Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE "STORAGE WARS" LAWSUIT: THE THIN LEGAL LINE BETWEEN "REALITY" AND "COMPETITION"!

During the recent move that forced me to go on an unwanted semi-sabbatical from this blog recently, I had to spend a lot of time in hotel and motel rooms, watching over my brother as others were moving crap from one house to another. It wasn't my ideal vacation, however, being stuck in those motel rooms gave me a rare opportunity to go through and look at basic cable TV,  which unfortunately I hadn't been able to watch much of for years. I joked to somebody that "Breaking Bad" wasn't on the air, when I last had cable (which is true), so I've missed quite a bit. A lot of it, I'm sure if I did see, I'd be grateful I missed it the first time, and disappointed that I saw it later. A lot of the more thoughtful scripted series I try to catch on DVD later, so I really couldn't jump ahead and watch those, unless there happened to be a marathon on that came in right where I was left off, and there wasn't, so a lot of what I scanned through, especially during the days where I was stuck, was the reality TV shows that were on, and to my enjoyment and intellectual curiosity, I was finding some good ones that I thought offered some intellectual curiosity, and were entertaining as well. I was actually planning on doing a "GOOD ON TV?" blog about a couple of them, particularly "Pawn Stars" and "Storage Wars", which I found myself watching some marathons of when they were on. Of course, I had been aware of these shows previously, and their popularity, "Pawn Stars" in particular, is a local show for me in Vegas. I actually started looking for episodes of that show previously online, and I know people who know the shop and the stars and I know people who have come to Vegas, and made a point to go to the Silver & Gold Pawn Shop, which is about, 3 or 4 buses for me; they were well-known here even before their show. It's entertaining, and it's cool to see what new things comes in, and it's a good show for a channel like HISTORY, which, let's face it, beforehand, was mostly documentaries about Hitler (Seriously, somebody kept count, and on HISTORY, on average they mentioned Hitler, once every four hours on the channel.) and here's a nice "Antiques Roadshow"-type, modern show, that's nice, non-exploitative reality TV, that's takes a fun interesting approach to a subject that usually puts school kids to sleep. And "Storage Wars", it's more exploitative and some of the typical reality show aspects are obviously contrived, but it has this same, "Hmm, what is that, and what's it worth?" intrigue, and it gives us an interesting look at something I never knew existed, this world of storage locker auctions. Did they spend too much, can they make money back, are they gonna find something valuable, and usually one or two, "What the hell is that?" items that are interesting to see get appraised.

I was gonna write about how they're not dumb reality shows, how they're entertaining and informative, and talk about how people, who might not typically like reality shows, could find something very interesting about these shows, and how they aren't representative of the worst of reality TV. I still could do that, but before I started writing, and I watched even more of these series online after I got addicted to them at the motels, and then I decided to do a little extra research into them, and it didn't take too long, before I found out that one of the stars of "Storage Wars" Dave Hester, was suing the show, and claiming it was "fake," and that some of the auctions were staged.

Hmm. Well, I'm not an idiot, there were obviously certain parts of the show that were contrived, and staged; I know how these shows are made and obviously, we were only getting certain parts of the show at certain times, that we're obviously somewhat staged. I mean, how often do we ever see somebody who's not a star of the show win on a locker? I've seen it once, and that was on "Storage Wars Canada" (Which, yes I've been watching on youtube. It's addictive, I want more of it, even with these claims) And lockers always happen to have something worth looking up in them? Hell, the show wasn't even really pretending, they've occasionally shown clips at the end of episodes, where the stars we're shown redoing conversations to get extra takes, you have to be an idiot to not understand the difference between reality-reality and TV-reality. This isn't even the first show to have former stars claim things were scripted or staged, or things were edited to give the wrong impression, or whatever,- I mean, once you understand and appreciate that, even having a camera there is a manipulation, much less the continuing manipulation of images that create reality television, (or any filmed art form for that matter) you'll be able to appreciate the scripted reality, as much as the unscripted reality.

