up act” – a person who entertains the audience before the show starts and in the many breaks that take place during a taping. (Here is a link to the warm-up act for The Ellen DeGeneres Show.) In many cases, this person also cues the audience on when and how much to cheer, in case the flashing “Applause” signs aren’t enough.

clip_image004Although it may seem otherwise, most of what we see on television—even on shows that seem unscripted—has been edited and packaged to present a particular perspective and to create or inspire certain emotions. What we view on television is not natural or real in the sense that it is unscripted or unplanned. Apparently simple conversations are the result of much previous discussion, prodding, and editing. And unlike in real life, there are few surprises on TV.

Shows must garner high ratings to lure and keep advertisers. And with talk shows, there is no time to wait as a host stumbles around hoping to coax an interesting anecdote from their guest. But what does it mean sociologically that interactions we believe to be real are not? And why do most programs hide their manipulations?


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This post has confirmed what I have already suspected, that there is very little spontaneity on TV. I'm guessing even the down and dirty shows like Jerry Springer are scripted, too. I hope so anyway; I shudder to think that there are that many dysfunctional people out there. Thank you for opening my eyes, ~ Arlie Jarels

"But what does it mean sociologically that interactions we believe to be real are not?"

I have long thought that television advertising is responsible for many societal ills because it creates false expectations for many who may not be able to separate the fantasy presented (e.g., if you buy this vehicle, you will live in a McMansion and your children will be successful and your wife will be a supermodel, or, worse, success=buying this product).

To have interactions modeled to a viewing audience that could not possibly occur spontaneously in real life may have a similar detrimental effect: if I can't communicate as easily and effectively as so-and-so, I must really not be very smart/funny. To have a segment (the televised personalities) that is artificially imbued with superior communications skills may mean that we judge ordinary people too harshly when they fail to communicate effectively.

One comedy show I really love that has no laugh track and also is done without a script, just an outline, is the Larry David Show. And that is probably one of the funniest shows I've seen.

But I will assume from here on that everything I see is scripted.

Very enlightening article. Many of us feel inferior when we try to interview someone and don't come across very clever or smart. We simply don't have producers and a script. Thanks for the eye opener.

This blog post was a real eye opener on media and television for me. I did not realize just how much things were scripted. I also think that the more things are scripted to stir up drama and be entertaining these days, the more the newest generations will grow up thinking that is the proper way to behave and act and social standards will change for the worse. Many people have trouble separating the real world with the fantasy world they see on these scripted televisions shows.

This always seemed pretty obvious to me. But what about so-called reality shows? I don't think they're scripted, per se, but of course they are heavily edited to manipulate audiences. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, however...They have to be edited in some way, and as long as they're not getting to far away from "the truth" I don't think it's a problem.

I think these "shows" need to just be looked at as entertainment. That's all they are on the air to do, entertain people enough that they come back to see what happens next week. Reality T.V. has been so blended with scripts and plot lines that there isn't much distinction between sitcoms and reality series.

And yet people often view documentary films as "real." Anything can be manipulated, or edited. It has to be or else no one could stand to watch it.

This article is very interesting in the way it explores how television shows garner a realistic image from a fake background. However, I still feel this is done for entertainment value. Something unplanned could be incredibly real in the fact that things are spontaneous and develop during a single moment, or it could be real in the fact that people don't always know what to say and awkward silences always have a chance to destroy any entertainment value. I feel that in today's society, it is less important to hide these once scandalous back stage secrets because more and more people expect this. I think this shows a change in society in a sociological aspect. Society is not as surprised by the secrets of television and the absurd actions of some celebrities.

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