Victor Plank Harms is a television producer based in New York City. In this edition of The Confessional, he writes about a career that’s included producing reality TV shows in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Greenland, Scandinavia, Holland, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere, and the differences and similarities he’s seen in the genre.
Unscripted television is a global phenomenon. The genre is a multibillion-dollar industry reaching more than 90 percent of the population weekly in the US and is exported to countries worldwide. The famed American favorite Who Wants to be a Millionaire? saw adaptations in 100 countries worldwide including audiences in Afghanistan, China, and Uruguay.
Reality television can be entertaining, eye-opening, addictive, political, exotic, and educational. The best reality shows consist of all of these attributes—and the producers, developing, writing, filming, and editing the shows, are integral to this process.
Having worked in television for over a decade, I’ve come to realize the power and political importance of reality television. As my skillset was developed while working as a Scandinavian reality producer and documentary filmmaker, I can observe the similarities and differences between global media productions, and understand what is unique about each approach.
Working on major American TV shows has augmented this experience because it has provided me with a unique understanding of how different countries approach creating reality TV.
Producing reality TV for public TV
I started my career in Denmark, where there is strong tradition of public service programming, funded by The Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR). The content on DR is similar to the BBC in the UK and the CBC in Canada.
The public service television tradition in Europe—especially in Scandinavia—has pushed European reality programming toward a more factual entertainment–inspired genre, which has also inspired reality programming in the US. The show Married at First Sight, for instance, was originally created by a Danish a production company and greenlit by a Danish government-funded channel, and has been adapted in more than 20 countries.
There is a lot of loud and dramatic reality programming in Denmark, but there is also more money for public media in general. Compared to the US where most reality television is funded privately, this naturally affects the programming.
Having personally developed, casted, and produced the documentary series The Young Greenlanders for The Danish Broadcasting Corporation, I was able to see the benefits of publicly funded media productions. The documentary focuses on the young generation in Greenland fighting to break down prejudices about the Greenlandic society, which struggles with the highest suicide rate in the world, domestic violence, drug addiction, and sexual abuse.
Greenland is the world’s biggest island and a remote territory of Denmark. It seemed obvious to go to Greenland to discovery new stories that could grow into a successful TV format. I developed the show with a colleague on a field trip to Greenland facilitated by a major Danish production company (Mastiff TV, a branch of Banijay).
In our initial research we met a ton of fantastic young Greenlanders that helped us navigate the nature and the capital of Nuuk when we first arrived in the country. We realized these amazing, ambitious and driven people are our show. They go hunting in the snowy mountains and ice fishing while still balancing an urban lifestyle in the capital of Greenland.
We pitched the show and it was commissioned by the biggest channel in Denmark (DR1). We felt the need to produce the series since most people have a misconception of what Greenlanders are like due to the country’s history with social issues.
The series ended up portraying the Inuit lifestyle in Greenland today, and the cast showed us so many spectacular places in Greenland that I would never have been able to find by myself. The nature is rough by stunning. It was difficult to produce the outdoor interviews, but again, the Greenlanders showed us the best places for the purpose.
It takes time for people to unlearn prejudices, but in close collaboration with the Greenlanders we made a contribution that was successful in changing the way some Danish people look at the Greenlanders. The series is another great example of what public reality television looks like in Denmark: entertaining and educational at the same time.
Interrupting reality to make sure TV doesn’t cause harm
In addition to becoming familiar with documentary production, I also worked on TV shows that were more entertainment-based. At the beginning of my career, I worked as a producer on Scandinavia’s biggest dating show Paradise Hotel Denmark.
As a producer one has to be aware of the responsibility that comes with creating content that may influence the way people see certain window of society—especially when producing shows that target a younger demographic.
For example, as a producer I’m very aware of the language the contestants use towards each other when discussions get intense. There is a whole generation sitting in front of the screen copying the reality contestants’ language. Reality contestants are role models to some people and producers have to be aware of that.
This is especially important when you are producing content for the younger generation. I remember how my friends in high school used to replicate the language and jokes from the show. I remember watching Paradise Hotel when I was a teenager thinking, Wow, the people that produce those shows have the best job in the world!
