Who’s cheating who? 

21 February 2011 tbs.pm/1246

Ever feel that you’ve been had? Some viewers of BBC Three’s reality-cum-consumer advice show The Real Hustle might conceivably feel that they have been duped themselves with the revelation that certain elements of this programme might not be as ‘real’ as the title might lead us to believe.

Such concerns naturally bring to mind all those UK TV and radio ‘fakery’ scandals that dominated in 2009, and presumably The Real Hustle got overlooked at the time because it’s on BBC Three which in the minds of some people and the newsprint media is a channel that “few people bother to watch”.

(BBC Three is actually one of the most popular digital TV channels outside of the “big five”.)

At the time it was thought that there would be more “hidden revelations” waiting to tumble out of the broadcasting closet over the following months, but things have remained remarkably quiet on the TV fakery front until this new revelation.

However if you’ve ever actually seen any of The Real Hustle – even if it’s just for a few minutes – you can’t help but think that in order for a programme like this to be put together in the first place then there would have to be a large amount of artifice involved in its production.

If real people had actually been unwittingly tricked into using fake cash machines, etc., the risk of lawsuits against the production company and/or the BBC as a consequence would have been too great to contemplate, especially with no opportunity for the ‘victims’ to sign disclaimer forms before their ‘hustle’ took place had the deception been genuine.

So you would effectively have to deceive a lot of people as well as financially compensating a percentage of those who complained about the ‘scam’ afterwards, not to mention the expense of having to consign numerous recorded ‘scams’ to the cutting room floor just because the ‘victim’ didn’t give permission for it to be broadcast.

All this effort for a cheap reality TV programme shown on BBC Three?

(Today’s “no win, no fee” compensation culture would make it almost impossible to produce a new and genuine revival of a hidden camera-based, practical joke TV show like Candid Camera.)

Whilst The Real Hustle doesn’t fit into the category of defrauding lots of viewers via premium rate phonelines, the level of viewer deception involved must potentially be nearly as great as that used to make the kids’ TV show “Why dont you” back in the 1970s/80s where “viewers’ suggestions for activities” were instead usually obtained from books.

But of course from an old-fashioned broadcaster viewpoint none of this supposedly matters if it makes for ‘great’ television, and The Real Hustle must be relatively cheap to produce as well as ticking an all-important public service consumer information box for the channel’s “young adult viewer” demographic even if it does have a derivative feel about it.

Therefore it’s no surprise that The ‘Real’ Hustle has been a filler staple programming for BBC Three for quite some time, although given this news it’s fairly unlikely that the series will be able to continue at least in its current form regardless of the outcome of any investigations.

(The programme’s title presumably had to have the word ‘Real’ in it to entice more viewers to watch, although if possible a title change to “The Hustle” could well be a consequence of any Ofcom/BBC investigation, if the programme is permitted to continue “as is”.)

There’s a degree of artifice in almost every television (and radio) programme; for example, when you see Phil and Kirsty walk through the door of a house for the first time on “Location, Location, Location” it’s most likely that the sequence was actually recorded on the last day of production after several lighting adjustments and script amendments.

But the viewer ends up seeing the end result near the start of the programme, making it appear as if that moment was actually the first time Phil and Kirsty had ever stepped foot into that particular property. A deception, perhaps, but it looks good on screen and may be certainly required for technical reasons (lighting, etc.).

This form of “artistic licence” is obviously still tolerated in television and radio production, but nowadays producers seem to be more or less expected to keep the amount of artifice employed within television and radio productions to the bare minimum, especially where premium rate interactivity is used.

Indeed it will be interesting to see what Ofcom in particular will have to say on the subject, especially given all the similar reality-based programming found on other channels, with perhaps a belated recognition that extensive use of artifice is necessary for the production of most of these “reality TV” shows – will everything now have to display a disclaimer?

The earlier scandals basically just resulted in a few red faces, a few fines from Ofcom, tighter compliance checking and some grovelling apologies but did little to define any boundaries as to what and what isn’t acceptable outside of the basic notion that anything involving premium rate interactivity that’s less than honest is basically fraud.

Naturally there will be questions as to whether the BBC or Ofcom should have intervened earlier if there was the slightest suspicion of deception (even if there were no complaints), whether actually justified or otherwise, although I fully expect that such issues will still remain unresolved on this occasion.

Anyway, regardless of whether or not this is just another tabloid storm in a teacup where BBC-bashing has become a sport in itself, it’s ironic (and strangely appropriate) that something on the subject of deception actually has to deceive itself in order to ever get produced in the first place.

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1 response to this article

Russ J Graham 21 February 2011 at 3:33 pm

It’s tough to work out where the ‘line’ is between making a television programme any good and faking a television programme.

The production company behind ‘The Real Hustle’ (so named to avoid a clash with, and cash in on, BBC-1’s ‘The Hustle’ drama series) have admitted to refilming the original set-up or the original reveal of a scam. They say because of technical requirements, I say because it makes better television if you get the framing just right.

In the recent series ‘Mary Queen of Shops’, you could see a scene where this dilemma happened and the producers chose wrong. Mary Portas drives into a street and asks the producer “which house is theirs?”. The producer indicates the house. Portas gets out of the car, turns to the camera and says “I can tell straight away that this is their house!”.

Now, that’s just bad television. The choices available were: fake it (cut to Portas saying “I can tell straight away that this is their house!” without showing the producer) or cut it (remove Portas’s line in favour of nothing or of the producer’s response). The first makes great television. The second makes dull television.

The third option, the unfaked, warts-and-all version, was what the chose. This was bad television and also made little sense. But it was clearly done so that a ‘reality’ TV show would be whiter-than-white.

The problem is that the BBC is attempting to be whiter-than-white in the face of criticism from the Daily Mail, the Express and the Murdoch stable, all of whom are much much more guilty of regularly outright lying to their audience to sell papers and all of whom wish to see the BBC demolished. These papers will not show any mercy, not be reasonable about anything to do with the BBC.

There’s no solution to this whilst our national press is so morally bankrupt and corrupt.

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