`Superstar' producer plays a nasty trick on the audience

Singing contestants falsely described as terminally ill

Television

May 16, 2004|By Scott Collins | Scott Collins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Manipulative stunts and mean-spirited practical jokes have become almost honored practice in the "reality" TV game. But 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 Superstar USA - a bogus talent contest with the motto "Only the bad survive" that makes its debut tonight - 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, which 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, has expressed regret 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," said a company statement. "The remark is not in the show and was never intended to be in the show."

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.

So pervasive is deception in unscripted TV, in fact, that a recent issue of People magazine offered 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. The series features 12 contestants, all chosen to make American Idol song butcher William Hung sound like Placido Domingo.

In addition to tricking the studio audience, the producers evidently worked hard to make sure the singers sounded as awful as possible, reportedly altering the sound level or music tempo to confuse them. But not everyone in the audience fell for the ruse, even with the Make-A-Wish tale.

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 has mostly missed out on the "reality" craze sweeping TV. The network hopes Superstar can connect with the same young viewers who turned Idol into a pop-culture sensation.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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