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Behind the scenes of The Runner’s real-time production

MatPat on the set of go90's The Runner. (Photo by Andy Dehnart)

All episodes of The Runner start and end in a studio bathed in blue that’s known as Control90, a reference to the reality competition’s home: the streaming service go90. While the people sitting near host MatPat during the episodes are real people looking at real social media feeds and other data, the set is empty between episodes, and the heart of the production is a short walk through two doors.

In the show’s control room, 41 screens cover the front wall, with 10 more hanging overhead. Three massive monitors in the center of the wall show the live shot (the screen in the center) and the next shot (the other two). It’s on some of these screens that the production team can also pull-up real-time footage from the field.

It’s where the runner and the teams are tracked in real-time—such real time that you can watch as their speed varies second by second as they drive down a highway, each team represented by a color-coded icon. A large flat-screen television on the side of the room is filled with a large Google Map. As a crew member navigated the map, it switched to a satellite view, and zoomed in rapidly.

That screen was mesmerizing. I could have watched it all day. I was in the control room to observe the preparation and production of the day’s second live episode. It’s the penultimate day of The Runner’s first season, which started 29 days ago.

The data provided for each team includes their exact speed, the battery level of their phones, and, of course, their exact position. The screen periodically gave updates about the status of the game based on that GPS data. One label showed who was “closest to runner,” and kept flipping between four teams—Runner AllStars, Brogrammers, BravoSquare, Friendzone—who, at that moment, were all 41 miles away from the runner, bunched up on the freeway.

Another box showed “Runner to goal”: 39.8 miles away, with an ETA of 48 minutes. There were also periodic updates that appeared: “The runner has crossed the geofence.”

The software that shows the map can also send messages to the teams, and I watched as members of the production team edited the message and then texted it to the teams, after selecting “teams” from a drop-down menu that asked “who” to send it to.

Up next in the game was a shark tank, which is not the ABC reality series, but instead the name given to one of the more thrilling types of challenges given to the runner. All the teams enter a defined space—the map showed a red outline around a park, and that outline is another piece of data that can be sent to the teams’ phones—and then the runner does too. Today’s shark tank was in a mostly wooded area, and I was told that crew members tested it days ago, running around and seeing if they could spot each other.

Once the runner has completed their task and left the area, the teams are released in the order they arrived: software keeps track of when they cross the geofence boundary near their destination, and messages are sent to the teams in the order they arrived. (A team that arrived 10 minutes after another team would have to wait 10 minutes to be released to pursue the runner.)

After the teams were texted, executive producer Mike Nichols texted—via WhatsApp—his crew to let them know the teams just received their clue.

All of that will be included on tonight’s episode, though. First up was the midday update on what happened earlier in the day.

Preparing and rehearsing for a live episode

Before that live show, the production team met for a “talk down.” As co-executive producer Eddie Delbridge walked through the beats of the episode, I counted 24 people in the room, not including me and a publicist for Pilgrim Media Group, the production company that’s running The Runner.

In the back of the darkened room, behind a row of people with laptops actually in their laps, one large television screen showed TweetDeck, which included a live feed of the teams’ tweets, plus mentions of The Runner’s screenname and hashtag.

After the run-through, with less than a half hour to go before the live episode, host MatPat rehearsed—though he wasn’t saying every line, just moving from beat to beat. It seemed mostly designed to figure out technical issues, such as what to show on the screen while listening to audio of a bickering team.

At one point, MatPat, whose real name is Matthew Patrick, noticed something in the teleprompter didn’t match their discussion. “This is against what we’d said earlier,” he said, and they adjusted.

He’s quite good at reacting in the moment and on the fly, and is more natural a host than some hosts who’ve done several seasons of a show. His teleprompter had some scripted lines, but mostly, it was just literal prompts:

(Bronature VID)
-Mad at Friendzone

(Fr. Zone VID)
-Tempers Flare!

Even when the lines were fully written, Matt sometimes skipped those entirely, such as when he teased a promo for his new YouTube Red show GameLab. The prompter operator just scrolled past the written text as he improvised.

At the end of the live broadcast—which ran 26 minutes and 25 seconds, total—MatPat wished a happy birthday to producer Eddie Delbridge, who was directing the show in the control room and periodically talked to Matt through his earpiece. As an image of Eddie came up on the screen—one that was not part of the run-through—he said “You guys, what is that?” and the room laughed.

