Confessions of a Reality TV Bottom-Feeder

I have friends—well-educated, clear-thinking folk—who think NBC’s hidden-camera show Spy TV is just a hoot. It’s become a guilty pleasure, one of those junky shows they just hate to love. And it’s easy to understand why: Who doesn’t love a good practical joke every once in a while, especially when it’s at someone else’s expense?

However, I know better, having once toiled for a hidden-camera show back when reality TV shows weren’t the network-salvaging cash cows they are now. In fact, these shows were network barnacles in the early ‘90s, no-budget time fillers designed to rake in meager ad revenue until a suitable replacement could be found for them.

In those days, I was a struggling screenwriter who had come to the painful realization that the next Chinatown wasn’t going to flow from my word processor anytime soon, and I needed work, any work. My agent, shortly after advising me to ditch the business because Hollywood was already lousy with white, Jewish comedy writers, got me an interview with the producers of Totally Hidden Video, the Fox show that had already been sued by Allen Funt for ripping off Candid Camera wholesale. The pay was so small my agent, out of the goodness of her heart, refused to take a commission, but I was raring to go. Anything to avoid getting a real job, I thought at the time. How wrong I was. 

Fox was at that time a fledging wannabe “fourth network” whose need for captive eyeballs was so desperate it resorted to crude programming tactics that would have made the soulless suits in Network blanch. Remember Herman’s Head? Of course you don’t, and why should you? In a medium that had perfected the art of trading dreck for profit, Fox was achieving new lows on a weekly basis. Even by Fox’s standards, Totally Hidden Video was beneath contempt, a shabby gotcha-fest whose production values were only a few notches higher than public access television.

The writing staff (we were actually called segment producers) consisted of talented, self-hating TV and film scribes reduced to generating brain-dead gags designed to humiliate innocent bystanders for public delectation. Most everyone involved in the show wanted to be working somewhere else. The show was run like a pre-NAFTA maquiladora; every segment producer was required to come up with a quota of producible “bits” or else be shown the door. During my 10-month tenure, at least 16 writers by my count were fired, and I came close on a few occasions. This despite the fact that many of them went on to produce huge hits like Cybill, Mad About You, and Just Shoot Me.

If you had the great good fortune of getting a bit approved, you then had to go out into the field to produce it. This is when things got really ugly. The MO was elegantly simple: Recruit simpletons who could be easily duped, then play vicious tricks on them. It was never enough to simply pull off a benignly amusing gag—you had to go for the throat.

Lots of the bits would involve moral crises manufactured by the segment producers. We would seduce married men with hot actress babes and get them to think about cheating on their spouses. We convinced temp office workers they were jeopardizing the companies that had ostensibly hired them. Sometimes the situation became so tense that we would have to intercede. When we convinced one guy that his wife was about to have nose-enlargement surgery, he almost came to blows with our phony plastic surgeon, and we had to break it up. Once, we actually convinced someone they had seen a ghost. It was so disturbing, so creepy and unsettling, that we were all sick about it afterward. It still aired, though.

Often the best—meaning the worst—stuff stayed in the editing room. In order for any hidden-camera bit to be aired, the marks had to sign a release giving the show permission to use their likenesses. Naturally, those that threatened legal action never made the final cut.

Occasionally, bits would curdle into racism. One time, we actually cajoled a few young African-American kids to sing “Camptown Races,” a staple of Vaudeville-era minstrel shows (you know, the song with the “doo, dah, doo, dah” chorus?). At the time, we thought nothing of it. If a bit was funny, so what if it offended black people? Maybe a little controversy would help us crawl out of the Nielsen basement.

Nothing, in fact, ever did help us produce better ratings numbers, and writing the show soon became an exercise in dunderhead drudgery. It felt like we were all trapped in some comedy gulag, destined to grind out malicious foolishness until our Writers Guild pensions kicked in (that is, those of us who were members of the WGA; most of us were not). Mercifully, the show wasn’t picked up after the end of its third season, and while we all dreaded hitting the streets again, it felt as if an onerous yoke had been lifted. We didn’t have to toil in the shadows anymore, waiting for people to step into our jerry-rigged traps. It felt great to be a struggling writer again.

Totally Hidden Video has a lot to answer for. A handful of its producers have gone on to create and produce shows like Big Brother, Unsolved Mysteries, Before They Were Stars, and Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire?, the Fox special that nearly sank the reality TV format for good. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the networks continue their race to the bottom with shows whose prurience and pestilent nastiness know no bounds. I’m glad I got out when I did.