Hmm, except...- Hmm, except there's something a bit off here. I decided to take a closer look at this lawsuit and some of his claims.



I've been looking a little closer into the case than just this ABC News report, and currently, the case is still ongoing, but there were some interesting decisions made. Hester's lawsuit against A&E for the "Committing a fraud" on the public was dropped, because for the reason that was mentioned, while the show is a contest to a certain extent, it doesn't fit the guidelines Congress set up decades ago regarding the standards and practices of competition shows that networks produce and stage. However, the case regarding his firing, is still ongoing, and I think he has a good case regarding his firing, because if he was fired just for complaining to the producers about their practices, that's not legally enough to fire somebody, in fact, in any other business if somebody got fired for that, the ACLU would be coming down to defend him.

Now, as to some of his claims,- well first off, I decided to take a second look at all the singularly aspects of the show. Let's start with the contestants themselves, and let's,- this is a pet peeve of mine, I've seen a lot of writings on this, call them "actors", and they're not actors. I mean, we're seeing a small glimpse of these colorful characters in a high-pressure stress-filled forum, but Hester, is a mogul, that runs a successful auction house, who's gets a lot of money for his services, and has been buying storage lockers for decades, so has Darryl Sheets on the show, who we see in the opening episode, his success in buying lockers, and Jarrod and Brandi have a real store and so-on, and while these people are getting paid and paid well for their appearances on the show, as they should in general, and as they have to be paid by law, they are performers, there's SAG rules regarding this, and etc., but they're not actors. That said, one of the contestants, is a plant by the producers. Not a plant per se, but Barry Weiss isn't a guy who makes a living buying storage lockers. He's not even really a "collector" as the TV show's opening credits claim, at least according to one of the user reviews on imdb.com. Weiss is an eccentric character, but he's a friend of one of the producers, and when he buys a storage locker, the producer's pay for it. There's actually nothing really wrong with that. Besides that, part of the show's appeal isn't just that  only people who are experts at this are buying lockers, some are bigger experts than others, and seeing whether or not they make as much, or any money from doing this for brief periods of time, is appealing in of itself. The wealthier people vs. the up-and-comers on-a-budget, veterans vs. rookies, etc., even if somebody's there just because he's knows the right people, it's hardly the worst thing. Nearly everybody on a regular film set is on a film set because they know somebody anyway, at least he's entertaining.

Now, as to the placing of products into the lockers, for them to find. Well, the fact that he was fired after three years of being on this show, if it's true, means that Dave Hester was at least,-, well he definitely participatory and contributed or took part in that, if that practice was still going on, and he was still complaining about it, that deep into his run of the show, it's a little suspicious. That said, one of the episodes he noted for this, involved Barry finding a BMW Isetta under a pile of trash and hidden under a sheet. Now, it's actually not an uncommon practice for competition shows such as this, to stage certain things, or even entire episodes, in the beginning of a series. Game shows tend to do this all the time actually, game show pilots are often completely scripted, in order to show the networks a bare guideline to the kind of typical episodes they expect to produce, if the competition were real. (They don't always air these pilots, but it's not uncommon that they do either at some point.) Since this was the second episode, and the series is still unproven as a success, so hypothetically this isn't particularly unusual. Now, some of his claims aren't from early in the show's run either however. (Not that early anyway.) The producer's do admit that, sometimes they move interesting items from one locker to another after it's sold, so let's assume that they get a decent look at lockers ahead of time, and maybe buy a few lockers ahead of time, and place hidden items in there. (Frankly I always doubt we're seeing all the auctions and storage units anyway. Who knows how many other auctions there are that the guys go to that aren't televised.) There is something "Why bother?" about this practice though. I understand the going through the lockers ahead of time, especially if there's possibly an item that needs appraising, they have to set up the appraisers' segment of the show, find an appraiser, go their place, etc. But after the first few episodes, the moving of items from one locker to another, I'm not sure I understand the purpose of doing that.

