"Storage Wars" Lawsuit

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For three seasons, Dave Hester starred on A&E's hit reality show Storage Wars, where he was nicknamed 'The Mogul' and portrayed as something of a villain for driving up bids or swooping in at the last minute with a winning bid.

But Hester claims that the real villains are A&E and the producers of Storage Wars

Hester, who was suddenly let go just before Season Four began filming, has filed a lawsuit accusing the network and Original Productions of wrongful termination, breach of contract and "a fraud on the public."

The suit alleges that Hester was concerned that certain actions by the Storage Wars production team were unfair, and possibly illegal, and that--when he raised these concerns--he was fired.

The legal documents (obtained by TMZ) detail Hester's allegations. He claims that:
  1. Nearly every aspect of Storage Wars is manipulated or staged.
  2. Producers paid for female cast members to undergo plastic surgery in order to increase their sex appeal.
  3. Producers regularly "seed" the storage units with interesting or valuable items.
  4. Entire storage units have been "staged."
  5. Producers manipulate the auctions, going so far as to pay for storage units on behalf of bidders who don't have the cash to afford it.
  6. Cast interviews are scripted and filmed weeks in advance.
  7. Producers stage auctions, filming buyers acting like they are bidding, when no actual auction is taking place.

Critics of Storage Wars have long alleged that items are planted in the storage units, but A&E has always denied this. They previously issued a press release maintaining, "There is no staging involved.

The items uncovered in the storage units are the actual items featured on the show."

Hester's lawsuit addresses this exact quote and responds, "That was a lie."

He's hardly the first person to suggest a reality show is less than real. (See, for example, "Fresh Allegations of Reality Show Rigging".)

But, Hester argues that, in the case of Storage Wars A&E has crossed the line from everyday deception to outright criminal behavior.

His argument rests on the federal Communications Act of 1934 which, among other things, made it illegal for broadcasters to rig contests of intellectual skill with the intention of deceiving the public.

But does the law apply here? I'm no lawyer but here's what I'd consider:

Following the 1958 revelation that the outcome of several hit game shows were rigged, Congress passed amendments to the Communications Act, making it illegal for broadcasters to fix quiz shows--which I think is the part of the law Hester's lawsuit actually references.

But winning an auction bid isn't the same as winning Jeopardy. And manipulating a reality TV auction isn't the same as rigging a quiz show.

Evaluating the contents of a storage unit and judging its value given only a few minutes to look from outside certainly may be an "intellectual skill." But, when it comes to winning auctions, at least as important as being able to appraise the value of an item is having enough money to out spend other buyers. (FYI: Tips for bidding on storage units.)

Meanwhile, Hester will also have prove that his allegations about the behind the scene manipulations of Storage Wars producers is not only true but also was done "with the intention of deceiving the public."

He'll have to prove that items "found" in the storage units were not originally there but were planted by Storage Wars producers.

This is hardly a new allegation, as every episode shows bidders discovering something wonderful in their units--which is statistically improbable. But it could just be that producers get access to the storage units ahead of time and simply don't film auctions with nothing of interest.

And what about "intention"? Legally, it's difficult for courts to determine what someone intended, so they have rules to help them infer intent. But think about this: when do the common reality TV practices of manipulation, staging, editing and producing rise to the level of intentionally deceptive? Or, to put it another way, isn't the entire genre of reality TV built around deceiving the viewing audience?

Today the primary function of nearly everything on TV is, first-and-foremost, entertainment. Even a lot of news and documentary programs feature people regularly bending the truth, rehearsing dialogue (or reading it from a teleprompter), manipulating scenes, filming multiple takes, editing out words and images, changing the chronological order of events and using make-up, lighting and other effects to enhance appearances.

Instead of "fraud" or "deception," in the entertainment industry we tend to call similar actions "acting," "directing" or "editing."

No court is likely to rule that every reality TV show is committing fraud by deceiving its audience, so where would they draw the line? Where do we?

Over the years we've come to accept an almost shocking level of dishonesty and manipulation in our reality TV programs.

In fact, we don't just accept it, we've come to expect it. We expect TV shows to be polished, we expect characters to have witty dialogue, we want reality stars who are Hollywood beautiful, we want drama in every episode--even if it has to be manufactured and we need producers to go to greater and greater extremes to surprise and entertain us.

In short, audience demands have transformed reality TV into what it is today: highly manipulated and produced entertainment that's pretty far removed from "reality."

Reality TV isn't an authentic reflection of the real world; and we shouldn't expect it to be. That doesn't mean we can't still suspend disbelief when we sit down to enjoy our favorite show.

It also doesn't mean we shouldn't draw lines in the sand, especially between what is just manipulative and what is criminal behavior.

Now a California court is tasked with determining whether Storage War overstepped that line. Watching this real case unfold could be nearly as entertaining as the new Storage Wars spin-off, Storage Wars: New York, which premieres January 1st, 2013 on A&E at 10/9PM Central.
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