According to Google Analytics, one of the most popular articles on this site is one I was hardly qualified to write: Formatting a reality show proposal. There appears an underserved need for good information about how reality shows are pitched and produced.
And with reality TV having become one of the stepping stone jobs in the film/TV industry, I’ve made it a goal to write more about it this year.
I asked my friend Matthew Watts to write up an overview of what a reality producer does. A Columbia film school grad, he served as a producer on both The First 48 and Swamp People.
First, a word about reality television. I like to think of reality television as an adaptation of reality. Essentially these shows take real events and manipulate them, often to extremes, so they fit into three or five acts of thirty or sixty minutes of thrilling dramatic television.
And here’s a fair warning: this post is laced with spoiler alerts about reality shows.
The first little-known secret about reality TV? Not much of it is really real. Okay, maybe that’s not a big secret, but it never ceases to amaze me how many people, even the critically savvy, believe everything they see on reality TV.
In truth, these shows are all “produced.”
Take Swamp People on History Channel. Due to the treachery that is quite skillfully built into each episode, viewers are led to believe that alligator hunting is a dangerous, even deadly occupation. The truth is that in the history of alligator hunting there have been very few human deaths. (I haven’t found an account of a single serious injury — if you do, let me know.)
Alligator hunting is not a dangerous occupation. It’s a sport, like fishing. And alligators are very easy to catch. In fact, if the tightly regulated hunting season didn’t protect the prehistoric beasts to the extent it does, alligators would be extinct within a few years.
Don’t get me wrong. Alligators are dangerous and potentially deadly. If you scare one and it’s cornered or if you shoot it with a paintball gun or something, it can attack and do incredible damage to a human. An alligator can be deadly, but the fidelity between the reality of a random isolated incident every year or two and the adaptation of reality where these hunters can literally be eaten alive at any second, is incredibly low.
Of course, each show has a subtly different approach to how far the limit of adaptation can go.
If you’ve ever seen the opening credits to Ice Road Truckers, you might be concerned that at any given moment an 18-wheeler will crash through one of the ice-covered lakes it is carrying vital supplies over. But in the history of ice road trucking, it’s never happened (again, if you can find an incident please share). Yet it’s the genius of the opening credit sequence — an impressive computer animated graphic shows an 18-wheeler sinking through ice and into the oblivion — that sets the stage for a gut wrenching hour-long trek through the most harrowing frozen paths on Earth.
It’s tricks like these and the ability of the producers to utilize storytelling to its maximum capacity that eke every bit of drama from reality. While these men are certainly doing extraordinary things, the events are not always as death defying as they may seem.
The facts that fit
On crime shows where the subjects are homicide investigations, like The First 48 on A&E or The Shift on Investigative Discovery, the producers do not change facts. It would be unethical, as these cases are literally about people’s lives and deaths. It could also lead to a lawsuit that could take down a show.
So the producing part comes with figuring out the best way to tell the story, and in exploring and highlighting compelling character traits in the homicide detectives and the other characters involved.
The goal in these types of programs is to hone down the actual events into their clearest, most concise and compelling form. It is a process and a skill to whittle down what can sometimes amount to hundreds of hours of footage into a straightforward 44 minutes of storytelling.
A friend of mine — a Series Producer — explains it like this: the goal of reality television is to “simplify and delay.” Tell the stories clearly and hold off on the resolutions for as long as possible.1
So, what does a reality producer do? There are a few types of reality producers, and of course quite a few genres as well. I’ll stick with Field Producers, Post Producers and Story Producers. And my experience is mainly in “docu-drama” or “reality/doc.” Depending on which coast one is on, job titles can vary, but the functions are fairly straightforward.
A Field Producer (aka Shooter/Producer or Director/Producer) is out in the field, either shooting or overseeing the shooting of the material.
With the less intrusive, vérité-style, fly-on-the-wall approach, the field producer is often a one-man-band, armed with a camera affixed with a shotgun microphone, and a wireless microphone affixed to the subject.
The field producer’s main job is to cover all the action on camera while identifying scenes and storylines as they’re occurring. It can get intense and takes a solid set of time management skills. These folks need to know when to shoot on-the-fly interviews (OTF’s), when to break away and roll on establishing shots of locations and B-roll, and when to get signed appearance releases from every person who may potentially wind up in the program — all while not disrupting the routine of the main characters.
Field producers often have discretion regarding what is suitable for a potential scene.
There’s a saying in the field: “If it didn’t happen on camera, it didn’t happen,” meaning if you missed something, it’s not worth regretting what you don’t have and will never be able to go back and get.
For a field producer, it’s exhilarating to be shooting a scene knowing without a doubt that what’s happening in your viewfinder is definitely going to be in the show (90% of shot material usually winds up on the cutting room floor). So it’s all about getting the coverage that the editors will need to eventually build out scenes in the most compelling ways.
A lot of repetition happens in normal everyday conversations, so a field producer needs to pay attention and be aware when to utilize these moments to get reaction shots. It’s as important to cover the person listening as it is to cover the person talking. Reality shows, you’ll start to notice, are built as much on reaction shots as they are on shots of people speaking. Reactions shots cue the watcher to what they should understand about the information they have just been given.
Concerned face on the detective? Must be some trouble. Excited face? The dude confessed.
On a crime show, a field producer must set up the investigative chronology on camera — that is, the beginning, middle and end of the case, which is the seed of the structure.
