For three seasons on A&E’s hit reality show Storage Wars, in which professional buyers with strong personalities bid on abandoned storage lockers and try to flip the contents for a profit, Dave Hester played the villain. Hester was confident, clever, brusque—and equipped with a catchphrase. Always bidding at the last possible second with his signature “Yuuup,” he successfully irritated and psyched out his competitors, who were thrilled to beat him as much as land discarded treasure. Then Hester got fired. In December he sued A&E for wrongful termination and “committing a fraud on its viewing audience”—and a reality TV villain became a reality TV mythbuster.
Long before Hester filed his lawsuit, episodes of Storage Wars followed a suspiciously predictable format: Three storage lockers are purchased in open auctions that appear to be attended by dozens of people but are never won by anyone other than the cast members. Items found in the lockers—accordions, pianos, wooden golf clubs, a moonshine still—are valued by the cast members themselves or taken immediately to colorful, reality TV-ready experts for assessment. Of the three lockers, at least two will turn a profit. Usually, one is extremely lucrative, one breaks a little better than even, and one is a total bust.
It’s common knowledge that reality TV shows are created to be manipulated, but it’s rare for a participant to divulge details. Hester has. “A&E would like the public to believe that the series presents a genuine and accurate portrayal of the abandoned storage locker auction process,” his lawsuit reads. (Hester, who agreed to be photographed, declined to comment for this article because of the pending suit.) “The truth, however, is that nearly every aspect of the series is faked.” It goes on to allege that Storage Wars regularly plants valuable objects in lockers—a BMW will be buried under a pile of trash, or a stack of newspapers will turn out to be from the day Elvis Presley died—a practice known as salting. The suit also accuses A&E of staging entire storage units and asking Hester to salt lockers with his own memorabilia.
Photograph by Julian Berman for Bloomberg Businessweek
Hester says that when he complained, not for the first time, the network rescinded its offer to bring him back for a fourth season. In court filings, Storage Wars has countered that he is “trying to convert a garden-variety breach of contract claim into a tabloid-worthy drama, in which Hester portrays himself as a crusading whistle-blower.”
Since Survivor premiered in the summer of 2000 and made reality TV a staple of American television, contestants and viewers have been questioning the format’s veracity. Stacey Stillman, a contestant on Survivor’s first season, sued the show, alleging that producers had persuaded other participants to vote her off the island. The case was settled out of court. That same year, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? featured a man—who was not a millionaire but who did have a domestic violence record—marrying a woman who quickly annulled their ersatz marriage and auctioned off the engagement ring. The Apprentice’s Omarosa Mignault, one of reality TV’s ur-villains, claimed she received a bad edit, a refrain since repeated by nearly every participant who comes off poorly. Half the fun of watching The Hills, The Bachelor, and the Kardashians is speculating about the staged conversations and whether Kim realized Kris Humphries was not the guy for her before she cashed in on their wedding.
Yet all the allegations of dishonesty have led to relatively few lawsuits. Many participants dive into their 15 minutes knowingly—or at least having signed nondisclosure agreements. Hester’s suit against Storage Wars hinges on a section about “contests of knowledge, skill, or chance” that was added to the Communications Act of 1934 after the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. It forbids “influencing, prearranging, or predetermining outcome.” In March a judge threw out the parts of Hester’s suit alleging unfair business practices and told him he could refile a more specific wrongful termination suit elaborating how Storage Wars violates the Communications Act. Competition series such as Survivor and The Amazing Race are regulated by this law—Stillman sued Survivor on these grounds—but most reality TV shows are not, it goes without saying, intellectual contests. Whatever goes down on The Bachelor, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or even American Idol is between the shows and their audience, not the shows and the courts.
Kimberlianne Podlas, a lawyer and associate professor of media law and pop culture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, describes the quiz show clause as designed to protect not participants but “embryonic audiences that had never really seen TV before and thought everything they saw in a contest was true.” She points out that Storage Wars is not itself even a straightforward competition show but a subculture series focused on the types of unique characters who make a living buying storage lockers. It’s also difficult to sue a reality TV show under the consumer protection acts or breach of contract laws that, for example, helped readers get refunds on James Frey’s fake memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Readers bought that book because it purported to be one thing, but it was in fact another. TV viewers don’t typically buy an episode of Storage Wars; it’s just part of their cable package.
Reality TV producers defend their shows’ manipulations on different grounds—that they don’t cloud the most important aspect of the series, the participants’ personalities. Lenid Rolov, an executive producer for seasons of The Hills, Real Housewives, and many other shows, says, “People would be surprised how real it actually is. The people we follow can’t really hide who they are, what they’re about, and how they feel about things. Though a show like The Hills might feel scripted, because it’s meant to look like 90210, you’re still getting a strong sense of who each person is and the true dynamics of their relationships.” Doron Ofir, who’s cast several reality shows, including Jersey Shore and RuPaul’s Drag Race, also insists that however contrived the situations are, people are behaving in an authentic way. “Something that makes me crazy is when cast members say, ‘They edited me to be this character,’ like Omarosa’s famous line,” he says. “Ten years later, you know Omarosa is what she is.”
Audiences today take pride in being savvy about reality TV’s enhancement of real life. Yet for every Storage Wars audience member who wrote on a message board, “Of course they are staging them. … What everyone needs to realize is that this is entertainment,” another said, “I feel duped, cheated, backstabbed.” As viewers, we suspend our disbelief willingly—if bidding on storage lockers were as consistently profitable as it is on Storage Wars, it would be a much more popular line of work—but sometimes we still get suckered. Rolov says he is “consistently shocked by how little viewers pick up as they watch.” If Hester’s lawsuit is blowing the whistle on anyone, maybe it’s just the audience. Yuuup.