In reality, it’s a super-duping

Times Staff Writer

Manipulative stunts and mean-spirited practical jokes have become almost honored practice in the “reality” TV game.

But now a new series from Mike Fleiss, producer of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” may be setting a new standard for the genre.

At a taping last month for the WB Network’s coming “Superstar USA” -- a bogus talent contest with the motto “Only the bad survive” -- one of the producers told audience members that the hapless contestants were terminally ill beneficiaries of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The producers were apparently worried that audience members would otherwise laugh or boo during the taping, and that might have spoiled the climax of the series, a spoof of “American Idol” in which the very worst singer is crowned “winner.”


Fleiss’ Next Entertainment, which produces “Superstar” with Warner Bros.’ Telepictures Productions, was contrite Friday about the Make-A-Wish whopper.

“One of the producers ad-libbed something to the audience -- who had been paid to be there -- that may have offended someone in the audience and for that we sincerely apologize,” the company said in a statement. “The remark is not in the show and was never intended to be in the show.”

A spokesman for the WB -- which is partly owned by Tribune Co., parent company of The Times -- said, “It was an unfortunate incident, but we stand by the show and the producers.” Shelley Ginsburg, a spokeswoman for Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Los Angeles, confirmed that the group had no connection to “Superstar,” adding: “Obviously, we would not want our name used in any manner that would be misleading or deceiving to anyone.”

Then again, there may be no need for an apology: Viewers have proved that they are not necessarily bothered by deceit on reality TV shows. Last season’s top-rated entertainment series among the young adults prized by advertisers was Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” in which a group of attractive women socialized with an eligible bachelor who they believed would inherit millions of dollars. In fact, he was a low-paid equipment operator. Other shows that depend on practical jokes include MTV’s “Punk’d” and the WB’s “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.”

And suspicions extend beyond just those few shows. So pervasive is deception in unscripted TV that the cover story in the current issue of People magazine is a primer on spotting what’s real and what’s fake on such huge hit shows as “American Idol,” “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” among others.

But Fleiss may end up outshining them all with “Superstar,” which debuts next Monday. The series features 12 contestants, all chosen to make “American Idol” song butcher William Hung sound like Placido Domingo.

Clearly “Superstar” was inspired at least in part by the high ratings Fox earned for the preliminary rounds of “Idol,” which featured a succession of inept singers.

In addition to tricking the studio audience, the producers evidently worked hard to make sure the singers sounded as awful as possible. One former show staffer who asked not to be identified said that when some of the talent-challenged contestants actually improved their performances over time, the crew tried to confuse them by lowering the volume of prerecorded accompanying music or suddenly shifting tempos.

“From the day I walked in there, I pretty much knew [the show] was morally reprehensible,” said the ex-employee.

But not everyone fell for the ruse, even with the Make-A-Wish tale. One audience member, who requested anonymity, said the singers were so consistently horrible that he gradually realized the show was a put-on. “I said to myself, ‘There should be some cancer patients who could actually hold a note,’ ” he said.

Fleiss is no stranger to controversy. He was also the producer of “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire,” a Fox reality show that was clouded by notoriety in 2000. Rick Rockwell, the program’s prospective bridegroom, was revealed to have been under a restraining order for threatening his ex-fiance.

As for “Superstar,” the people who have the most riding on the hoax may be WB executives. The network has had a difficult season, partly because it mostly missed out on the “reality” craze sweeping TV.

WB reality shows such as “Surreal Life” and “High School Reunion” have generated respectable ratings but have not broken out as major hits. The network hopes “Superstar” can connect with the same young viewers who turned “Idol” into a pop-culture sensation.