Reality Check

Reality Check
Bill Inoshita/CBS

05/06/2004 AT 06:05 AM EDT

Is it real or is it just reality TV? As millions of Americans sit before the TV night after night, addicted to the fights, the dates, the rejections, the alliances, the betrayals, the shocks and reversals on hit shows like Survivor, The Bachelor and The Apprentice, the little voice in your head wonders: Is this the raw excitement of real, unscripted human behavior – or has the whole thing been cooked and arranged on a platter?

And the answer is ... both.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that the final results of any contests are rigged. But just as Jim Carrey's reality-TV life in The Truman Show was run by a director concealed up on the moon, these shows are manipulated by an invisible team of producers, editors and other expert tweakers. Does a ready supply of liquor encourage contestants to let loose? Can a bit of splicing transform two friends into enemies? Does that TV Romeo have a Shakespeare coaching his speeches? Maybe. "We're entertainers, not journalists," says Mark Cronin, executive producer of The Surreal Life. "We're here to show you what happened, and to do that we take liberties. But there's no defrauding the public." Here's a look behind the curtain. . . .

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Are the dangers real?

In the Feb. 1 episode of Survivor All-Stars, Sue Hawk shocks her fellow contestants by drinking stagnant well water, blithely disregarding tribemate Jeri Manthey's warning that it could give her brain parasites. In fact, no harm befell Hawk, though in all likelihood there was little risk involved. "The natural water on the Pearl Islands," says Amarilis Mojica, a spokesman for Panama's tourism board, "is potable and generally quite drinkable." The producers just didn't feel compelled to share that information.

In the past, they have been accused of stronger interference. In 2001 Stacey Stillman, who was on the first Survivor, sued the producers and CBS, accusing them of unfairly conspiring with two fellow castaways to vote her out of the tribe instead of the more popular Rudy Boesch. (The producers vigorously denied the charge and countersued for defamation and breach of contract.) And during Survivor: The Australian Outback, executive producer Mark Burnett admitted to using stunt doubles to reenact challenges for the purposes of getting the right camera shots. But that doesn't happen anymore. "I don't need any twists or switches," he says. "I can just leave it like it is. What makes this great TV are the characters." And those tribal councils? What appear to be six- or seven-minute bull sessions actually take hours in real life. Host Jeff Probst explains that they're edited down "so that it appears I go right for the jugular, when really it took 15 minutes of roundabout questioning to get you to finally say that the person next to you is not contributing."

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