The most illuminating part of HBO's original movie Cinema Verite (airing Saturday at 9/8c) comes at its very end. We get to see a clip of the real Loud family, whose participation on the first modern reality show, 1973's An American Family, is central to the film. Verite transitions from the fictional portrayal of the Louds to footage from their actual appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, which was part of their self-orchestrated, damage-control tour following the mass criticism they received from viewers as a result of the show. During the segment, they voice their disdain for having their lives edited and their personalities categorized to suit plotlines. In response, Cavett snorts, "Anybody who's in show business would have to call you naïve to think that you could think that you could appear on television and not have it selected, edited..."
If anyone had a right to complain about editing, surely it was this family of guinea pigs. What's amazing about this is that some 38 years later, we're still having this conversation as a culture (and it typically ends with the same stalemate in the clip). When reality TV more or less picked right back up where the Louds left it with The Real World, we heard a riff on the same dialouge. After the third season of The Real World, MTV collected the casts for a group reunion. Season 2's Tami Roman complained about being edited negatively, while Season 1's Heather B. Gardner told her that they could only include what Tami gave them. And from there, it's gone on and on and on. In some cases, complaining about editing is effective (it reportedly got Basketball Wives' Evelyn Lozada a nice bump in her third-season salary). In most instances, though, you'll find that it amounts to the same whiny, naiveté that Cavett saw in the Louds. A sampling of some notable personalities saying mostly ridiculous things about editing is below:
"In an effort to create a fun and entertaining sneak peek of the upcoming cycle, America's Next Top Model released a trailer that was edited in way that misconstrued our overarching message...I must admit that I regrettably didn't see this clip before it was released to the public, (with multiple Top Model departments, it's just impossible to review everything)..." — Tyra Banks on an ANTM Cycle 15 preview that seemed to celebrate eventual winner Ann Ward's miniscule waistline (to People.com)
"Just imagine doing a reality show. What would they capture about you? They'd capture you on your period, pissed off, angry with your man, happy, going shopping. But they're only going to put in the things that are most interesting. I'm not an angry black woman; I'm actually a cool ass black woman." — NeNe Leakes, Real Housewives of Atlanta (to Rolling Out)
"It's an edited-for-television show. Each and everyone one of us works really, really hard to entertain you. For people to take it seriously, that really disturbs me." — Kelly Bensimon, Real Housewives of New York City (to E! Online)
"Those words coming out of my mouth don't match the audio track. I was talking to a producer on the side and they put my words in my mouth and I didn't like that." — Jill Zarin, Real Housewives of New York City (to Watch What Happens via People.com)
"I felt like there was no fair portrayal of me and my family... to share with people who didn't even want to portray me as a human being." — Danielle Staub, Real Housewives of New Jersey (to UsMagazine.com)
"I aired in an episode of [Real Housewives of Beverly Hills] that was to say the least, in my opinion, recklessly edited and was not representative of what actually happened that night nor who I am." — Allison DuBois (on her official site)
"I'm very disappointed in my character. They've turned me into a villain and I'm not like that. It's not me. I can't even watch myself. I don't know why they [the producers] are doing that. I guess they needed that character." — Camille Grammer, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (to OK!)