I mean, there are, and these are, people who do this for a living, so they obviously are able to go to auctions, and buy lockers, and make a profit selling the items within, without the added help or detriment of intriguing items being placed there for them. That's as much apart of the appeal of the show, is seeing these people making a living doing what they do, and seeing whether they succeed or fail. Yeah, they're doing it on television, but it's still an interesting skill, and even with getting paid to do it on TV, they're livelihood is on the line if they really screw up enough times..., if it's real anyway. And if the items are in other storage lockers that are previewed by the producers so that they know what they are and whether or not they're possibly valuable or at least interesting to show on TV, and they're being sold at auction, again, why are they bothering? I mean, it seems like its defeating the purpose of the show. It might not be illegal technically, we're not in the Charles Van Doren staging of game shows territory,- or are we?

The court said we aren't, but what exactly is the difference between the staging of a competitive reality show and the staging of a quiz-based game show? I mean, if we found out that "American Idol" has been rigged the entire time, can you imagine the shitstorm that'd cause, especially since that's a show where the audience participates in the outcome. Extreme example I grant you, but that would be the equivalent of the old "Twenty-One" scandal. There's one, ahem, "popular" article that's been claiming the show's practices are illegal for months now, somebody with an internet radio show on youtube, or something like that, named Russell Scott, who among other accomplishments on his website, lists having written the article "Storage Wars is Fake", along with having seen Michael Jackson perform live. He admits he'd had written the article better if he'd known it'd get 150,000 readers, (and I agree, it's not well-written) but he blames the show's auctioneer Dan Dotson firstly for the show. (You can look up the article yourself, this Scott guy seem shady himself, so I don't think I want to link to him.) Dotson originally paid $20,000 to each of the auctioneers to show up on the show's first six episodes and apparently created the series, although I can't confirm that anywhere. I don't necessarily have reason to doubt that claim, but Dotson's not listed anywhere as the show's creator, and isn't listed as a producer either, and normally, somebody that critical to a show's creation would've been listed as a producer. He also claims that often, the lockers that are purchased on the show, are entirely planted, often by the same people who they end up getting to appraise the items. Hypothetically, it would be easier if appraiser's were pre-hired to supply the items, and set up quick interviews, which do often seem to take place later in the day, and that seem rather quick. He also claims this is orchestrated by Dotson in order for his "American Auctioneers" business to make money, as well as provide local businesses with exposure. I'm not sure why Mr. Scott says that with such disdain, that was part of why I think the show works, as a forum for small businesses to occasionally get a little extra free advertising. That's a nice thing, and I'm okay with that. (Shrugs) He also claims that the show is in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act statute against "bid rigging", where, if the actual auctions themselves are rigged, then there's a conspiracy to fix prices, and that against the law. Dave Hester himself, is known for constantly waiting in the back and then raising the bid at the last second, supposedly to screw over his competition and make them pay more money, and hence, lose more money by overpaying on a locker. He claims that every time he does that, he's violating the law. That's not true actually. It would only be true, if everybody else involved is personally allowing him to simply bid up the auction in order so that the locker is bought at a particular price, and/or by a particular buyer, and this would involve conspiracy within, not only the main cast, but all the extras of the show, who occasionally make bids and occasionally buy lockers. Legally, attempts at bid rigging don't have to be successful in order to be illegal, but for the purposes of staging a TV show, if you're gonna do it, you'd do it completely; the last thing you want when orchestrated a fraud is a loose end, and since it's television, nothing can be easier than fixing something to make something that you didn't want to happen, to be erased from history, and have something you did want to happen, occur. Still, that's hard, and unpredictable, unless the show is entirely staged, which isn't even Hester's claim. Legally, anybody else can bid, whatever and however much they want to on an any item at any auction, and it's very hard to prove a conspiracy, even if they're fixed auctions. Besides, who knows, somebody outside the show could screw everybody up and outbid them all.

