Reality TV is affecting reality, creating a weird world for gossip writers

The stew of reality programming combines outsized egos, outrageous behavior and often inane-turned-insane situations. As a result, the job of reporting the real-life exploits pales in comparison to what's made-for-TV.
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

What's happened to my beloved gossip rags?

I used to enjoy peering into the private lives of the rich and famous: who was dating whom, who was having babies, who was feuding, who had a stunning new home.

But the famous (if not necessarily rich) these days are reality TV stars, and their private lives are paradoxically public fodder for their shows. That's left the gossip press completely co-opted, pushing stories that are little more than recaps and promos -- advertising, really -- for television programs.

As a reporter who covers the world of celebrity, I probably mourn the declining quality of tabloid trash -- and fear the arrival of "The Real Housewives of D.C." -- more than most of you. Lately, you see, I'm getting constantly getting tripped up by reality-tainted faux gossip.

Tori Spelling's marriage in trouble? Sounds promising when I spot that headline in my People-Us Weekly-TMZ browsing. Should we keep an eye out for a divorce announcement from the '90s kitsch icon? Ah, whaddaya know: Turns out "Tori Spelling's marriage in trouble" is also the story arc of her new reality series. I think she and Dean might make it after all.

The sons of a beloved TV personality open up about their father's recent death -- poignant, no? But what if the TV personality is a reality star, and the interview runs not soon after his death but months later, just as his death episode is set to air? (To record-setting viewership, natch.) I'm sorry for your loss, sons of Captain Phil Harris of Discovery's "Deadliest Catch," but this ain't news anymore.

That's why, much as I hate to write about them, I'll grudgingly give props to the Kardashians, who actually do real-life things (marrying NBA stars, having babies) that might legitimately qualify as "news" even if, theoretically speaking, the sisters were famous for something other than starring in the reality shows on which said blessed events are about to be showcased.

In the age of Balloon Boy and Michaele Salahi, we've all wondered how much reality TV is affecting reality -- how the desire to create good television may steer a wannabe-celeb's behavior. (Poor Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston. An unromantic public immediately assumed that their surprise engagement was a bid for a TV deal.) But it's also created a crazy hall-of-mirrors effect for the media attempting to cover this world.

In some ways this new breed of celebrity -- more raw, less guarded than the Hollywood elite -- has been good for the tabs. The gossip sheets struck gold last year when they turned up evidence that one Mr. Jon Gosselin, at the time best known as the beleaguered Pennsylvania dad of eight kids on TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8," was cruising Wyomissing area nightspots minus Kate. The media frenzy over their breakup spurred epic ratings, and even after viewership subsided, the Gosselin saga remained popular with gossip consumers. The stories about Jon and Kate may now be bigger than their show ever was.

But I'm convinced reality TV comes out way ahead in this unholy partnership. Take "The Bachelor." The looking-for-love show had been lagging in the ratings for years, until 2007, when Brad Womack scandalized viewers by rejecting all the women competing for his heart. The celebrity rags dove in to investigate what's wrong with that guy? And they haven't left the "Bachelor" beat since, expending the same kind of probing energy on the Jason-Molly-Melissa love triangle or the Ed and Jillian infidelity reports that they once devoted to the watershed breakup of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt.

Bravo's "Housewives" franchise is particularly shrewd about crafting plotlines that spin out parallel faux news stories. Last year, some of the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" hinted on-air that one of their own had a scandalous past. Tri-state newspapers quickly exhumed a 1980s kidnapping-extortion case involving cast member Danielle Staub, and New Jersey ended up being the highest-rated "Housewives" season to date. Who knows if producers schemed behind the scenes to make sure the other wives uncovered Staub's obscure secrets -- but did the media get played here, as well? Was this really a valid celebrity news story -- or just an unpaid ad?

So from the time we learned that Bravo was considering Tareq and Michaele Salahi for the D.C. installment, I steeled myself. I knew there were plenty of seamy allegations surrounding these small-time Northern Virginia socialites; we'd reported some of them over the years. But I resolved we'd get ahead of Bravo's PR blitz and reveal the Salahis' travails on our own schedule, spoilers be damned.

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