"It's almost disgusting to me because it makes me upset that they would show me in this light when it's completely the opposite of who I am." — Natalie Pack, America's Next Top Model (to Reality TV World)
"The show really didn't portray who I am at all. I really think they just needed my rocker 'character' on the show. I said a lot, but they totally edit s--- the way they want." — Natasha Kornis, Paris Hilton's My New BFF (to realitygossip.tv)
"I'm just like, 'That's not me.' Everybody was pissed off and on edge and they made it look like I was the only one who was. And this is the first time I've been edited in this way." — Johnny Bananas, The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Island (to Inside Pulse)
"It's important for people to understand that what they saw on TV was a character. It wasn't me. It was not at all indicative of who I am as a person. It was complete misrepresentation of who Megan Parris is." — Megan Parris, The Bachelor (to the Pittsburg Tribune-Review)
"If I do something stupid, which is pretty much the whole time, I hate it. I just hate it. Obviously, they're only going to put the good stuff in, and the good stuff is us drunk, so all I'm seeing is me drunk and falling down." — Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, Jersey Shore (to Rolling Stone)
"NotHappy theWay thingsWere portrayed,people that know me,know where my heart n intentionsR.Im upsetNcontemplating retirement from RealityJS4" — Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, Jersey Shore (via Twitter)
"[When] the first episode of Laguna Beach [aired], I locked myself in the bathroom and was crying for hours because I was so upset about how they were portraying me. But that's why going into The Hills, I knew exactly what I was getting into."— Kristin Cavallari (to XFINITY TV News)
"It's a reality TV show about several people's lives. It's accurate of who we are, but sometimes the situations can be misconstrued. It is 20-minute, edited drama. They can't show everything." — Heidi Montag, The Hills (to The Hollywood Gossip)
"It's really frustrating sometimes because I am playing myself, so sometimes in different situations it's been edited or cut differently. I figure, with my show, it will be more raw and real." — Audrina Patridge, The Hills (to AskMen)
"I never in a million years expected to be the villain. I was actually really surprised and shocked by it in the beginning. I'm an easy target, [because] I'm upfront and honest. It has been hard to see one very small side of me being the only side portrayed. But that's what you get for signing up for a reality TV show." — Michelle Money, The Bachelor (to People.com)
"There's always a house bitch and I think they wanted it to be me this time. It was edited to look much worse than it was. It was edited to make it my fault. I shouldn't be judged by this. I wasn't a bitch. I just did what I did to stay on the ball in the competition." — Sandra Nyanchoka, America's Next Top Model (to XFINITY TV News)
"Historically, African-American women have been portrayed in a negative light in reality television programming. As was the case with my portrayal on The Apprentice. I see the editing as humorous; it makes for a very dramatic presentation of the facts." — Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (to Reality News Online)
"[Girlfriend Vikki Lizzi and I] are both quick to rip each other apart when we are mad, verbally I mean, and that happens in relationships, and they seemed to choose the worst times to edit into the show." — Jeff Conaway, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew (to MortysTV.com)
"I will say a have a new appreciation for the comedy that is editing. I never realized how much both Drag Race and Untucked are like Mad Libs. Editors just sorta fit things where they make sense and tell a story about whatever they like." — Delta Work (to NewNowNext)
"It's like those books in school where you can choose the ending. Exactly. They can edit it any way they want. They could do another five seasons with totally different storylines just based on the footage they have." — Jon Gosselin, Jon & Kate Plus 8 (to PopEater.com)
"A lot of these reality folks come on talk shows and they say, well, if I was the villain or if I said something ridiculous, they edited that way. I think on my show, they actually edit me very fairly, maybe too fairly. I'm not that nice." — Kathy Griffin, My Life on the D-List (to Larry King Live)
Keep in mind that these examples come only from what's available online — there are plenty of printed and broadcast interviews, and reunion-show squabbles that have not been included. In a sense, these quotes only scratch the surface. Also, the irony of editing together a story about selective editing isn't lost on us, either — plenty of reality stars echo Money's sentiment above, which is a tempered mix of disappointment and 20/20 hindsight.
But then again, plenty of people embrace their portrayals — even a reality show villain as notorious as Project Runway's Wendy Pepper has said, "I agreed to allow them to manipulate my image, and in return I received exposure I could never have dreamed of... I have no regrets about how I behaved on the show." Those who have approval of their edits (like the Kardashians and The Osbournes-era Sharon Osbourne) unsurprisingly seem to have no qualms with their on-screen packaging. Others learn from the experience — as a result of their portrayls, Paula Abdul refused to shoot a second season of Hey Paula, and The Bachelorette's Chris Lambton turned down the opportunity to head The Bachelor.
And all of this isn't to say that the editing-griping is out of line or wrong. It's just redundant. Perhaps editing is a phenomenon like fame: for as much negativity as you can glean before experiencing it, nothing can prepare you for what it actually feels like. Complaining about being edited on reality TV is akin to complaining about being bit in a viper pit, but that doesn't stop the wounds from stinging.