Trade Secrets: Behind The Scenes of Reality Television

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I once spent a few years working as a writer for reality television. When I tell people that, they feel as if they're being let in on a Hollywood secret. "Aha!" they'll say. "That stuff is all written? I knew it was fake."

"Well, it's not exactly writing," I'd explain. "It's more like ... story." That explanation, understandably, would be met with a confused stare, and I'd start my little speech I'd practically memorized by that point.

Most reality shows have a story department. I was in the story department as a story editor. It was my job to look through giant binders filled with notes that had been taken by the producer with the camera crew on what exactly they'd filmed that day. I'd keep an eye out for any traces of "story" in the notes -- events that could add up to a full episode of television. If I found a few choice nuggets of story as I mined through the notes, I 'd go grab the tapes, watch them, and take my own notes, assembling what I saw into a script. I'd later give that script to an editor, who would cut what I'd found into a rough sketch of a potential television episode.

That's pretty straightforward. What most people don't realize is how much fudging of the facts actually happens in the name of entertainment. These are some of the most common tricks and sleight of hand that reality television uses to tell a story:

  • The "Frankenbite" -- So-named because sometimes, we'll take two audio "bites," that is, two short sections of dialogue, and "Frankenstein" them together into an entirely new bite. For example, on one show for which I worked, the contestants were getting along so well that there was barely any drama at all, save for one short argument between two girls. It had no buildup, it just exploded out of nowhere, and then went away as quickly as it had come. The lack of buildup was a problem: we needed a sound bite about what was coming up to keep viewers from wandering away during a commercial break. We took two pieces of audio, one where a girl said "I'm really getting sick of this food," and another where the same girl said "Lisa is so nice. She's hardly ever a bitch." We then cut them together to make it sound as if she said "I'm really getting sick of Lisa. She's a bitch."

  • But That's Not What I Meant! -- Sometimes, when you see a reality show participant talking straight into the camera, interview style, they aren't talking about anything remotely related to what's happening at that moment in the show. Next time you're watching a reality show, listen closely: is the participant saying something really general, or something very specific? If something dramatic happens onscreen, and a couple of contestants comment, "Oh my God, I was so freaked out!", they could be talking about something completely different. We once used the quote above in a situation that called for a dramatic quote. It was the contestant's answer to the question: "How did you feel when we called to ask if you wanted to be on the show?"

  • The Time Machine -- The first show I worked on was about doctors doing their residency in a hospital. We followed and filmed them over the course of a year and a half. One of the doctors started out as very idealistic and innocent, but by the time we were done shooting, she was a seasoned veteran who had become a lot more cynical. Stories that unfold slowly over a long period of time -- and changes brought on by smaller incidents piling on top of each other -- may ring more true, but they hardly make for dramatic television. Over the course of the five acts in that episode, we put the innocent doctor through the ringer, taking her worst, most crushing experiences, presenting them as if they occurred in a back-to-back onslaught. In reality, they unfolded over a year and a half.

  • I Don't Remember That Happening -- Every once in a while, something happens when the cameras aren't around. If an important and dramatic moment doesn't happen on camera, it has to be worked into the plot somehow. One of the least entertaining ways to make this happen is having a person simply talk about it in an interview. That's why the most common solution for this kind of situation is to re-create the event. On one show, a participant received some bad news about a family member's health, and wrestled with the decision to leave the show. The phone call came at around 3AM., while the camera crew was sleeping. How did we make it work? Simple: We found footage of that cast member on the phone. We combined that with a voice over from that cast member explaining what was going on in the phone call. We then cut to reaction shots of the other cast members, looking worried and alarmed. These shots, of course, didn't even take place on the same day that this person received the phone call. To cap it off, we ended on a shot of the cast member sitting there at a table, head in hands, that we had taken weeks before while that cast member was having a horrible headache. The result? We got to air our dramatic moment.

  • OK, Sometimes We DO Just Write It -- One of the last shows I worked on wasn't going so hot. It focused on a girl trying to make it as a singer; but, unfortunately, she didn't have much in the way of talent. She was savvy, however, and she quickly realized that, even though she'd agreed to do this show, appearing on it wasn't doing her any favors. You could say that she mentally checked out. Nothing much was happening in her life, but she did have an on-and-off relationship with a boyfriend. To put it bluntly: we made her break up with her boyfriend and get back together with him at least four times over the course of the show -- and she even did that in a boring way. We would have her talk about it with her best friend, and as we were standing there, in her house, we would guide the conversation and tell them what to talk about. You know how it sounds when two people are having an unnatural conversation because they know that people are listening to them talk? That's how it sounded every time they spoke. The girl who was the show's main character wouldn't give us anything without us making her do it, and she served to prove how bad this type of television can be when you end up having to fake it.

Most people who discover these secrets claim not to be surprised. A lot of people think that reality television is completely fake to begin with. Yet, they still seem a little insulted. After all, isn't this supposed to be "reality"?

Remember, "reality television" is just a name, invented by television critics in order to identify the genre. When it comes down to it, it's as much manufactured entertainment as anything else on television. Reality TV is definitely not journalism. Watch closely enough, and they'll prove it to you during every single episode.


Next: Do You Want to be a Professional Reality-TV Star? >>

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