How Reality TV Works

Try as we might to avoid it but we all watch a lot of reality television. Some shows are great, some shows are bad, but all of them are shows with low production costs that are extremely easy to produce.

These shows can be varied too, from competition reality to reality dating and game shows to the handful of follow shows. The real meat of the genre are the overly dramatic competition shows which, funny enough, happen to be my forté. While I have never produced these shows directly, I’ve worked on too many sets as a social media producer and producer’s assistant, from an angle where I can see everything happen and learn how the televised sausage is made: I know exactly what goes into making these shows happen.

This is why it’s difficult for me to watch the genre because I cannot help but pick at every little or large on-screen scab, unpacking what went into the production. Seasoned viewers likely know how reality television works but they might not literally know how it works. Thus, I wanted to share ten insider (“insider”) elements that go into making a reality television show, things that will sharpen your eye as a viewer so you can add more critical commentary as you watch.

Everything takes three days—and everyone gets one day off a week.
The reality schedule is this: six days of work, one day off, six days of work, one day off, etc. until the production ends. If you watch in competition shows like Project Runway, you’ll notice this pattern: the show starts with the challenge brief (“You’re making clothing from trash!”) into designing (“I’m making clothing from trash!”) into critique (“Look at your clothing made from trash!”). Within three days, the time shifts to make it seem like contestants are getting full days but, unfortunately for them, they are not. Here is how that works: Day One would start around 7AM with the brief actually happening by 9AM followed by challenge briefing and legalese and brainstorming for an hour or two and then, after shopping and research and travel to and from these destinations, people get to work…somewhere around 4PM, which they then work from until “midnight” (or whenever producers tell them they have to, legally, stop). Day Two is a true full work day but would also include meal breaks, interview time, and model fittings or the like. Day Three—the most grueling of them all—starts very early so people can finish their work, have some drama, and prepare for presentation, which is roughly done by 10AM. After holding and general lagging, presentations would happen around noon or 1PM, which is generally fast, but critiquing takes forever because everyone that the judges want to see have roughly thirty minutes devoted to them. Everyone is grilled for quite some time, then everyone is brought back out, the ax drops, then there is fallout, and then the poor person eliminated has to face cameras and interviews and various out processing. This usually wraps up very late into the evening, from midnight to after 3AM…then it all starts all over again. This leads us to…

Everything is longer than you think.
As obvious as the above is, everything is explained for challenges and by judges and by everyone because—Legally.—you have to explain everything and allow equal time for all participants so no one sues anyone on the show. It’s very, very touchy in that regard, hence why the shoots are so bloated. Moreover, even minor parts of the show—like a game or time with a coach—have to be regulated and monitored. Time with the celebrities are very minimal since they have 109237492873 other things to do—but shit with the cast? That is basically going on all the time. There are literally cameras on call, everywhere—unless the cast is sequestered. What does that mean?

When they bring cast back, that’s because the cast never went home.
That means that the cast was sequestered. What does sequestered mean? That means that the cast does not have access to each other and do not live together, a la RuPaul’s Drag Race and any other show where you do not see the cast living together. When they live together, cameras are on all the time. If you don’t see them living together or eating together, that means the cast is “on ice” when not on camera, meaning they are not allowed to talk to each other unless cameras are on and available to pick up their drama. Cast wranglers handle enforcing this and they can be hardcore. It’s a lot like kindergarten. Anyway, back to the cast “going home”: this is a classic “OOOOH DAMn!!!” move but this usually means the cast never left because #budgets and flights. Thus, why not reuse them? They might have been kept around for press or for the off chance that creative changed or the cast sucked and someone had to be brought back. Normally, these people are just used as assistants to people in a future challenge—and they wouldn’t be flown in just for that. That would be absurd.

