As the Real Housewives show causes controversy, Russell Blockstock looks at the fine line between reality and TV staging.

The nation has been gripped with the racial slur stoush on the Real Housewives of Auckland but it has left many viewers wondering - was that for real?

On the controversial episode on Tuesday, Julia Sloane was caught off-camera calling Michelle Blanchard a "boat n*****". Though Sloane insisted she meant no harm and apologised, the "throwaway comment" caused plenty of grief among the housewives.

The incident made headlines around the world - but was the scene manipulated by producers to ensure a dynamite episode?

Lawyers were called in by Sloane's investment banker husband, Michael Lorimer, to try to resolve the issue with the Real Housewives production team. He claimed the comment was taken out of context to make his wife look bad.


Lorimer claimed the producers overplayed Sloane's comment and underplayed the on-screen reaction to it, while broadcaster Bravo cancelled advertising from the episode and said it given "much consideration to ensuring the events are accurately represented".

But reality show contestants have been claiming to have been misrepresented or tricked into doing and saying things they normally wouldn't since the genre was invented.

Philip Smith, boss of Great Southern Television, commissioned The Apprentice New Zealand which was fronted by troubled Wellington businessman Terry Serepisos and screened on TV2 in 2010.

"In the world of reality television, cast is king," Smith says. "You live and die by that.

"If you don't have clashes you don't have drama, so there is no TV show, so getting the right mix of personalities is vital from the start."

Viewers now accept that there is an element of the real and the unreal in these programmes and so does the cast, Smith says.

"Nowadays everyone seems to want to be famous and will do anything to achieve this, so you have to take what you are seeing on some of these shows not just with a grain of salt - but a sack of it.

"Like them or hate them, reality shows are not about to die. Television is now like a giant supermarket and reality is just one aisle where people can pick and choose what they like.

"Real Housewives of Auckland has been pretty raw but one positive from the incident with Julia is that it has got people talking. It has made us think about the impact of using abusive terms about other people, which is no bad thing."

When reality TV first became popular in the 1990s, it was a guilty pleasure that would allow you to be a fly on the wall to some extraordinary situations people were placed in.

But these days some shows appear to be almost as scripted and shaped as fictional dramas.

There is no way to really be sure if your favourite reality stars would have behaved they did without a camera present.

The genre has been exposed in a number of countries for faking or staging situations and scenarios to boost ratings.

In 2012 in the US, Breaking Amish, about a group of Amish and Mennonites who ditch their butter churns for the bright lights of New York, was slated for misleading viewers.

After just two episodes reports circulated the cast weren't exactly who they said they were. Two members said to be meeting for the first time actually had a child together while another said to be leaving the faith for the first time had allegedly left more than a decade earlier.

In 2007, Britain's Channel 4 conducted an investigation into reports that Man vs. Wild star Bear Grylls had some of his stunts set up by a production crew. The investigation also revealed instances where Grylls was staying at a hotel while claiming to be roughing it in the wild.

And even the long-running Survivor came under threat in America after the executive producer admitted to reshooting scenes using stand-ins to get the best shot.

Richard Driver, boss of Kiwi production company Greenstone TV, oversees a raft of popular real-life shows such as Border Patrol, Dog Squad and Renters.

More than a decade ago he produced a New Zealand-based reality show called The Family for TV3, about the flamboyant lifestyle of a Kiwi property developer.

Driver says makers of internationally franchised shows such as The Bachelor, X Factor and Real Housewives religiously follow a production bible containing the recipe for success, which doesn't always hit the mark with a conservative Kiwi audience.

"It is all very well having pot-stirrers in the cast like Real Housewives but it is a huge gamble," he says. "It is easy to get people talking about your show in the wrong way.
"Personalities that go down well in one country might not work in another, like New Zealand.

"The programmes we make at Greenstone are viewed by some as being reality shows, but we have real policemen and emergency service workers in them and we can't manufacture crime scenes or accidents.

"The agencies we work with have to have confidence in us to get it right so we can't just fabricate scenarios and expect people to believe them."

The recent arrival of the US-based Bravo channel in New Zealand means more outlandish reality shows such as Thintervention, Styled to Rock, Pregnant in Heels and Southern Charm will jostle for viewers.

