Boston gets a nonreality show

CBS broadcasts impossible views of 4th fireworks

(Images from Youtube)
By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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Those who watched Boston’s revered Fourth of July celebration Monday night on CBS were treated to spectacular views of fireworks exploding behind the State House, Quincy Market, and home plate at Fenway Park, among other places - great views, until you consider that they were physically impossible.

As viewers began to point out yesterday, it would not have been geographically possible to see the fireworks above and behind the landmarks in question, since the display was launched from a barge in the Charles River and in directions away from those places.

“According to CBS, you can see the fireworks from the right side of Quincy Market, even though Beacon Hill is in the way,’’ wrote “Kaz,’’ whose real name is Karl Clodfelter, a commenter on the Boston blog “Also, they come up behind the State House when you’re standing across the road . . . which means the barge must have been parked on the Zakim this year,’’ wrote Clodfelter, a research scientist from Brighton.

David Mugar, the Boston-area businessman and philanthropist who has executive produced the show for nine years, confirmed yesterday that the footage was altered. He said this was the first year such alterations were made.

Mugar said the added images were above board because the show was entertainment and not news. He said it was no different than TV drama producer David E. Kelley using scenes from his native Boston in his show “Boston Legal’’ but shooting the bulk of each episode on a studio set in Hollywood.

“Absolutely, we’re proud to show scenes from our city,’’ Mugar said. “It’s often only shown in film or in sporting matches. We were able to highlight great places in Boston, historical places with direct ties to the Fourth. So we think it was a good thing.’’

A CBS Television spokesman declined comment about whether the network was aware of, or approved of, the fireworks show being digitally altered.

The footage of the landmarks was shot several weeks ago. According to Mugar, camera crews from Boston 4 Productions, the production wing of Boston 4 Celebrations Foundation, the fireworks show’s parent, crisscrossed Boston and Suffolk County shooting video of famous landmarks one evening in May.

“I’d say we shot from about 8 p.m. till 4 or 5 the next morning,’’ Mugar said. “Among other places, we got video of the Old North Church, the State House, Quincy Market, the statue of Paul Revere, Fenway Park, with the full cooperation of the Red Sox, who let us in and turned on certain lights for our shoot. And we did it all with the intention of superimposing the fireworks over the images. The technical process is called matting.’’

Entertainment or not, some viewers were not amused to learn that the footage was altered.

T.J. Jeffers, decked out in a Celtics T-shirt and Red Sox cap, stood outside the JFK/UMass T stop yesterday and, with a toothy grin, declared his love for Boston and the Independence Day celebrations.

“It’s one of the biggest times of year here,’’ an animated Jeffers said. “Man, it’s huge. The fireworks, the crowds. It takes you back to your childhood. . . . But I’m shocked they changed stuff on TV, because they didn’t need to. The fireworks don’t need dressing up. They’re fireworks.’’

At a Shaw’s grocery store in Dorchester, Penny Thompson, who described herself as “a lifer, born and raised in the Boston area,’’ expressed disappointment, but not over the quality of the fireworks display.

“I thought it looked fine,’’ Thompson said. “I just don’t like knowing it wasn’t real. I mean I know the fireworks were real, but I’m saying not real like they changed stuff. That’s not cool.’’

Eric Deggans, a Florida-based media critic and regular panelist on CNN’s media critique show “Reliable Sources,’’ said the altered video presents a potential credibility problem for CBS.

“It is an ethical issue, and to say it’s not because the show was aired through CBS Entertainment is to imply that the entertainment side of CBS has no ethics,’’ Deggans said. “I think - especially in today’s media environment - the most important commandment for media is to not mislead the viewer. . . . If you’re a viewer who doesn’t know Boston, you’re getting a picture of the layout of the city that doesn’t exist.’’

David A. Perry, a Massachusetts native who watches the televised fireworks each year from his home in Delaware, Ohio, and who first alerted the Globe to the altered video, had a similar, if more tempered, reaction.

“I was already just dismayed with the coverage,’’ said Perry, a 45-year-old computer programmer who left New England five years ago to relocate to his new wife’s hometown. “They didn’t pan out enough to show what was probably a crowd of half a million. They made it seem like just 2,000 people were there. But then I started seeing some of the angles. And let me tell you, I’ve been to plenty of Sox games. So I knew the angles and the backgrounds weren’t right.

“The shame is I’ve always thought the fireworks were among the best in the country. So there was no need to add anything. The fireworks by themselves would have been good enough. Why?’’

Asked about Mugar’s argument that the show was entertainment so the usual rules did not apply, Clodfelter, the commenter from Brighton, said if that’s the case “why not superimpose Neil Armstrong on the moon?’’

James Burnett III can be reached at