How far can a "reality TV" show go in staging its events?

Some people, such as Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett, reject the term "reality TV" entirely, opting instead for "unscripted TV" and "situational drama." Nevertheless, not all TV that is "unscripted" is reality TV (or even "unscripted TV"). For example, unscripted improvisational comedy, such as the long-running show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, wouldn't be considered reality TV. Similarly, unscripted talk and interview shows, from The Late Show with David Letterman to The Today Show and Meet the Press, aren't reality TV.

Burnett's point, which he makes to The Australian, is that all "reality TV" involves artificial situations. The castaways didn't just end up on an island or decide to hold "Tribal Councils" on their own in Survivor. Nor were The Osbournes unconscious of the huge cameras recording their every move. We agree. In our opinion, the "reality" of reality TV is that, despite the artificial situation, the events being depicted don't involve acting -- which leaves out the staged talk shows and the improvisational comedy. Thus, even a show on which people eat bugs for cash (Fear Factor) or sing songs for a recording contract (American Idol) can be a "reality" show.

Which brings us to Fox's The Simple Life, starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie -- a show which may have pushed the boundaries of reality TV too far. Under closer examination, some of the sequences on The Simple Life seem to be nothing more than improvisational comedy, no different from a Whose Line Is It Anyway? set in the Ozarks with two amateur comediennes.

Take, for instance, the scene in the show's second episode where Paris and Nicole, while working at a dairy, fill glass milk bottles with a hose, while Danny Council, the dairy farmer who owns "Danny's Dairy Farm," pushes them to get more bottles completed for a rapidly-approaching shipment on a delivery truck. Ultimately, according to the sequence as aired, Paris and Nicole were pouring water from a bucket into the bottles to deceive Danny and fill their quota.

Our summary of the episode notes that Paris and Nicole were told by Danny that the milk was unpasteurized and asks whether it's legal to sell unpasteurized milk in Arkansas. The answer? No.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health, all cow's milk sold in the state must be pasteurized. A dairy can sell up to 100 gallons of unpasteurized goat's milk in a month, but customers for that milk must come to the farm to buy it. Thus, there is no way that unpasteurized milk could be bottled for delivery ... and, anyway, this dairy farm just had cows, so all of its milk would have to be pasteurized before sale. Under state law, either Danny should be in jail, or the only thing "real" about this scene was that it "really" aired on TV.

One of our favorite writers, Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Sun-Times, noted that People magazine talked to dairyman Danny Council. Should Danny be in jail? No, because the scene was completely staged. Said Danny, "None of that [milk] meets health department standards. It was totally for the show." In fact, even the presence of the glass bottles that Paris and Nicole filled was fake -- the show supplied them, apparently because glass bottles are more in keeping with the "look" that the producers wanted for rural Arkansas.

So ... the bottle-filling, the delivery deadline, the devious filling of the bottles with water ... every bit of the scene ... was all play-acting by Paris, Nicole and Danny. We fail to see how this is different from improvisational acting.

Although most of the show's participants are bound by confidentiality agreements and aren't talking, we find it difficult to believe that many of the other events portrayed in the show so far are any more "real" than this scene was. In fact, although The Simple Life was billed as a reality-sitcom, it more closely resembles scripted comedy, since even such choices about what activities to perform and what type of props to use seem to be made by the producers ... and, perhaps, the writers.

An actual script (or, at least, a script outline) would account for such weird, unrealistic events as the scene in the third episode when their "host," Albert Leding, claims that Paris and Nicole's bad behavior will reflect poorly on himself and his wife -- as if Paris and Nicole's "bad behavior" was unanticipated mischief instead of play-acting and the Ledings were somehow vouching for the character of these two Hollywood "celebutantes."

In the hit Spike TV reality show Joe Schmo, everything except star Matt Kennedy Gould's reactions to the bizarre situations around him was scripted and done using actors. Matt was clueless, though, and the "reality" could be found in Matt's unvarnished acts. By contrast, in The Simple Life, the only thing "real" appears to be the slender, tanned, silicone-free bodies of Paris and Nicole. Will that be enough to compensate for the most unreal "reality" show to ever hit the U.S. airwaves?