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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 14, 2004

'Superstar' stoops to conquer audience

By 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 of the WB network's coming "Superstar USA" — a bogus talent contest with the motto "Only the bad survive" — 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, and that might have spoiled the climax of the series, a spoof of "American Idol" in which the very worst singer is crowned "winner."

A spokesman for the WB — which is partly owned by Tribune Co., parent company of the Los Angeles Times — said, "It was an unfortunate incident, but we stand by the show and the producers."

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."

And suspicions extend beyond just those few shows. So pervasive is deception in unscripted TV that the cover story in the current issue of People magazine is 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," which debuts next Monday. The series features 12 contestants, all chosen to make "American Idol" song butcher William Hung sound like Placido Domingo.

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 mostly missed out on the "reality" craze sweeping TV.