More than just hosting for MatPat

The Runner host MatPat talks to the media about the game in Control90, the show’s headquarters. (Photo by Jeff Lewis/AP Images for Verizon go90)

Earlier, the production team was planning to get a live feed from one of the cars, and during the rehearsal, Delbridge said, “If there are technical glitches, Matt will cover.” That’s a demonstration of the trust they place in their host.

Matt has been hosting this show for 29 days straight now, and is typically in the studio from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. though later on days when the runner gets captured, and has spent 14-hour days there.

“It’s definitely an endurance text, not just for me in studio, but also for the chasers in the field,” Matt told me. “It’s definitely exhausting; there aren’t many productions where you’re doing three episodes a day, seven days a week for an entire month, but that’s also what’s so cool about it.”

Mike Nichols told me that Matt has had the same attitude off-camera that he has on the show. “He’s always positive, he’s always in a good mood. On day 15, we were dragging ass,” Nichols said, but Matt was as effusive as ever. He’s appreciative of that, because “if you have a host that’s a pain in the ass, it just changes the whole culture of your show.”

Here, the culture of the show clearly matches Matt’s personality; he was wearing a t-shirt created by the production with his co-host Kaj Larsen’s face in a heart, and one of the social media correspondents, Laura, was also wearing a shirt with Kaj’s face.

Beyond the flirting with his co-host, Matt is active in the production. His level of involvement, he told me, “was something we actually dictated in the contract. Coming from a digital-first background with my YouTube channels, I understand the way the Internet works, I understand the way social media communicates—the memes they expect, the language that they speak in, the inside jokes that they get. So that I way, I can serve as the voice of the Internet for this show.”

“Everyone’s coming in with such a tremendous background in reality TV production, larger-scale productions, and I’m able to translate that to the Internet,” Matt said. He’s also able to just have fun with what’s happening on screen, and react to it genuinely.

“I get to nerd out on the show with everyone else,” he added. “I become kind of an audience surrogate, which is nice, and it enables them to either agree [or disagree] with me when I’m joking about a team. It gives them a reason to interact and engage, in a way that most other shows which are much more neutral and objective, there isn’t a voice of the audience in those sort of circumstances.”

One thing he’s nerded out on is how the game has changed over the 30 days. Matt told me that “the evolving strategies of both the chaser teams and America playing along at home” reminds him of Survivor Borneo, with the birth of alliances and Richard Hatch’s game play. The Runner, Matt said, “is a completely new realm for reality programming. You see people become savvier and savvier with how they’re using their community” and “leveraging their fanbases.” For example, the Brogrammers had their fans delete their tweets after the team liked it, so other teams couldn’t get the same information.

In our conversation, Matt repeatedly kept citing the work of the production team. “I think it’s hard for people to really grasp the number of people and the amount of coordination it takes to put a show like this together,” he said. “A lot of digital-first audiences, there is no concept of traditional production. They’re used to just one person in their bedroom, and they write and edit and research—they do it all themselves   This is a show that is geared to bringing [the audience] along as a part of this, but is also spending a lot of money and a lot of manpower to make it happen for them.”

Filming The Runner in real time, on iPhones

Shortly after the rehearsal ended, there was a countdown for a countdown: “20 to slate,” someone said, meaning 20 seconds until the “stay tuned for the show” 20-minute countdown appeared for live viewers.

The show went live right on time at noon PT, when there were 17 people at workstations in the control room, and another 11 in the back and around the room.

During the live show, Matt talked to one team as they drove down the road. The teams chasing the runner are actually filmed in their cars by iPhones—yes, iPhones! A software platform that’s also used by TV networks allows producers in the control room to watch live feeds from those phones.

Those in the field filming the teams were given instructions to shoot this series differently.

First, the runner has the ability to ditch his or her camera operator any time. “I’d rather lose this shot than expose the runner,” executive producer Mike Nichols told me. Fairness is key: Once the first two runners became a team, producers pulled the runner’s camera operator, Lucas, so the former runners wouldn’t be able to find the runner by just looking for him. (He became the camera operator for Team Runner All-Stars.)

The camera operators are also just supposed to follow the action, not choreograph it, by telling the teams to wait or repositioning them.

Referencing a mantra that dictates how Amazing Race camera operators should film their teams—”no assess, no elbows,” i.e. always be in front of your team—Nichols told his cinematographers “we want asses and elbows. Just don’t worry about the perfect shot.”

He also told them, “It’s got to be real. There are no do-overs.”

“This audience really wants honesty,” Nichols told me. “They want to know the truth all the time.”

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