There's other minor laws that are supposedly broken, like looking at a locker's contents before supposedly paying for them, which frankly is nothing more than an editing trick, as well as when certain items are found in a locker, like motorized vehicles that need to go through certain procedures. (Things that aren't entertaining or germane, that nobody would blame them for editing out.)

Even if this can be proven, A&E, and the producers can claim that the show isn't more than a TV show, a reality one at that, which is the real part that's troubling me. Cause, essentially, let's say this is a staged as it possibly can be, I don't buy that it is, but assuming it is for the hell of it, the producers and networks can just claim that, since it's entertainment and reality television, that we're not promising the public that everything's real, therefore it's not a fraud. They're professional wrestling essentially, we know it's staged, but we watch anyway. It might be true even, since I'm still watching it even afterwards. But is that okay? Sure, it doesn't violate Sherman-Antitrust, but why doesn't it qualify and have to abide by the standards of a regular game show? Isn't a competition just another "game"? The standard which the "Storage Wars" producers claims that differentiates it, is that the show doesn't involve "Intellectual knowledge, intellectual skill, or chance," therefore, it's not technically a game show. First of all, that's bullshit, 'cause there is intellectual skill and knowledge, if there wasn't, why aren't there so many more people who are making a living and are successful at it? Yeah, there's chance involved, but it's kinda like poker, the same people keep winning the damn tournaments, so it can't just be luck. Besides that, can anybody just say that a show is a reality show, as an excuse to get away with anything? With breaking federal laws even? I'm of two minds on this issue, on the one hand, I understand staging certain things about reality shows, there's also necessary and purposeful staging of events, and then there's unnecessary staging. "Laguna Beach", okay, you don't have to stage it, but there's no harm in doing it, it probably made that and other shows as good as they possibly could've been, which is saying something else unfortunate, but "Storage Wars" isn't a show or a conceit that's benefited by being staged, not to such an extreme extent at least, so on that basis, if it's that staged, why? I don't understand the reason for it. That's what's really bothering me about this. It's the belief that the conceit of the show's premise itself, by the producers themselves, that the show isn't good enough and needs this kind of staging, that's worrisome. Frankly, maybe we should be setting some guidelines for these reality-competition-type shows. Well, that's the other hand I'm worried about. I mean, we are only talking about reality TV. Fun, disposable, even the best of the bunch, are hardly worth it. I mean, in order to change and/or update these ancient statutes that date back to the beginning of television, we'd have to get the federal government involved, and frankly while I'm a liberal that generally wants more government regulation, especially in business practices, this isn't exactly what I would consider a pressing matter that needs their immediate attention, now, or any time in the foreseeable future.

Still, we say it's a fraud, so we can do anything we want; if that's the way they want to do it, I can understand why Dave Hester's suing. It shouldn't be surprising to fans of the show either. You can see him in many episodes constantly complaining about other contestants and in hindsight, some of the moments, where Dave seems to be a little annoyed at the process, make more sense in hindsight. Either way, while I think the show is entertaining, and I still watch it, I don't think I like this tiptoeing around the legal S&P lines, especially when they don't need to be. I don't think this is gonna be the thing ends reality television, but I'd be second-guessing any other thoughts about staging reality shows in the future, if I was a reality show producer, any more than necessary anyway. 'Cause if this practice keeps up, maybe not here, but maybe on an even bigger show, and something sticks, that could be the true "Twenty-One" equivalent,...- well, I don't know actually. Maybe all that can happen and nothing will change. We can't simply look at something and just go "fake" or "real" or "staged", I think asking "why," is something staged or not, is the real critical aspect of how to analyze reality TV, and if you can't find the reason for doing it, then you've got a problem. I think we can and should all accept that with so-called reality TV that a certain amount of staging is needed, but the keyword, is "needed". Personally, as I look deeper into this lawsuit, and await the full ramifications, the question I can't answer is if it's true, "Why did they do it?", 'cause honestly, if they did, I don't think they needed to, and that's a problem.












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