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Reality TV scripted, even for politicians

Frazier Moore/Associated Press | November 4 2005

NEW YORK -- The current Radar magazine has an article titled "Rewriting Reality" that reports on the fakery of TV's reality shows.

Staffers from such series as "Big Brother 2" and "Joe Millionaire" come clean on how scenes are scripted, footage contrived, sound bites scrambled and even alcohol infused to get the sought-after results from their performers.

"Reality television is as close to mundane 'reality' as McNuggets are to chicken," the article states.

So reality shows reinvent the truth, do they?

Well, duhhhhhh.

And come to think of it, who cares? Who's going to quibble about something phony represented as real, so long as the show is improved in the process? After all, you don't have to be a fan of reality TV (or Chicken McNuggets) to prefer dramatics over actuality.

Take the next episode of "The West Wing." Airing 7 p.m. CST Sunday on NBC, it will depart from the usual format with a live debate between its rivals for the presidency: Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

With any luck, this could be the ideal presidential debate. It just might serve up an entertaining clash of ideas and emotions the likes of which we never see in those quadrennial snoozefests by real-life candidates.

Get ready: This scripted, staged debate might demonstrate what the real thing would be like -- if the real thing weren't so badly scripted and staged.

In the real world of politics, of course, scripted-and-staged is SOP.

One recent morning, NBC's "Today" originated from a Covington, La., construction site, where host Matt Lauer set the scene: President Bush and first lady Laura Bush had joined Habitat for Humanity volunteers to "roll up their sleeves," "grab a hammer" and help build a new house.

Crisply clad in short sleeves and chinos, Bush seemed better suited for a backyard barbecue, and he did more stonewalling than drywalling when time came for his interview with Lauer.

The possibility that the Bushes' stopover might be little more than a post-Katrina photo op was raised by Lauer. The president chuckled at that idea.

Shortly after the interview, he was pictured driving a nail into a wall panel.

Mission accomplished?

Another presidential media event took place a couple of days later, but with a difference. And not just because it was back in Washington and indoors.

For what was billed as an impromptu conversation with U.S. troops over in Iraq, the questions Bush would ask during his video-conference call were prearranged, along with accompanying answers from the soldiers. But, oddly enough, this dress rehearsal (and not just the show) was made public.

Coaching the soldiers beamed onto a TV screen from Tikrit, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Allison Barber stood in for Bush: "I'm interested in how your pre-election operations are going. Can you give me a quick update on what you've been doing for the last couple of weeks?"

At the same lectern a few minutes later, Bush asked the same thing: "One of the, you know, questions I have is about the pre-election operations, about what you've been doing, and what are -- what's your strategy, and how do you think it's going for -- to make sure the people have a chance to vote?"

Maybe that's his strategy for making something scripted come off sounding unscripted.

The pretense of spontaneity often has a way of impressing us -- like when President Mackenzie Allen was giving her inaugural address on the premiere of "Commander in Chief," and her teleprompter went dark. She hesitated for a few awkward seconds, recovered, then went on to wing it for two spellbinding minutes.

Of course, her ad-libbing came from a script. ABC's "Commander in Chief" is a scripted TV drama. Geena Davis plays this fictional president. None of it is real. But why split hairs?

Rob Corddry wouldn't. As senior political analyst on Comedy Central's phony newscast, "The Daily Show," he doesn't trifle with distinctions that no longer may apply.

"For all the hype about 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Lost,' I still say the White House is one of the best scripted dramas out there," he declared.

Then host Jon Stewart, playing straight man, broached a bigger issue: Why should presidential appearances be so scripted, anyway?

"Do you foresee a presidency where they're NOT scripted?" he asked, a proposition that stopped Corddry cold.

Say what? Let the White House -- or any reality TV -- unfold without all the stage managing and story editors? Isn't there a risk of leaving too much to chance? Wouldn't that be dangerous? Duhhhhh.

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