“College Life:” innovative and pure or manipulative and edited? It seems the answer depends on whether MTV is monitoring the interview or not. The first episode of what started out as a University of Wisconsin alumnus’ idea for a self-described “pure reality documentation” of the college experience at Madison has created a whirlwind of emotions throughout campus, leaving a mess in its wake.
Among angry Facebook posts, streams of e-mailed complaints to the university and protests from participants who swear they only had the best intentions, it’s hard to know which direction to turn. MTV can clearly put on a good show of innocence with their participants by using mediated interviews and pre-scripted answers, and the creator of the show, David Wexler, seems squeaky clean too. Thankfully, getting a hold of an unmonitored interview with one participant actually sheds some truthful light on this somewhat sketchy situation.
When angry mobs arise and look at someone to blame, the logical place to begin looking is the source. In an interview mediated by MTV, Wexler explains he wanted to attempt something new: a type of reality TV that was actually, well, real. Part of the reason the participants filmed themselves was to keep the purity of the taping in tact.
Why Madison? Wexler fell in love with the campus when he was a student. He describes Madison as “liberal and usually at the forefront of exciting things,” and also a “melting pot of cultures, artsy and a great school spirit.”
Wexler chose Madison for these reasons and more, which is partly why he believed the show would be so successful. He even had to fight to get it here over locations that would have been easier to pitch — like Los Angeles.
The casting of the now-infamous freshmen was based on a holistic approach.
“Truthfully, it was how well rounded they were, how personable they were, what kind of stories they wanted to tell on camera,” he said.
He also said he sees a bit of himself in all the students and thinks a lot of other people will too. In the end, he said they were really striving for a “rainbow of kids.”
Wexler seemed optimistic about his attempt at “pure reality” from the start.
“This was meant to benefit the university; it was completely out of love,” he said. “I think it will do the university proud.”
Although Wexler only had positive things to say about his idea, it appears something pretty important was lost in translation. Proud is about the exact opposite of the words being angrily muttered around campus.
Next in line for questioning are the actual students being filmed. With the waves of criticism looming ahead for the participants, many students are probably wondering why they wanted to do it in the first place. In an interview mediated by MTV, Andrea — the show’s conservative virgin — shared her heartfelt reasoning.
“I signed on wanting to tell a story and wanting to share my experience,” she said.
Part of that experience was how to have fun without the help of alcohol. In telling her story, she said the transition to college has actually made it easier not to drink because people are not as “clique-y” as they are in high school. Although it would seem hard to abstain on a college campus, particularly UW, Andrea says her willpower comes from the reaction of those who think she can’t do it.
“The students watching it are going to see what works and doesn’t,” she said.
Overall, Andrea’s “College Life” experience culminates into spreading one all-around message: “It’s possible to be a virgin and to be the life of the party.”
Although there was nothing surprising in Andrea’s all-too-perfect interview, things got a little more interesting once MTV left the scene. Alex — the Texan who struggled with a boy on the first show — decided to share her story without MTV feeding her lines because she felt strongly about the campus knowing what was happening behind the scenes.
“I thought I was going to get a chance to film things that mattered,” she said.
Although Alex has never really been a fan of MTV or reality TV in general, she thought this opportunity was different. She explained 10 students were given cameras for the first two weeks to compete and then were narrowed down to four. After being chosen, she described the experience of seeing the pilot for the show.
“I sat down with the producers and said I didn’t want to be portrayed like that,” she said. Although she continued filming, she says she knew she had to switch her focus.
She said after that first episode, she “strapped on her armor” and started focusing on things that mattered to her. Being involved in volunteer work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, raising awareness about Darfur and blood donation among others, Alex had plenty to film. However, when the stream of content entering the editing room started changing, Alex felt penalized.
“I was basically given an ultimatum. They said my footage was lacking and indirectly told me there was not enough drama in the content that I was filming.” she said.
Among the other criticisms was her intelligence.
“They told me I was being too smart and had to dumb down my vocabulary,” she said.
Alex knew the first episode wasn’t what she wanted it to be, but she said she tried to take advantage of her opportunity.
“I take responsibility for the first episode,” she said. “I acted stupid, but afterward I really took my time to film.”
Although she says she knew what she was filming had an extremely low chance of being aired, she still wanted to prove to herself that she was at least trying. It would be MTV that made the choice to frame the campus a certain way, not her.
One of her most frustrating moments presented itself when she captured amazing footage of a rally at the Capitol following Obama’s victory.
“I filmed one of the most historic moments in history, and they weren’t interested,” she said.
As the majority of her film continued to be “lacking,” Alex explained she and MTV came to a mutual agreement that she would no longer be a large part of the show.
“I’m still filming now, but I already know that I’m not going to be a significant part of the series, and I’m perfectly fine with that,” she said.
She went on to say MTV had a “very manipulative sort of staff” and although she did develop a few meaningful relationships, she was not upset about being, as she puts it, “killed off after the second episode.”
Fully aware of the criticism from her peers, Alex defended herself and finds her portrayal out of context and unfortunate.
“I’m not a character, I’m a human being,” she said. “People put me in this little box and those first 30 seconds is who I am now.”
Ultimately, however, her concerns lie with the university.
“I don’t care how I’m portrayed, but I care about the campus,” she said. “This campus is unbelievable, there are so many opportunities and passionate students. Our school could have been portrayed in such a better way.”
She says she put her heart into things of value many others on campus are involved in, and it’s sad the rest of the country did not get to see the other things Madison has to offer.
Alex’s last thought seems to be a pretty common sentiment around campus, especially with Dean of Students Lori Berquam. The university has received criticism for choosing not to endorse the show, as without campus footage, the scope of the program would be very limited in what it could depict. Berquam agrees it was a possibility MTV could have chosen to film volunteer work and student organizations, but that’s not what they chose to do.
“We struggled with the idea that this was reality TV and what would actually make for good TV,” Berquam said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be cramming at the library for an exam.”
“We have a responsibility of protecting the value of the degree,” she added.
Berquam has also received many e-mails from frustrated students, including one alumna who now feels embarrassed to share she went to school here.
Berquam emphasized the importance of moving away from the “party school” reputation UW has garnered.
“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I know there’s alcohol on campus, but I don’t think that’s the focus of all experiences here at Madison. It’s unfortunate we now have this following us around.”
When speaking about the students involved with “College Life,” Berquam thinks they may have been taken advantage of.
“I think there was an exploitation that took place; I have a lot of emotions about this,” she said. “I worry about these students.”
Overall, Berquam does not criticize Wexler’s original intentions and said she was optimistic about the possibilities of the show — but was ultimately disappointed.
“I think [Wexler] probably had higher hopes than actually what ended up on screen,” she said.
Surprisingly enough, Berquam’s suspicions are false. Wexler says although he would have loved to work with the university, he’s been “pleasantly surprised” with the results of his work.
A large portion of campus is still upset about the portrayal of the show, but the question remains: Who really is to blame? In which direction should the fingers be pointed? Each party involved has a different idea about what is correct, but once a large scale player like MTV gets involved, everyone’s seemingly innocent intentions can go a little awry. Wexler wanted a pure documentary but had to realize that once he sold the project to MTV, he was entering a world with a paycheck and recognition, things that require good ratings.
The student participants may have indeed just wanted to share their stories, but once the pull of ratings was upon them, they may have been pressured into other things. The $1,000 per episode they get paid might have added a little pressure too. There’s no easy way to tell who dropped the ball on this one. One thing everyone involved has learned is this: Reality TV and college are never going to mesh in any kind of a way that leaves a university proud.