The key to knowing when something was wrong: listen to the audio.
Speaking of absurd, if you ever notice wonky, mismatched audio, that is because a producer or someone made an error and forgot or didn’t get the talent to properly explain or setup a challenge. Or, even worse, the creative was so fucked up that it had to be backhandedly fixed via creative voiceover. The audio is the only way to salvage a fuck up because, visually, you cannot recreate a moment. Some shows try and those are even more obvious. That’s why sometimes timelines on shows (particularly follow shows) may seem off: the edit and production is servicing story instead of the actual reality of the situation. However, you know reality hits when…

When a disaster strikes, it is indeed a disaster.
When you see shaky cameras and running, that is a sign that shit was absolutely unplanned and that good television (“good television”) is happening. These moments are unplanned and usually happen at the most mundane of times. No, producers aren’t praying for or preying on tragedy but, when it strikes, you gotta dive in and document it because, yes, it will make for a better bit. Like the thorough explaining that is cut out, when someone does get hurt or shit goes wrong, you can bet there are moments of legalese going on, unseen, to keep everything fair.

You can tell when an interview is just producer speak.
When a cast member or guest or host says something super staged, that’s because it is. Particularly on a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, those private interviews are a heap of canned lines, given to cast members to spit back. You typically don’t notice but a lot of times—like when Pearl had water thrown on her face—the bits are entirely setup and feel that way. For an accurate depiction and showing of what the interview producer and talent relationship is like, watch Born This Way. The way they offer a bit of behind-the-scenes access to interviews illustrates how these scenes are conducted across the spectrum, from small fry cast to big name talent.

Bad cast? Bad show.
If a cast is bad, that means that the casting was bad, that producers or the channel were not communicating too well with what the needs of the show were. And, believe me, there are a ton of bad casting agencies which is why a lot of shows hire producers to literally search the Internet, social media, phonebooks, etc. to track down potential talent. Moreover, with lots of specialty talent shows like Top Chef, which require a very specific skill set and reputation in the real world not to mention a willingness to be on a reality show, it’s very difficult to cast the show. That’s why shows like Top Chef and RuPaul’s Drag Race only happen once a year: there is not enough talent available for these shows to sustain anymore than what we’re getting now. That’s also why subpar chefs and queens appear on these shows because the well is running dry. As much as we hope for great reality shows to last forever, they can’t—because there are only so many people. (Unless you are casting normal, everyday people like Survivor and The Bachelor, which require you having an able body and a backstory.)

You need an expert.
This is a nitpicking, “If Kyle were making this show…” sort of thing but, to legitimize and truly ground a show, an expert is needed to qualify that the industry a show is dwelling in is legit. Often, this is tenuous as shows opt for a bigger celebrity name than bigger qualifications. However, with a show like Face Off, the expertise is what sells the show because you get to feel like a fly on the wall in an industry you know nothing about. Without that grounding, you are likely to float away into unbelievability. This is why the Project Runways and Top Chefs succeed while the Fashion Star and Skin Wars did not feel like accurate representations of a business (because they weren’t).

A lot of those finales are sat on forever.
This is obvious and a lot of shows have moved away from this but the trap of reality shows is the finale has to be hidden, shielded away in silence without leaking, for months at a time. If you were wondering why so many live finales happen now, that’s why: to avoid the surprise getting out.

You can tell favors and self-producing producers when it feels forced. That’s because it is.
Lastly—and most producer nitpicking of me—is that things that feel forced on a show are. This is typically because of a producer working around personal desire, be it a desire to include a specific talent or brand or product that otherwise feels wrong where it is. This can be little (“I like Dasani so we’re making everyone drink Dasani!”) to majorly obtrusive (“Dasani is sponsoring this challenge so here is a Dasani rep who will judge.”). A lot of times this blends in and, really, sometimes things are forced because that sponsor or talent or product is the only thing producers could get to consent to be on the show. But, believe me: I’ve worked on too many shows, with too many producers, where a segment or bit was created just because someone wanted a freebie—and the only way to get the freebie was to put it on a show. It’s painfully greedy (and makes me insane).

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