by Robert G. Pushkar

Though they ostensibly are “reality shows,” the latest craze dominating TV broadcast schedules, at their heart makeover shows rely on the central proposition of fiction- “what if.” Television’s 21st century’s take on that hypothesis has its roots in Allen Funt’s CANDID CAMERA, first aired in 1948. Funt and his accomplices caught unsuspecting everyday people in awkward or absurd situations while surreptitiously filming them. The predicaments and their denouements were all played out for fun, and Funt’s declaration, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera” became a catchphrase for a generation.

In its second season, one of the tamer variations on the Funt theme, WHILE YOU WERE OUT, uses the art of machination involving deceptions and secrets to make over someone’s living quarters or workspace after they leave. The elaborate ruse takes just 48 hours to accomplish. If it were a Hollywood film pitch, it might be “Martha Stewart meets CANDID CAMERA.” The venture is a production of BBC Productions USA for The Learning Channel and airs Fridays at 9 p.m. (ET/PT)

In early August, the long, emblazoned WHILE YOU WERE OUT trailer climbed to Beacon Hill and parked in the rear under the State House canopy. The crew kicked into overdrive: the goal, a playful ruse with a state government, a first for the show. The office of Shawn Feddeman, press secretary to Governor Mitt Romney, was the target of the makeover, done on the cheap for $1,500, the alloted budget for all programs. Feddeman’s office, a cramped warren at the end of a cluttered hallway, and described by her as “the most disgusting place you’d ever seen” with mice and a smelly sofa, conjured good “vibes” in the imagination of WYWO’s interior designer John Bruce . He evolved a communications theme. Still stunned after the shoot, Feddeman said, “It’s completely different, a 180-degree turn.”

BBC producer Sara Kozak helped choose Feddeman when another nominee’s recommendation fell through. Almost always a friend, family member, or fellow-worker applies on-line for someone (and his digs) to be the focus of the show. Supervising producer Al Patrick says, “From the applicants of the designated city where we’re going, an associate producer culls a list and makes contact. Places are eliminated because rooms are too small or a house is too far from the center of town.” Once the list is narrowed (about 8 to 10 people) a producer meets on-site with the candidates and photographs the room. In New York, a team evaluates their stories and their character for human interest potential. Also, the nominating person’s relationship to the applicant is examined, since she will be the key player in the ruse. Factored into the decision is the design challenge of the intended space and the room size to accommodate camera, sound, and lighting equipment.

At 4:30 p.m. the office was stripped and it sported a coat of stylish yellow paint. Carpenter Leslie Sagrete brushed the final touches on a bookshelf; a technician adjusted lights. Shooting time was less than two hours away. Outside, technicians hustled equipment amid intermittent downpours and crashing thunder.

Feddeman threw a wrench into WYWO’s original scenario. Producers like to get the person as far away as possible, preferably out of town, or better yet out of state. Also, the person has to be followed for candid sequences while they are away in order to gain information for the quiz at the show’s climax.

Originally, producers conspired with colleague Nicole St. Peter to engage Feddeman on a trip to Newport, Rhode Island. But Feddeman fudged: she wanted to stay in the city and plans were scuttled. Producers enacted another ruse to divert attention from the obviously stalking camera: a crew was filming locations for a New England tourism piece.

Feddeman and St. Peter had fun in Boston, hooking up eventually with Evan Farmer, WYWO’s new host, at the Union Oyster House. Cameraman Matt Howe worked in the background.

To add authenticity to the scheme Governor Mitt Romney ordered Feddeman to a 7 p.m. meeting at the State House. He arrived at 5 p.m. and he pitched in. “We had him working with power tools,” Farmer said. “He was great.”

Still stalling for time while the crew raced to finish, St. Peter and Feddeman lolled around the city in the South End, lingering at the Harriet Taubman statue and at a convenience store. “I have to get there,” Feddeman told St. Peter. “It was the slowest walk I’ve ever had to the State House,” Feddeman said.

Producer Kozak said, “The last couple of hours are truly frenetic. Everything comes together at the last minute. The whole team works so hard.”

According to Al Patrick, reactions to the “gotcha” finales seem to follow patterns.

Men are less accepting. “Males are quieter and more overwhelmed.” They think of the conspirators warily. “You were lying to me. I was set up. I was scammed. Women are fans of the show and get it right away.” Kozack concurs. She believes men are more analytical and can’t understand “how on earth did anyone manage to pull the wool over my eyes? Women tend to be totally dumbfounded and think ‘Oh, my God’….”

Still reeling from her sudden celebrity, Feddeman beamed satisfaction at her refurbished digs, replete with the communications theme-dual pictures of the Marconi Station in Wellfleet where wireless communication across great distances originated, a telegraph key, and vintage model telephone. Feddeman said, “I’m definitely going to spend a lot more time at work.”

Freelance writer-photographer Robert G. Pushkar frequently writes about the media in local, regional, and national publications. Currently, he is marketing his romantic comedy screenplay.