One of television's most popular shows, the A&E reality series "Storage Wars," has come under fire from one of its former stars who claims the show is nearly entirely fake. The lawsuit has prompted questions about just how "real" reality shows like this one are, and if viewers will turn against shows accused of lying.
"Storage Wars" is the most watched show on A&E, and one of the most popular shows on television. It's one of the highest-rated programs on cable, and has been on for four seasons.
The show "follows an eclectic group of modern day treasure hunters who earn their living attending public auctions of the contents of abandoned storage lockers in the hopes of finding buried treasure in those lockers, which they can then resell for a profit," according to the lawsuit filed by David Hester.
Hester was referred to on the program as "The Mogul," and according to his biography on the A&E website, "he's a big fish in the game," who "of all the characters … has the largest operation with the largest overhead."
Now, Hester is accusing the production company that makes the show, Original Productions and A&E Television Networks, the show's distributor, of wrongful termination, breach of contract and unfair business practices, among other charges.
In the lawsuit, filed in a Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, Hester accuses A&E of committing fraud on the public, and unlawfully firing him when he complained about the show's practices.
"[The] defendants … would like the public to believe that the Series presents a genuine and accurate portrayal of the abandoned storage locker auction process," the lawsuit states. "The truth, however, is that nearly every aspect of the series is faked."
Hester alleges that producers "regularly plant valuable items or memorabilia" in the storage units on the show and have even gone "so far as to stage entire storage units." He says the show gets the memorabilia or antiques from a company called Off the Wall Antiques, which is regularly featured in the series.
The complaint states that Hester was fired from his job on the show after he voiced his concerns about the legality of the company's actions.
"Because Defendants are unwilling to produce and distribute a program that honestly portrays the auction process, they decided to get rid of Hester when he objected to Defendant's fraudulent and deceitful conduct," the lawsuit alleges.
Hester is asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, and argues that the show's conduct "warrants the imposition of punitive damages" in order to punish the defendants and prevent them from taking similar actions with future shows.
A&E, Original Productions and Off the Wall Antiques did not respond to requests for comment from ABC.
The lawsuit filed by Hester refers to previous questions from the public about whether items were planted in the storage units, and quotes an A&E statement on the matter: "There is no staging involved. The items uncovered in the storage units are the actual items featured on the show."
This isn't the first time a reality show based on an unusual profession or lifestyle has been accused of being fake.
During the run of "Man vs. Wild," the Discovery Channel show faced criticism from a crew member who claimed star Bear Grylls was staying in hotels and lying about "roughing it" in extreme conditions.
A recent TLC show called "Breaking Amish" has faced criticism recently for faking the backgrounds of some of its stars.
However, those controversies didn't stop people from watching the shows. "Breaking Amish" remains popular, and "Man vs. Wild" was highly rated until it ended for reasons unrelated to the previous controversies.
"I don't think that, in the immediate, claims of fraud will make a huge difference in viewership," Michael O'Connell, an editor at the Hollywood Reporter told ABC News. "'Storage Wars' gets huge, huge ratings, and this lawsuit probably won't turn people away."
As reality TV in all iterations has become more and more popular, with reality programming on just about every channel, people have adjusted what they expect from such shows.
"We accept that there will be a certain amount of staging – mostly for logistical reasoning – but if you take even more liberties, it can become an ethical issue," O'Connell told ABC.
People also have different expectations for reality shows based on which channel airs them, O'Connell said.
"People gauge the believability of these shows based on what network they are on," O'Connell said. "With A&E, History Channel, Discovery Channel, TLC, people are more inclined to believe you are getting things at face-value, because of the educational premise of those networks that has sort of been ingrained into the psyche."
He compared that to shows like "The Hills" and "Jersey Shore" on MTV. With those shows, people tend to recognize that they are watching largely fabricated drama, for the sake of watching the drama.
It might also be true that people expect a show based on a real profession to be mostly real, because they are watching professionals do their real job. That's unlike shows with stars who appear to be people on the show simply to be TV.
As for whether a reality show might feel pressured to fabricate scenes in order to build or maintain drama, O'Connell notes that is certainly possible, but also risky for such popular shows.
O'Connell does note that it is too soon to say whether Hester's complaints are true, and that the key will be whether other people involved with that show, or other ones produced by the same companies, openly corroborate Hester's claims.
"'Storage Wars' has been on for a long time, so a lot of people have been involved in its production," O'Connell said. "It'll be interesting to see if anybody else comes forward with the same complaints."
Hester is requesting a jury trial, and is seeking upward of $750,000 in damages.
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