Reality TV has perfected the act of showing real people at their very worst. But for every humiliating situation caught on camera, there’s a piece of paper called a release, permitting the face of the compromised to appear on TV. Bob went to Los Angeles to get the story behind the release for this piece - originally aired in 2001.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, sometimes the victims and perpetrators in TV crime shows are the actual victims and perpetrators. Here’s a piece I did back in 2001.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
NARRATOR: North Carolina, 1994. Officers find themselves against an enraged man with a shotgun.
MAN: Now you hold it the damn hell right there!
NARRATOR: It's a delicate matter, but one the police are equipped to handle.
BOB GARFIELD: The show is called World's Wildest Police Videos. The image is a shotgun-wielding man, shirtless on his porch, raving at police. He has gotten himself stinking blotto. He has done violence in his household. Now he is making terrorist threats, and a total jackass of himself for all his neighbors and a few million others to see.
Renee Leask can scarcely believe her good fortune!
RENEE LEASK: He's just this big, fat guy on his porch raving with an enormous gun, and they're all shirtless; none of 'em are wearing shirts!
BOB GARFIELD: She is lucky, because in addition to having no shirts, the shotgun-wielding porch-stander-onners of this nation also have no shame. This man signed a release permitting World's Wildest Police Videos to broadcast his image. And the owner of most every other unobscured face you see on these gritty police reality shows has done the same thing.
Leask is in charge of obtaining these releases. She is awash in 8 by 11 forms ready to be stuffed into dozens and dozens of thick vinyl binders.
RENEE LEASK: There's an alternate paper universe that agrees with the visual universe that you look at every day.
BOB GARFIELD: But why? Why let some TV producer trade in your personal humiliation? Fred Heilbrun, a permission specialist who has obtained nearly 10,000 releases for such shows as True Stories of the Highway Patrol, offers a number of explanations from malignant macho to civic mindedness to, every so often, cash money.
But it is still hard for him to believe how easy it is. Once, he says, he was with a camera crew at a heroin bust and one of the suspects bolted directly toward them.
FRED HEILBRUN: The cameraman, who is built like a halfback, steps out. The suspect falls backward into a wall, and the cameraman sticks the camera in this fellow's face. Then the cameraman follows it up by saying, “Don't move or I'll shoot you.” And the fellow threw his hands up in the air and complied like the cameraman had a - an MP-5 pointed at the guy's head. It was just amazing.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you approach him to sign a release?
FRED HEILBRUN: Oh, yeah. And - he signed.
BOB GARFIELD: To Renee Leask, the stop-or-I'll-shoot gambit suggests another possibility for suspects' willingness to sign on the dotted line: the confusion over who is a cop and who isn't, and maybe the hope that cooperation with the camera crew will yield softer treatment from the police down the line. Fred Heilbrun says cultivating that confusion is unethical, and often enough, he says, an opposite force may be at work.
FRED HEILBRUN: I've found out that when the police come through your door, you know, knock it off its hinges, come barreling through, throw you into the wall, handcuff you, and then somebody walks up and says hi, my name's Fred, has anybody told you what the cameras are about? I’ve - you know, the people relaxed.
BOB GARFIELD: Bad cop, good producer.
FRED HEILBRUN: Yeah! You know. I have, I have to admit, I, I learned some of my techniques from watching the police work.
BOB GARFIELD: On thing that all release-getters quickly learn is that the culture of reality television and the culture in general work in their favor. In this society, appearing on television is deemed an achievement in its own right, and neither the subjects nor the audience seem to be all that concerned about how that is achieved. You know, hey Tony, I saw you on TV, was that your shotgun? What happened to your shirt?
FRED HEILBRUN: I think my favorite was a fellow who, to pay off a debt to a dealer, offered his barn to be set up as a meth lab. The way the police found out about him was his electric bill, which should have been perhaps 150 dollars a month, was something like 10,000 dollars a month, and he wasn't paying it.
BOB GARFIELD: As police raided the barn, the guy quickly grabbed a guitar and started singing.
FRED HEILBRUN: When I told him what I wanted, he said, “Will you show me singing?” And I said, “If you'd like.” And he signed the release.
BOB GARFIELD: No matter that he faced 20 years in prison.
FRED HEILBRUN: He wanted to be sure that he was going to have at least ten seconds of himself singing on a national television show, so we gave that to him.
BOB GARFIELD: How was the song?
FRED HEILBRUN: It was terrible, just terrible. I think he - if I recall he was doing like “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and just oh, it was just awful.
BOB GARFIELD: There's yet another category, the chastened criminal who wants to steer others away from foolish choices. Leask's biggest coup was getting a release from a woman arrested for DWI who was taped for an hour making sexual advances on the arresting officer.
WOMAN: I can’t [ ? ] baby but I just know you're good-looking.
POLICE OFFICER: Well, I appreciate that.
WOMAN: And I’m going to [ ? ].
POLICE OFFICER: [LAUGHS] Sign right there for me, okay?
WOMAN: I'll sign.
POLICE OFFICER: Thank you, ma'am.
BOB GARFIELD: That was, as they say, this lady's rock bottom. And she was persuaded that making herself a laughing stock on television was an appropriate way to begin her new life of sobriety.
But of all the explanations for why Leask's vinyl binders are so full, maybe the best is the most obvious.
RENEE LEASK: Criminals are stupid!
BOB GARFIELD: And the best illustration is a piece of tape aired on her show, for which no release was necessary, because the suspect's face was not visible.
RENEE LEASK: We saw a guy walk into a convenience store with a paper bag over his head, no holes. You know he was obviously having some trouble seeing. And he tried to rob it, and it was so - he seems so - so ineffectual because of the paper bag and the no-holes that the clerk didn't really understand that he was seriously trying to rob him and he didn't have a weapon. So the clerk just said, I, I'm sorry, I don't unders - I don't understand you [LAUGHS].
And the guy with the bag on his head just walked away.
Criminals are stupid. They're criminals because they're stupid. Their stupidity puts them in jail. Their stupidity keeps them in jail. When they get out of jail, their stupidity puts them back in jail. Criminals are stupid!
BOB GARFIELD: So what you're suggesting is, if I can read between the lines here, you're suggesting, and don't let me, please, put words in your mouth, that criminals - are stupid.
RENEE LEASK: That's what I'm saying.
BOB GARFIELD: As for the zeitgeist image of the shirtless ruffian on his porch raving, Leask says, be not misled. There are no more of these people nowadays, she believes, than there ever were.
RENEE LEASK: I think there are just more cameras. I gotta tell you I think the shirtless guy was raving at the police for our grandparents and our great-grandparents. But now there are cameras to capture it. They look for opportunities to capture it. Now we all see it. And the guy without the shirt doesn't mind. He wants his rants to be heard.