Dr Misha Kavka, associate dean of film, television and media studies at the University of Auckland, reckons many reality shows are now about 65 per cent fiction.

And she believes Kiwis have only themselves to blame for the rise of the genre worldwide.

The Popstars franchise was launched in New Zealand in the late 1990s and was the inspiration for for Simon Fuller's hugely popular Idols franchise.

Jordan Mauger accepts Fleur Verhoeven in the final episode of the Bachelor. Photo / Supplied
Jordan Mauger accepts Fleur Verhoeven in the final episode of the Bachelor. Photo / Supplied


began when producer Jonathan Dowling formed the five member all-girl group TrueBliss. Dowling then licensed the concept to Screentime in Australia, who onsold it to TresorTV in Germany before taking it global.

It remains one of the most successful TV show formats of all time and has been sold to more than 50 countries.

"Along with Popstars came the concept of the production bible, and with that came increasingly staged scenarios," Kavka says. "It is all our own fault, really."

When contestants sign up for a reality show they are handcuffed by contracts which forbid them from talking about what really goes on behind the scenes.

But Bachelor NZ season two runner-up Naz Khanjani felt she was manipulated to come across as being outrageous.

"It was very smart who was chosen to put in groups to be filmed," she says. "Microphones were also left on when you didn't realise to find things that could be turned into a drama.

"Whole situations that appeared on TV were exactly the opposite of what actually went on and I felt like we were all part of a social experiment.

"I had no experience on TV. I was clueless and fell into a trap. I was disgusted with the way I was portrayed in the first three or four episodes.

"It was me who signed up for it and I am glad I did it because I have got a lot of work from it. But I would tell my kids not to do something like that unless they are strong enough to handle it."

Even those who find success on these shows can feel aggrieved.

Aaron Brunet, winner of Masterchef NZ 2013, says he felt the series was not overly scripted but he would not repeat the experience.

"To me reality TV is a highly produced, selective version of reality," he says. "I think it says a lot about our society that we can fool ourselves into believing that what we see on reality TV is real.

"The effect of isolation from family and friends mixed with the awareness that a huge number of people will be watching you creates a highly unusual and stressful situation for contestants.

"Far from the kind of reality I'd like to live in, I see reality TV shows as psychological drama with unpaid, unprepared and unsupported actors."

Sorting the truth from the unreality

Kiwi reality TV shows have a record of producing eyebrow-raising moments thought to have been stunted or manipulated....

Singer Joe Irvine still can't bear to watch any replays of the X Factor. Photo / Supplied
Singer Joe Irvine still can't bear to watch any replays of the X Factor. Photo / Supplied

X Factor abuse

Singer Joe Irvine still can't bear to watch any replays of the X Factor after he was abused by judges Willy Moon and Natalia Kills.

His brutal dressing-down last year made headlines around the world and Moon and Kills were booted from the show in disgrace after a furious backlash from the public.

"I got no assistance from anyone afterwards and it has left me thinking reality shows are just staged for a big publicity stunt," Irvine said recently. "Anyone appearing on one of these things needs to be mentally prepared for anything."

The Ridges and the rodent

Mother and daughter team Sally and Jamie Ridge caught a mouse in their kitchen during their 2012 reality show The Ridges.

The scenes were a hit and the mouse was a star. But some were sceptical, adamant the scene had been staged.

It was later revealed by a source close to the show the mouse was housed in a box, and only taken out when it was needed for a scene.

Saucy Block bed-scene

In July this year, it was reported the first ever hook-up had happened on renovation show The Block NZ.

Contestant Sam Cable was "sprung" in bed with a woman from another team during an episode.

An embarrassed Emma Diamond suggested she "must have sleepwalked" into his bed.
It later emerged it was a stunt and the pair claimed the incident was meant to be a joke on the producers.

"We thought it would be funny - and the camera crew came in and found me in there," Diamond said. "I think people would like to believe that it's true."

Bachelor reshoot

In May, Bachelor NZ star Jordan Mauger shocked fans when he dumped contestant Fleur Verhoeven just 72 hours after she was named the show's winner.

Speculation followed that Mauger asked to re-shoot the end of the show amid fears he had chosen the wrong girl, but the rumours were denied by the show's producers.