Reality television means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For people who grew up watching TV in the 70’s, they may remember An American Family, widely considered to be the first “unscripted” television series ever produced.
For people who grew up watching TV in the 80s, there may be a particular fondness of professional wrestling, or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. In the 90’s, younger viewers were introduced to The Real World and Road Rules courtesy of MTV, who helped Bunim/Murray literally create a genre of television that changed an entire cable network’s focus.
But beyond the surface, reality TV has been a major catalyst in allowing once-taboo ideas and concepts to reach mass audiences. Normalizing openly gay people as characters on TV shows? Exploring real-life race relations between young people in America? Giving platforms to “everyday people” who end up wowing us with their original, yet relatable stories?
You can (and should) probably thank reality TV for that. And these milestones—and many more—are what inspired me to become a post producer of unscripted television.
As a child who was born in 1990 and grew up watching proto-reality content (like MTV News segments, talent shows, House of Style with Cindy Crawford, etc.) there was never a time in my life where “unscripted TV” wasn’t a thing.
Instead of wanting to play hide and seek, I asked my babysitters to watch music videos with me. I had a taste for spectacle, but also, an obsession with wanting to know more. One of my earliest memories from childhood is when my dad taught me how to use a VCR. I was enamored, and soon had stacks of VHS tapes that I created, curated with my favorite cartoons, commercial jingles, music videos, and more. I was able to ignore every piece of media that I deemed “unworthy,” and own every piece that I deemed entertaining. This practice would continue and evolve through my young adult life (basically, until VCRs stopped being cool) and really kick started my ability to be critical of mass media.
Fast forward to the year 2000, when the reality TV boom officially began. Films like The Blair Witch Project had shown that documentary-style aesthetics could appeal to mass audiences, but also blurred the lines between what was real and what was scripted.
At the time, I was obsessed with AOL and my fledgling social life when Survivor premiered. It was more than a TV show; it was a moment. You couldn’t escape it, even if you tried. It spawned countless other shows, some of which are still being produced to this day.
Being subconsciously familiar with trends in media (especially on television) thanks to the way I grew up, I found myself having thought-provoking conversations with my teachers about reality TV—conversations which my peers could often not participate in due to a lack of interest or knowledge of media.
Most 10-year-old kids are not watching a show like Survivor and asking, “I wonder if everything I am watching with my own two eyes right now is actually real.”
Thanks to these adult interactions that made me feel like more of an adult myself, I knew that my calling in life would in some way, shape or form be tied to media production.
Learning about TV production in college
I attended Columbia College in Chicago. At the time, it was the closest private arts college to me, with an actual ability to major in “Television,” its own department, and not a more general “Communications” or “Film and Media” degree.
I wanted to be immersed in what I felt shaped who I was as a person. The school offered countless resources and classes that taught me the mechanics of what it took to create an episode of television. Specifically, I loved learning how to edit footage on a computer using Avid software, which is the industry standard for assembling unscripted TV programs.
There were a lot of TV writing classes, and quite a few TV production classes. I even remember a “Shooting the Three-Camera Sitcom” class (in 2010).
Columbia’s TV department was never really interested in teaching its students about reality TV as a genre, though. The only class that taught reality TV production was cancelled before I could take it!
When it came to post production, the focus shifted to motion graphics and CGI made with programs like After Effects. I was desperate to find any class that would incorporate teaching narrative storytelling without a script.
The closest thing I could find was a class about mockumentaries. Most of the faculty and staff had little knowledge (i.e. interest) in reality TV as a genre, often citing the artless approach these shows would take. But most of the kids graduating from Columbia’s TV department wound up working on reality shows out in Los Angeles.
I saw this as problematic: a television department at a college seemingly not setting their own students up for the type of work that many of them would encounter.
A professor who worked on The Mole, and the awful reality of casting
I had one professor—Tracy Fetterolf —who had been a consulting producer on the first two seasons of The Mole, as well as a coordinating producer on the fifth season that aired in 2008.
After we met and I told her my story, she took me under her wing and really provided a real-life example of someone who actually worked on one of the shows I grew up loving to watch.
