How TVNZ Turned a Hoax into a Documentary

The Skeptics make their first-ever complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Few would disagree these days that a great many programmes broadcast on television are pretty much rubbish, but never before have the New Zealand Skeptics felt obliged to bring a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Until now….

Your poor Chair-entity and long-suffering committee members have watched some awful material on your behalf, sometimes in the process of deciding Bent Spoon Awards, sometimes from the resigned but all-too-accurate prediction that we’d be asked to talk about the latest alien artefact claims or Turin Shroud revelations and so would need to see what we had to comment on.

It was with this in mind that I made myself watch Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, broadcast by TV2 in early February. This programme apparently depicted an American family’s fateful encounter with extra-terrestrials via home video-tape footage purporting to show alien attacks, culminating in an apparent abduction of the surviving members of the group. The video-tape was interspersed with clips from commentators including alleged US government agents, scientists, abductees, medical personnel and even Michael Shermer, respected US arch-skeptic!

Mike Dickison had alerted me to the fact that the item was showing, and that it had caused comment when it aired in the States. Quoting from UPN’s website (, Mike told me that the special received an overwhelming response from the viewing public the day after its initial airdate. UPN’s Web site had received over 350,000 hits by viewers seeking additional information about the show, and hundreds more had called the network directly.

“The show apparently caused a huge furore from US skeptics, because it’s fictional. (I nearly said obviously fictional, but apparently about a third of the viewers were taken in). There’s even credits at the end listing the actors who play the family members, the sheriff, and (wait for it) Alien 1 and Alien 2,” Mike said in his email.

He made the excellent suggestion that we should lobby TV2 to screen a disclaimer before the programme began. As it happens, we didn’t act on that and the rest, as they say, is history….

To our horror, we saw that, when broadcast, TV2 had actually manipulated the material and its presentation to try and make it look factual, with the aim of boosting ratings. They did this by taking the highly unusual step of cutting the credits off the programme. So no-one watching had any inkling that many of the people — from the family under siege to a number of the “experts” — were, in fact, actors.

Not only that, but they added a notice at the front of the programme which said:

“This programme on TV2 ‘Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County’ was obtained exclusively from America’s UPN Television Network and is presented as received. Its authenticity is still under much debate in the United States. We invite you to decide for yourself.”

There are, to put it nicely, at least two “deliberate errors of fact” in this notice.

(1) The programme was edited by TVNZ to remove the credits revealing the fictional nature of the show, so it was clearly not “presented as received”. When screened in the US on January 20th, the credits showing the programme’s fictional nature were broadcast as part of the programme.

(2) Having taken the trouble to remove the credits, TVNZ would then have been well aware that there was no question regarding the authenticity of the programme — that it was not an authentic documentary dealing with an authentic alien encounter and abduction, but merely a “spoof”. TVNZ knew that the show was fiction, yet chose to present it as a documentary “under debate” to boost ratings by “adding to the mystery”.

When challenged the day after the screening, TV2 spokesman Simon King said that the decision to remove the credits was to “keep the mystique going”, aiming to gain a larger audience by obscuring the fictional provenance of the show. Mr King stated that this was done deliberately for promotional purposes and compared it to TVNZ’s previous promotional campaigns for Millennium and X-Files.

We are disturbed that TV2 does not apparently recognise the difference between presenting an entertaining dramatical fiction series such as the X-Files (well, some people like it!) and trying to make a piece of fiction look like fact by removing information.

Mike Dickison had a good analogy at this point:

“Imagine you make a video of actors dressed up as police beating up actors dressed as transvestites. Imagine TVNZ screens it as a documentary just noting that its “authenticity was under debate”. Imagine they omit the credits for “promotional” reasons to “heighten the mystique” of whether the item is fact or fiction….”

There’s no way that that would be condoned and neither should TV2 get away with something comparable just because it involves something as silly as aliens. How will we know what they will choose to change next?

The other explanation TVNZ came up with was that the credits were removed to “aid in a seamless transition to another science fiction fantasy” — i.e. to discourage people from changing channel. Gee, if that’s so important, why don’t they get rid of all those time-consuming credits, not to mention those ever-lengthening ad breaks?! It was the lack of credits at the end which made me sit up in my seat that night, and which led to the to and fro of a number of letters since.

Had TV2 actually run the programme as received, we wouldn’t have bothered worrying about it — the Skeptics (and the rest of the nation) sees more than enough junk on the box to bother getting upset about yet another second-rate time-waster. However, TVNZ’s cynical attempt at manipulating the public in order to get and keep viewers was more than we could — or should — stomach.

Broadcasting Standards An Oxymoron?

A quick check of the Code of Broadcasting Practice, and a discussion via the Skeptics committee mailing list, led us to decide that we had reasonable grounds to complain and that it was our duty to do so. So off went the first letter, directed to TVNZ, citing five breaches of the codes.