Who are the most interesting characters? Why do I care about what is happening here? At this point, the field producer should focus interview questions around those details and ask the detectives (in opportune times only) to clarify what is going on: “Tell me about such and such detail…” “What can you tell from this piece of evidence?” “What does that rap sheet tell us?”
More importantly for narrative purposes is considering these real people as characters in the story being told — setting up and tracking Hope vs Fear. “What’s the best thing that can happen right now?” “What’s worst case scenario?” “Tell me why it’s so important for you to…”
What makes reality shows work is getting answers to these questions on camera in the words of the characters in the moment. It’s the insider’s edge.
Creating stories out of events
After the tapes are shot, field producers summarize their footage on paper. In some cases, these summaries are nothing more than tape logs, simply describing the factual elements of what’s occurred. A phone call with a Story Producer, Series Producer or Executive Producer back in the office can determine potential interesting story angles and plot points to follow up on.
The footage is sent to the post-production office where the Story Producer2 will read the summaries, screen various pieces of footage to see how well the outlines match the coverage.
Remember: “If it didn’t happen on camera, it didn’t happen” — so don’t include it in the summary.
They will then organize the stories into what’s suitable for potential episodes. When a storyline is deemed worthy of an episode, the Story Producer will construct a broad outline of how that storyline might potentially play out.
Outlines vary a lot from show to show, but on ours, the broad outline is usually written in Word as two to three pages of prose. We keep it fairly vague, and often base it more on conversations with field producers than actually watching all the footage. Transcription and time code are rare in these. Tape numbers are more common.
The Story Producer then hands the footage and the broad outline to a Post Producer, who will work directly with an Editor in producing the episode.
The Post Producer screens every piece of footage and writes a detailed outline of the episode. For our shows, detailed outlines can be five to seven pages with dialogue (sound bites with timecode) and act breaks (including cliffhangers).
These are signed off on by the exec producers, and if it’s the first season of a show sometimes the network needs to sign off on these outlines as well.
Scripts are often done as Excel sheets, with one column for audio (narration, vérité sound bites) and the other for video/text (subtitles, chyrons). We also use index cards to break down stories — on the grander series sense, and on each episode so post producers and editors can track characters and scenes.
Getting it on the page
The script writing process is where the different styles of reality shows become evident.
In shows where the goal is to stick closer to reality, narration is used sparingly, to either clarify events, state pure facts or bridge scenes. Generally, the more narration there is in a show, the more liberty the producers are taking with the footage. (The post producer generally writes the narration.)
For example, Swamp People contains quite a bit of narration. If the show were a hunk of Swiss cheese, the narration would be the cheese and the vérité sound bites (dialogue the characters actually uttered, unprompted, in the moment) would be the holes.
For example, a post producer locates a nice bit of vérité footage of one character yelling to another, “Look out…!” A piece of narration can be written that leads into the line like, “TROY NOTICES AN 800 POUND GATOR HEADING TOWARD THE BOAT.”
The editor can find a shot of a gator, cut it into the sequence and voila! Danger.
In actuality, Troy may have been referring to his son’s lunch pail falling into a puddle. The rest of that vérité line may have been, “Look out…your lunch is about to get wet!” But it plays so well regarding a gator. So why not adapt the line into a more dramatic fashion?
My example may be a bit extreme, but it’s not far off. Conversely, in a show that sticks closer to reality, you could say that the hunk of Swiss cheese is the vérité footage and the narration is the holes filling in the blanks. Either way, stories are being told. It’s just a matter of how much adaptation.
One of the more clever devices for hiding narration in reality shows is the video testimonial style in MTV’s godfather of reality television series, The Real World.
In a soundproof room somewhere near set, characters speak to the camera as if it’s a close friend or therapist. Most of the frothier shows use this format (Rachel Ray, Kardashians, etc). What is elegantly kept from viewers is that these testimonials are actually serving as narration. We’re hearing answers to written questions (and sometimes written answers) that the post producers have created to tell these stories in a clear and compelling way. We are not, as it may seem, hearing spontaneous reactions from the character’s deepest pools of forethought.
Sometimes the field producers do these interviews as they see a story developing. Other times, the interviews are filmed during post production when a story develops and needs to be filled in with the characters’ commentary. The genius of the reality testimonial is that they play to the idea that these events are all just happening, and the cameras are lucky to be there at the right time.
Ever notice how on The Real World, when one of the characters with a boyfriend or girlfriend back home starts sleeping with one his/her cast-mates, the boyfriend or girlfriend from back home flies in for a weekend visit? Drama inevitably ensues. Who do you think bought the ticket?
Humans love to be told stories. And Reality TV is a great medium for the storyteller. For all the “producing” and highlighting and editorializing, at the core these shows are just telling tales — tales with narrative arcs and heroes and journeys that scare us and thrill us and make us feel something. Which is why I think so many people are eager to believe what they are seeing.
Do people care that Troy may have been warning his son about his lunch getting wet and not an 800-lb gator? Probably not. People want to be told a story. They want to be entertained, to identify, to live vicariously.
It’s also why, despite the constructiveness of the tales, there is always something interesting to be found, something curious and/or beautiful about the people who have agreed to let us travel with them.
Matthew Watts is now in post on the indie feature Mutual Friends, his feature directorial debut. Photo from the set by Michael Seto.