Getting Real with ‘Reality’ TV

By Gary Nosacek

Americans are obsessed with reality, or perhaps, I should say “reality” as portrayed by the TV networks. Ratings indicate that we are glued to our screens watching people “survive” on islands and sing their way to becoming “idols”.

This love affair with “reality” has even begun to color what we see as “news”. We now have multi-day coverage of “Balloon Boys” and couples who crash White House parties. Apparently, two wars, health care debates, and economic problems are not real enough for the news directors!

Of course, the real irony of it all is that none of it is really “reality”. The producers are not hiding behind bushes in a jungle, like Jane Goodall, secretly filming whatever the chimps naturally are doing. Rather, they select people and create situations that they think will make good TV. Then they sit back and film whatever misadventures unfold.

My family learned firsthand a few years ago just how these shows work. My wife,

Dr. Cynthia Jones-Nosacek, received a message at her clinic that a TV producer wanted to talk to her. Having just appeared on ABC News and BBC World Service to discuss conscience laws that protect physicians, it was not an unusual message. This time though, it turned out not to be a news department. It was RDF Media, and they wanted us to appear on WIFE SWAP!

At the time, WIFE SWAP was still a British program. Producers were in the process of putting together a new American version, and they contacted my wife with an interesting proposal. They said they had read a story about me being a stay at home dad. They wanted to trade ME to another family. She would get a different stay at home dad in exchange. American viewers would love the twist, they said.

Dr. Cindy was not in love with the idea. She couldn’t think of one good reason to do it. Besides, she wondered, if they wanted me, why didn’t they call me. I’m in the book. Since they went through the hassle of finding her at the clinic, it made her suspicious. Maybe they saw the BBC story on her moral stands. She worried the stay at home dad thing was a ruse to get at her. I told her I would at least like to hear them out. She wasn’t thrilled, but agreed.

The young man from RDF who took my call seemed genuinely happy to talk to me and really wanted us to be part of season one. Once he realized that I had been in radio before becoming a stay at home dad, he dispensed with the informal chit chat and got down to the business of how “reality” would work.

The producers would select the other family. We would have no veto power over their choice. While they didn’t want a show full of hysterical scenes, they did want, in his words, “conflict without hostility”. That would guide their final pairing of families.

They’d film for 10 days. For five days I would live by my new family’s rules. The next five, they would live by mine. My wife’s new “husband” would get the same deal. Then, the editors would take the film of both families and edit it down to about 46 minutes. Again, we would have no input into it. I said, “I’ll be in touch”.

“Nobody can go 10 days without looking stupid”, my wife said after I hung up. “You know that’s what they’ll keep in, especially since we’re religious and conservative.”

I thought she was being a bit paranoid, until I received a questionnaire from my phone friend at RDF. One question asked, “what is your opinion of religion, gun control, and same sex marriage?” Yes, that was all in the same question.

I called back and said, “Bisexual Wiccans should not be allowed to carry guns.”

“You know that’s not what we’re asking,” he laughed.

“Yeah, but that’s the answer,” I replied. After I gave similar responses to the other questions, RDF didn’t seem quite as interested in my family. Maybe they feared that a “normal” traditional family might come off looking too good. Perhaps we understood too well how “reality” worked. We’ll never know, because we never did the show.

Our choice was well received. Not one person we talked to thought we should have done it. The Milwaukee Journal newspaper ran an editorial thanking us for not doing it! My wife was too kind to say, ” I told you so.” An old media buddy, Don Feder, was not so polite.

“Why did you even consider it?” he asked in disbelief.

I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. No REALLY. It did.

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