Reality TV: The (Not So) Candid Camera
On the 10th of August 1948, Candid Camera, an American hidden camera/practical joke reality series created and produced by Allen Funt was aired on television. It initially began on radio as The Candid Microphone and after a series of theatrical film shorts, the format was adopted to the screen where it ran successfully until May 2004.
A 1969 article records how, “Since its inception in 1947, over a million people have been filmed unobtrusively “in the act of being themselves,” thus falling victim to Allen Funt’s “Smile . . . you’re on Candid Camera.” Funt, who originated the idea and produced and directed first Candid Microphone and later Candid Camera, describes his experiences with the show as “providing a very wonderful insight” into the complex behaviors and personalities of people. Furthermore, in anticipation that the films might prove of some value to behavioral scientists, Funt has donated the Candid Microphone and Candid Camera collection to the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. What began as pure entertainment we are finding to be an unequalled repository of extremely valuable observations of human behavior .” (James B. Maas and Kathleen M. Toivanen, “Candid Camera” and the Behavioral Sciences’, in Communication Review,Vol. 17, No. 3, Fall, 1969).
James Maas, the Cornell University Psychology Professor in charge of researching these TV experiments was interviewed by David Rakoff for The New York Times in January 2000 and asked: “Since 1968, you have included ”Candid Camera” episodes in your Introductory Psychology course at Cornell. Why? I was looking for illustrative examples of human behavior that would amplify empirical research findings. Funt never espoused to be a scientist, but he had a marvelous way of doing the same types of situational experiments that professional psychologists do. Which episodes have you used? Can you describe a sequence and its larger psychological context? I think ”Face the Rear” is my very favorite. A nave subject goes into an elevator and faces the front of the car. The next three people who come into the elevator, unbeknownst to the nave subject, are ”Candid Camera” confederates, and they all face the rear. By the time the third person comes in, these nave subjects feel such pressure that they turn around. They’re very uncomfortable, but yet they conform.” In many ways, this ‘herd mentality’ could later be observed in the increasing number of viewers of reality TV programs.
One of the more shocking examples of Funt’s Candid Camera was .. . a mailbox rigged with a speaker so that a voice came from within. When a person walked by, the mailbox would ask a question, such as, “Have you seen the mail truck?” “One man became engaged in a lengthy conversation with the mailbox; then as luck would have it, another person passed by, just in time to hear the first man finish a response. At that point the mailbox stopped asking further questions. The first man desperately tried to prove his sanity to the passer-by. “Talk! Talk!” he yelled at the mailbox, but no sound would come from it. The passer-by gave him just one disapproving look, and shaking his head, walked on–leaving the man with his dilemma.” (James B. Maas and Kathleen M. Toivanen, “Candid Camera” and the Behavioral Sciences’, in Communication Review,Vol. 17, No. 3, Fall, 1969). Many people believed that the subjects picked by the show must have been atypical and particularly gullible, yet one thing is certain, the show started playing with the participants’ perception of reality.
While the provocative nature of the hidden camera was visible in these naive scenarios of the 1960s, the filming of reality has since given way to much more complex and sophisticated experiments in contemporary television. “‘Reality TV’ is such an elastic term nowadays. It encompasses a wide range of television fare, from the relentless Salon through You’re a star to the Celebrity hell’ subgenre. It also includes more serious inflections of the form: following the everyday experiences and crises of rural vets or busy city hospitals. All share, but with different emphasis, some commitment to presenting reality. ‘Reality tv’ became the flagship genre for the last decade of the twentieth century and the ratings winner of the twenty first. Despite the misgivings of key cultural commentators from Germaine Greer to Salman Rushdie, the genre lodged itself in the ratings and the popular Zeitgeist, as well as in the fiscal projections of TV execs. Although the term only recently gained currency, the form itself arguably owes much to earlier forms of film and television. It can be traced back to the earliest examples of cinema, with the Lumiere brothers’ footage of a train arriving at Le Ciotat station in 1895. Through the decades, various forms of candid camera and apparently ‘unmediated’ media experiences have peppered our audiovisual histories. While some remain at the populist and candid end of the spectrum, John Grierson’s use of the term ‘documentary’ in 1926 conferred a certain gravitas on the form. Documentary was serious, it had a drive towards enlightenment.” (Stephanie McBride, ‘Film and Television: Reality TV Bites, Circa, No. 107, Spring, 2004). From visual scientific records of life, to humour and light entertainment, and then to the latest mercantile show-business perversion which is the Big Brother fish bowl, the filming of reality has proven as popular as the painting of it throughout art history. By comparison to various pictorial forms such as landscape, portraiture, history painting, the moving image has brought far more complex implications to the capturing of reality, which are worth our reflection.