How Fake is Storage Wars, and Does Anyone Care?
I frequently listen to the NPR show On the Media on podcast as I walk to and from the Metro, and I recently heard the episode “The Television Show!” (12/28/12). Toward the middle of the show, they had on a guy who wouldn’t give his name because he said he had signed “ironclad” non-disclosure agreements. He said he was a former reality TV show producer.
The (relatively young sounding) guy said he had taken a job on a reality show with a curiosity to find out how much was documentary (what he was used to working in) vs. purely scripted entertainment. But this noob was immediately laughed at by two guys whose job descriptions were “story producers.”
The guy said all reality shows are highly manipulated (is that really surprising?). But he went over some of the techniques he participated in, such as having a director hide under a desk in a sales-based show to give guidance to the subjects in real time, such as “look off in the distance when you say that,” or “stand closer.” He described the role of the director as part little league coach (encouraging and disciplining) and part amateur acting coach.
He said crews take multiple retakes of everything, and that they start each shooting day by handing out a loose script to everyone, outlining what they hope to capture for the day.
The guy wouldn’t identify what shows he worked on, but he said friends of his worked on A&E’s Storage Wars. He told NPR his friends were tasked with finding interesting antiques and stocking them in lockers to be used on the show. They then gave photos of the items to the show’s subjects, and told them to find those items in the lockers, and to then act surprised, the man alleged.
The items were then taken to people who the man said are often not really qualified to be assessors.
All this rang true to me, as someone who has seen the show a half dozen times or so. I dont’ have a TV set, but I have enjoyed the show, and have caught it while traveling and at friends’ places. Even after a few episodes, though, I was struck by how formulaic the show seemed, and how each locker seemed to magically yield something interesting.
It would probably surprise no one if producers simply didn’t air lockers full of nothing but moldy records and broken flowbees. But planting items, some of them allegedly ordered through the mail according to NPR’s source, is that going too far?
Yuuup, Says Dave
In December, one of Storage Wars‘ star actors/subjects, Dave Hester (the Yuuup Guy) reportedly sued the show, claiming that he was unfairly fired after he complained that producers were being too manipulative. Specifically, Hester alleged that producers were planting objects in lockers and rigging the bidding process.
When I first saw an episode of Storage Wars, months ago, before the NPR show or Hester’s public beef, I had the suspicion that something seemed too good to be true, and not just the feeling that the prices quoted for such musty items seemed highly inflated. So I had Googled the phrase “Storage Wars fake” (I remember this because it is still in my search history now).
At that time, one of the first results I clicked on was an indie website called westcoasttruth. The site is basically one big screed against the show, stating, among many other charges:
“My retired mom is a resident manager of a storage facility that they filmed at. The crew set-up a day in advance of filming and scoped out the place. They had access to empty lockers for filming. Multiple trucks showed up with ”merchandise”. A catering company was there along with tents and staging areas.
“It was a full blown TV production. On the day of filming, every scene that you see from the first shots of the actors arriving in their vehicles to the conclusions are rehearsed and taped. Extra’s were there to act as spectators and bidders. It was done during weekdays.”
At the time, I thought the website’s claims were plausible, but they were impossible to verify, so I didn’t give them too much weight. I continued to watch, and enjoy, the show when I came across it. I even picked it over American Hoggers. Maybe the site’s author, a Russell Scott, was right, given the new reports in more established media.
Do TV-Watchers Care?
Whether the TV-consuming public cares if Storage Wars is fake, and to what extent, is another question. I’m not sure if I’ll watch the show again now, or if I will enjoy it. I suppose I could still learn something about some unusual object, but I may feel too manipulated in the process.
After the James Frey scandal, I saw a lot of people still reading A Million Little Pieces (still do, in fact). I asked several if they cared that many of the claims in the so-called memoir were exaggerated. Some said they didn’t care at all. “Maybe a little, but it’s an interesting story,” others said. One person told me, “What do you expect, everything the media says is exaggerated.”
My journalist friends, in contrast, wanted to string up James Frey, or at least run him out of town. They were outraged that anyone would give him a dime by buying his books or asking him on a talk show. I think they were most disturbed by what that last person told me, perhaps fearing that Frey was bringing further discredit to a profession that is already viewed skeptically by an increasingly cynical public.
Some supporters of “reality TV” say the public should be savvy enough to know that nothing in the genre is realistic. But where is the line? What amount of manipulation is acceptable? It’s not hard to make the short leap to thinking that nothing in any media has any truth. It’s easy to take that cynical view any way, but it’s dangerous for the notion of a civilized society.
We should always be skeptical of everything, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as any reality.