Reality TV editor says budget cuts, network influence is to blame for manipulative editing

Radar’s expose on reality TV editors’ and writers’ practices, and my response to it, has generated some substantial reaction. Below I present the most articulate and interesting response I received so far. Generally, I don’t give space to people who bitch about what I write, but this anonymous writer/editor/producer offers a solid defense, and makes some particularly interesting accusations. First, s/he suggests that networks are often responsible for requests to construct fiction from reality, and second, s/he notes that loggers–the men and women who create massive databases of all footage and dialogue–have been cut from production staffs, making editors’ jobs much more difficult.

I have deep respect for editors, story producers, segment producers, and everyone else who works on producing reality television shows. The time I’ve spent observing productions has easily proven what a complicated job it truly is. As a writer and reporter, I often experience the difficulty of narrowing material, and thus I realize that it must be quite challenging to cut hundreds of hours of footage into 22 or 44 minutes of engaging, dramatic television.

But that also doesn’t excuse fictionalizing reality shows. It’s one thing to use a reaction shot from another moment in time if it matches the participant’s genuine reaction; it’s another to fabricate a romantic relationship or construct dialogue that was never spoken and place it in a context in which it didn’t take place. The contestants may agree to such manipulation in their contracts, but the show’s contract with the audience demands that they be true to the reality of the cast’s experience. Anything less is betrayal of our trust.

Okay, here’s the producer’s message:

Your rail against the reality editors quoted in the RAZOR [sic] article was much harsher than what’s called for. Here’s the dope on reality production, and the motivation behind the complaints (not braggin’ sessions) lodged by the writers and editors quoted in RAZOR on the topic of reality television and the myriad manipulations of source material involved on most shows.

I’ve worked as a story editor or story producer on a lot of top prime-time reality over the years, and can tell you that we’d truly all much rather be telling compelling stories without all the screwed up sleight of hand you recently read about.

Every year I’ve worked in this industry, the production periods have grown shorter and shorter for shows as budgets are reworked for maximum profitability. An hour-long episode I used to have six weeks to write might now be crunched into three weeks. Or two. Or, God forbid, one, as in a recent case.

I seldom have logs (transcripts of action) of source material to work from anymore, as loggers have been trimmed from many budgets now.

In short, if networks gave a damn about the quality of the product they’re bankrolling, we’d have time to extract better stories from source material than what we often can in a 7-day, 90-hour week of speeding through clunky VHS tapes and praying to God we can make something resembling a story stick.

Andy, let us know — what do we do when we get a network note asking us to play up the nonexistent sexual tension or conflict between two characters when there’s nothing there? That’s not the editors and story folks at work. That’s network. That’s like breaking a galley slave’s oar and then ordering him to row faster.

I know, I know. It’s easier to bitch about the writers, isn’t it? When you see a lousy movie, it was the writer. A lousy tv show, the writer again. Never mind those thousand other thumbprints in the clay.

Further, when a sitcom needs to have a bum scene retooled, the writers order in for pizza, hunker down and pull an all-nighter to make it funny. That’s pulling entertainment out of thin air. That’s genuine, magical ex nihilo stuff. In reality television, we’re doing the same thing with what amounts to pieces of paper being drawn from a hat.

I’d urge you to direct your next volley of righteous indignation to the folks at the top who have the ability to create a sane working environment in which good shows can thrive. A working environment where story can be crafted instead of punched out of tin on a nonstop press. […]

Surprisingly, man not eaten alive on Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive

Discovery Channel’s happy family holiday special Eaten Alive aired Sunday, rewarding viewers for their two full hours of viewing by ensuring that they spent quality time in the company of others instead of wasting that time doing something else that might not have been as satisfying, such as buying things that have labels which accurately reflect their contents.


Winter 2015 reality TV debut schedule

winter 2015 reality TV schedule

Mark your calendars with all these upcoming reality TV show debuts, including Celebrity Apprentice, The Bachelor, and another season of MasterChef Junior, all of which kick off in early January.

There are also 20+ shows debuting in December--including the one-off return of The Sing Off. No winter break for reality TV.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.