We told TVNZ that we thought the action was in breach of G1 requiring broadcasters to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The programme was indeed a piece of fiction, but in choosing to eliminate indicators of that and in the wording of the disclaimer run prior to the programme, TVNZ as a broadcaster was neither truthful nor accurate in their representation of the programme.

We said that G7 had been breached, as broadcasters are enjoined to “avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting”. TVNZ programme standards manager David Edmunds responded that this was “usually taken to refer to technical trickery” and was therefore irrelevant in this case.

However the code is as quoted, and does not have anything in it which states that deceptive programme practises are limited to “freeze frame and the like”.

We said that TVNZ undertook deceptive programming practices in the presentation of this programme by deliberately misleading viewers as to the provenance of the item.

This is one of the more serious breaches, we believe, as it has major implications for the confidence viewers can have in the integrity of broadcasting. It affects the credibility of all documentaries broadcast on TVNZ. How are we, as viewers, to know that other documentaries have not been similarly manipulated? What does this say for the integrity, such as it is, of other “reality” television offerings?

We cited other standards, G16 and G19, which state respectively that “news, current affairs and documentaries should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress” and “care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed”.

Mr Edmunds claimed that G16 and G19 were not relevant because both refer to News and Current Affairs programming, into which Alien Abduction did not fall. However, the codes clearly state that these apply to News, Current Affairs and Documentaries. In presenting Alien Abduction as a documentary, much in the same manner as other low-budget documentaries common to TV2’s programming, we believe that TVNZ should be held accountable to the standards required of documentaries. G19, regarding the care required in editing a programme to avoid distortion, is also appropriate, given the editing that TVNZ undertook to make the programme appear to be a documentary.

Mr Edmunds admitted that the events depicted may have misled or alarmed viewers in accepting one of the breaches we cited; it would, we contended, follow that G16 should also apply.

The one breach which TVNZ did accept was related to the following code:
G11 To refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a whole: i) Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.
TVNZ did accept that the programme could have been regarded as alarming. It was easy to see why — the people in the home videotape looked genuinely upset as they were menaced, injured and put under very strong psychological pressure over a period of hours.

Ironically I had thought this the possibly weakest charge in our case, as the acting was so bad and the special effects so low-budget that I couldn’t believe anyone could take the thing seriously. Nonetheless, plenty of Americans thought it real enough — and they had the benefit of seeing the credits!

So what did TVNZ promise to do to remedy this deplorable action on their part. They promised that if and when the show was rescreened they would reinstate the credits. Gee, how kind….

This was not acceptable, in our view. We wanted TVNZ to make a formal statement admitting to their deception and informing viewers of the fact that this occurred. We wanted them to be aware that this sort of practice is unworthy of a professional organisation in the media business, and that they have a responsibility to deal fairly with the public.

So off went the next letter, this time to the Broadcasting Standards Authority itself, then the follow-up to the response TVNZ made to them — the whole thing has been an educational, if lengthy, process.

In rather aggrieved tones TVNZ told the BSA that the whole thing was “clearly a spoof from beginning to end” and that “it could be implied…that New Zealand Skeptics believes there is no place for a “spoof” in the entertainment business”.

Gee, is this man saying we’re humourless busybodies who should get a life?

I dug out an old New Zealand Science Monthly editorial of mine where I talked about how valuable the spoof genre was to skeptical thought, how it encouraged people to question what they see on television (I was talking about Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver spoof documentary at the time). That should demonstrate that we know spoofs are a “perfectly legitimate genre of programme making”.

“However”, I went on in my response to the BSA, “we do not feel that it is the place of TVNZ, an organisation with no connection to the programme makers, to manipulate the programme to make it appear something that it is not.

“Our argument all along has been with the way TVNZ eliminated the end credits and ran a deceitful disclaimer beforehand, all in the rather cynical attempt to manipulate public interest by presenting a spoof item as having greater provenance than the original programme itself would claim.”

The programme was not clearly a spoof — I must confess that Michael Shermer’s appearance had had me seriously wondering if there was something in it! Rather, as presented, it was much like many of the poor quality documentaries featured on TV2, such as “Mysteries of the Ancients”, none of which are spoofs but all of which utilise the same style of technique and presentation as “Alien Abduction”.

In closing, we said that we thought TVNZ should be made to admit that they had manipulated programme content and presentation so that the people of New Zealand would be aware that our national broadcaster is not above lying in their quest for better ratings.

This has important implications for the integrity of our broadcasting system, and we hope that you will concur with us in this view and support our call for TVNZ to acknowledge and apologise for their action.

As this goes to print, we are still waiting for the BSA’s final ruling in this matter. We’ll let you know what, if any, action they take.

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