Six years later, I was running the show. The American version of this format premiered on FOX in 2003 and for some reason the show only lasted for two seasons on American television (plus a recent reboot of the show), but the Danish adaptation spiked the network’s ratings. Today more than 16 seasons of Paradise Hotel Denmark have aired on TV3 Denmark and Viaplay, and the format has also been successful in Sweden and Norway. Seeing it succeed in different countries gave me a sense of how a specific format can influence different cultures in varied ways.
Editing Impractical Jokers in the studio
Most recently, I was post producer on Impractical Jokers: After Party, a series created for truTV.
Impractical Jokers follows the four life-long friends—Brian ‘Q’ Quinn, James ‘Murr’ Murray, Joe Gatto, and Sal Vulcano— who challenge each other to awkward and outrageous hidden-camera high jinks. Its spinoff, Impractical Jokers: After Party, hosted by ‘NSYNC’s Joey Fatone, features an analysis of some of the series’ best challenges.
Working as a post producer on After Party in particular has been a very refreshing experience since post producing a studio-based comedy show is a little different from working on documentary series.
Filming in front of a live studio audience creates an energy that I, as a post producer, don’t see when I am working on docu-style series. When you produce a studio-based show you have to follow certain rules while editing—cutting between the cameras, audience applause, timing laughs, etc.—but despite the formatted nature of the clip-style show, it’s actually a really playful format, mostly because you never know what happens when you put the Jokers in the studio together.
Having grown up in Denmark, a country with a population smaller than 6 million, it’s remarkable to produce a show that entertains millions of viewers globally.
The scope of viewership is something that I wasn’t used to at first, but I’ve come to realize that it allows for a slightly different orientation toward production—one that is more aware of the vast variety and volume of the audience.
I love working in the US because the American population is more than 300 million. The opportunities in the American TV industry are endless. For example, Impractical Jokers is a popular series, and has been airing on truTV for almost a decade, but despite its success, the Jokers continue to prank strangers in public without constantly being recognized.
The budgets are also bigger in the US compared to non-English speaking countries, which allows producers to dream big.
It’s really interesting to consider reality television from the perspective of media studies because the genre seems to be defined by what country it is produced in. How one might define reality TV in America might not be the same as in other countries.
In the US, reality television is a broad term that embodies pretty much everything that is unscripted and entertaining, yet at the same time includes factual docuseries. In Scandinavia, reality television refers mainly to constructed formats that follow the established format of shows like Survivor or Big Brother.
‘Storytelling is universal’
When I made the move to the US to work for Emmy-winning companies such as ITV America, I think it was beneficial to have worked on internationally acclaimed formats such as Paradise Hotel, Ex on the Beach, 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy (a ratings hit in the UK), and other shows that have earned a distinguished reputation globally.
The TV industry is, just like New York City, very diverse and open-minded place to be as a foreigner, and I’ve come to realize how advantageous it is to be familiar with a foreign market—especially when it comes to developing and pitching new formats, which is also one of my favorite things to do when I’m not producing series or specials.
As a multilingual television addict, I follow the trends in unscripted television in North America and Europe rigorously. My knowledge of unscripted programming comes in handy when I’m brainstorm new show ideas with my colleagues. Especially because American broadcasters are always looking for the next big hit, and a European niche format might be the next big format for a major network.
The American market is constantly exporting formats to the rest of the world and vice versa. Over the years I have become an expert in converting and reformatting foreign formats to the American and European market. Having grown up watching American TV shows, and having worked as a field producer traveling across all continents (except Australia), the transfer from the European industry to US industry has actually been quite seamless.
My North American career began in Canada where I worked as an intern for Investigation Discovery, TVO, and CBC while studying at Ryerson School of Radio & Television in Toronto. As an intern I did a lot of development work for American broadcasters, which taught me to think as a developer.
From this experience, I’ve developed a mind for story producing, constantly on the lookout for new ideas and characters suitable for television. Back in Europe, I started working for companies such as Warner Bros. International TV Production and the world’s largest content creating group, Banijay.
For the past decade the international experience I have acquired while working internationally has made me realize that storytelling is universal. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. I think that’s one of the benefits of working in this industry; you can work anywhere in the world as long as there is a story to follow.
I also love working in unscripted television because there are so many different positions on a production that you can tackle. Some of my colleagues love to stick to one aspect of production on the same show for years, but I like the combination of developing, directing, shooting and editing a variety of TV shows within all genres. Unscripted TV is a small world. I really appreciate that I get to work with the same amazing people on different shows time after time. I can’t wait to start producing the shows I have lined up in the future.
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