Before gradating, I ended up interning as a casting associate for an Endemol series called Chicagolicious—a spin-off of Jerseylicious. I introduced the casting director to one of my friends, Jennifer Knuth, who ended up becoming a principle cast member on the show.
I thought casting for a reality show would be a fun way to find people that I personally found to be interesting and give them an opportunity to shine on TV.
Creatively, it really wasn’t that different from working at a bank. The producers wanted “model-hot” people to volunteer as unpaid extras on a show that nobody had ever heard of because it hadn’t aired yet.
As a first-time recruiter, it was my job to make working as an unpaid extra sound like the most glamorous, life-changing opportunity that any person could experience (lying my ass off). In reality, they were often in the background, out-of-focus and not even seen on television.
Some of the male extras that did work with us tried to take me out on dates in hopes of furthering their Hollywood career aspirations, only to totally ignore me after I told them I was a low-level intern that didn’t wield the kind of power they were after.
I was also a full-time college student, so doing all of this and balancing junior-level courses was challenging.
At some point towards the end of the show’s run, the casting director decided I wasn’t working hard enough and let me go, and purposely didn’t get back to my internship coordinator to confirm that I had completed the internship in order to get college credit. I almost ended up wasting an entire year on recruiting work, but thankfully, I talked to the coordinator and was able to prove to her that I did the work.
Thus, casting for an overproduced unscripted series was as close to a soul-sucking experience as I had ever come, and I was desperate to leave it behind and return focus to post production.
The move to L.A.
I ended up moving to Los Angeles in 2013, after a painstaking first year of very little work and not knowing where to go.
Most of the things that you produce in college are not quite up to par with what a Hollywood producer would be looking for. Plus, for post-production story work, you don’t present a portfolio of college work, you present a resume listing your experience.
With only a couple of casting and PA (production assistant) credits on my resume, no one was really looking to hire me.
Via a staffing website popular in the reality world, I did get a job as a logger on Undercover Boss season 5, but I don’t really think it contributed to me getting hired as a producer later.
While I would much rather prove my worth through the quality of my work, it was solely due to one college-based relationship with a peer that I got my first AP (associate/junior producer) job and was able to move forward from there.
Then, a friend from college invited me to work on a Dog The Bounty Hunter spin-off series for CMT called, Dog & Beth: On The Hunt.
It was my very first “associate producer” credit, which, in a post sense, meant that I helped the senior story producers cut down raw footage for scenes within their episodes.
As a fan of reality TV, having the raw footage of any show is a blessing and a curse.
While you get to see a much more thorough, complex version of what ends up airing on TV, depending on the show, you also get to see how much of what does make TV is faked or “altered” for final viewing.
(To be clear, Dog & Beth: On The Hunt was one of the most authentic, and least produced shows that I have ever worked on. When you have big characters, there’s little need for fakery.)
My supervisors saw how passionate I was about what I was doing, and helped get me onto other shows as an associate producer.
After a couple of years, I got bumped up to “Story Producer,” which, in most cases, means that instead of just looking at raw footage and creating a story out of it, you have control over an entire episode of content.
What a story producer does
Story producers work closely with editors, who spend less time worrying about the story and more time scoring with music cues, fixing “jump cuts” for continuity and adding graphics like lower thirds and sometimes title sequences.
Editors take your raw pulls for the scene and turn it into exactly what you see on TV. (However, the best editors are also adept at story, so the entire process is pretty collaborative. )
One of the most rewarding shows I got to post produce on was Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team, a series that has aired on CMT since 2006. In its 13th season, our team of producers and editors delivered the highest-rated season of the show when it aired last summer.
A key component in what made that show so great to work on for me was having a deal with Viacom (CMT is owned by Viacom) and being able to use licensed pop music within our episodes.
I oversaw episode 1304, which saw the cheerleaders travel to the Bahamas to shoot their annual swimsuit calendar. Cutting together each photo shoot with music from Janelle Monae, En Vogue, The Breeders and many other pop/rock groups was my childhood fantasy actualized.
Most reality shows either create their own score (Survivor) or, much more commonly, use generic unlicensed libraries, which leads to many repeated cues across completely different series. (Over the years, I’ve personally noticed that CBS’ Big Brother has shared a lot of cues with other reality shows, and often repeats many of its own generic cues—sometimes even within the same episode.)
Some shows use unlicensed libraries, but have editors that pick the right cues to help make the show “feel” like the music is its own (America’s Next Top Model was all unlicensed cues, but focused on an R&B-themed tone, which helped make the show itself more stylized. The early seasons of The Apprentice did the same thing, except with a jazz focus.)
Fixing and/or changing reality in post production
While the addition of music and graphics can ramp up the fun of any show, the omission of behind-the-scenes details is what I find to be the most frustrating thing about reality TV.
In the world of the Internet, where anyone can go on Google or YouTube and type in “reality show secrets” or “reality TV is not real” and find hundreds of articles and websites, audiences have become wise to many of the once-sacred production tactics that can been used to alter how an event may have otherwise occurred—many of these taking place in post production.
Did that one girl just say “fustrated” and not “frustrated?” Worried the audience won’t follow a specific story beat? Post can easily fix that problem. These small corrections are often made to help the audience understand what is going on vs. to deceive them.
Sometimes, the field producers, who are on set and film with the cast regularly, will do a poor job of producing a story, so post will have to do their best to make it work.
Sometimes, the field producers will be great at what they do, but the cast will prove too difficult to work with. Or maybe the cast is just too boring.
When you see people on reality shows giving OTF (on-the-fly) interviews, and they maybe seem too excited for what they are talking about, it’s likely because a field producer coached them to have “BIG energy” when they speak to camera.
Big Brother producers now routinely “re-format” what their house guests say by interviewing them, and then having them say specific lines based on what was learned from the interview.
That’s why modern Big Brother houseguests often sound like they are reciting or reading lines, or why they sound totally different in the Diary Room than they do outside of it.
So much of what makes any series great depends on the kind of effort put into making it: the details.
There are a lot of people who work in reality that would rather be working in scripted, so their enthusiasm towards working on an unscripted show can be underwhelming. Some people who make reality TV don’t watch it, which sometimes lead to a lack of interest/creativity.
I’ve worked with editors who hate reality TV, but have respected my excitement and worked hard to help make my ideas become reality. It would be silly to say that everyone who works in reality should respect it, but there is such a negative connotation associated that it leads to some producers flat out not caring and being downright lazy.
But one major element that many who have not worked in the industry are unaware of is the ability of any primetime or cable network to dictate what occurs on their shows, whether what they want to see actually happened or not.
Before each episode airs, it must be screened by the network executives who in charge of that episode’s series. Some networks are very easy to work with and genuinely give thoughtful notes that will end up improving the episode overall.
But, as one might expect, there are some network executives who want their reality programs to feel like a scripted program, and will not be satisfied with letting things play out more naturally. Networks can go as far as requesting specific beats/scenes that would have otherwise never happened. Many of these pick-up scenes come across as feeling fake, mostly because they are.
In some cases, pick-up scenes are requested by post because the field may have missed something that is essential to telling a specific story. Again, much of what post production does to a show is not meant to deceive, but more to help the audience understand what is happening.
As a reality TV purist, I’d rather piece together a shitty story in my mind than watch an obviously-faked scene that does it for me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
While being a story producer means having a lot of control, the network will always have the last say. No matter how passionate your reasoning for doing something, if the network doesn’t like it, they will not air it. Period. With any industry, there is an ugly business/branding side to it that can ultimately ruin some shows before they get off the ground.
In a nutshell, the positives of working as a post producer in the world of unscripted television far outweigh the negatives.
If you like what you do, and are creative about doing it, there are literally hundreds of different ways to put the same exact episode of television together.
Post production for scripted shows is much closer to a paint-by-number experience, and therefore, offers less opportunity to be creative in how a story is told.
The best and worst thing that I’ve come to learn about reality TV is that each and every one of the thousands of shows that have been made over the years are all completely different. When you have a different cast, a different field crew, a different editing team, different behind-the-scenes drama, all of these things can affect the outcome. It’s fascinating and frustrating all at once.
The number one question I always have to answer when people learn that I am a post producer of reality TV is, “Is reality TV really real?”
And the number one answer I give is: “it depends.”