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How are reality TV soundtracks chosen? Why are songs different on streaming?

How are reality TV soundtracks chosen? Why are songs different on streaming?
A music fan picks out a CD at a record store, a place that used to exist. (Stock photo via Pexels)

The music on old seasons of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team streaming on Paramount+ seems to be swapped out. Before they used a few semi-hit songs over and over; now all the music is bland and often doesn’t fit the situation. Obviously they’re using unlicensed music to save money.

Can you check with the producers to find out details on how music is selected for the show—both first run episodes and streaming? Have they considered making a deal with up and coming musicians, or some other innovative way to secure good music for the show? It would be clever for Paramount+ to produce a songwriting contest, and the prize could be the chance to write songs for shows like DCC: MTT. —Amy

Andy says: Great question, Amy! To find the answer, I turned to reality blurred contributor Eric Reynolds, a reality TV story editor who works on the show and previously wrote about it. His response was so detailed and fascinating I couldn’t just quote from it. So, while this story is under the Ask Andy heading, it’s basically Ask Eric today! Here’s his full response.

First, please thank whoever asked the question for watching the show! And thanks for noticing the most fun/most annoying and tedious aspect of the show: pop music clearance!

Since the very first season of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team in 2006, producers have utilized current & classic licensed pop hits to score the numerous dance routines & other scenes throughout the show.

DCC:MTT airs on CMT—a network owned by Paramount Global, which was previously known as ViacomCBS—which means our clearance coordinator has access to the MTV library, often said to be the world’s largest database of music videos in existence. But access does not always equal ability to use!

Paying for the rights to use a pop song on a reality show is much easier said than done. Different songs cost different dollar amounts based on many different circumstances, but affordability is only one aspect of clearance. If an artist “owns” their music, then we have to go through the artist (or their people) to clear their music.

Post production is on a tight schedule, and we only have a few weeks to do this. If we don’t hear back right away, we have to use another song that we can clear quickly.

Plus, if the artist just flat out says “no,” then it’s a “no.”

But not every artist owns their music; many producers, songwriters and/or record labels are the actual owners of the stuff you hear on the radio.

In my own experiences in requesting music for my episodes, our clearance coordinator has a much easier time when he can work directly with labels and not have to get individual approvals from artists, songwriters, et cetera. (Check out how many individual songwriting credits exist on some pop songs!) 

Also, a good majority of pop songs only allow for 18-month clearance, meaning that after 18 months of the episode premiering, the show would have to pay more for another 18 months of use.

If you know anything about reality show budgets, it’s just not possible for the show to shell out the cash needed to hold onto the pop cues in each of its 16 seasons.

But let’s go back to before my time on the show for a second.

How licensing and clearing music works on DCC:MTT

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team season 14 hopefuls perform a routine
Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team season 14 hopefuls perform a routine. (Photo by CMT)

If you’ve streamed the first or second seasons of MTT on Paramount+, you’ll notice a few licensed pop songs still exist in the cut:

  • Rihanna’s “SOS” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away” during the season-one prelims
  • The Police’s “Everything She Does Is Magic” during season one cameos
  • Jessica Simpson’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” during the season-one final rehearsal
  • Ciara’s “Get Up” during the season-two prelims.

Clearance-wise, these pop songs likely fell under a category that allowed producers to pay a one-time flat fee in order to keep the song in the show permanently (and are likely not owned by their respective artists or songwriters).

Around season three in 2008, MTT became available for purchase on iTunes, meaning fans could purchase digital copies of the episodes after they aired on TV every week.

But remember that 18-month rule? Because the show was now in the digital realm, it became necessary that every episode sold on iTunes was free of pop cues that could not be permanently cleared for use.

Since then, there are two versions of each episode that exist: one with licensed pop songs that are hand-picked by producers and editors that airs on TV, and one with unlicensed Viacom music for streaming.

During my first season on the show (season 13), I loaded up my episodes with as many pop cues as I could afford! I worked on episode 1304, which saw the squad travel to Bimini for that year’s calendar shoot.

The original TV score went something like this:

  • RuPaul’s “Supermodel”
  • Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen”
  • Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel”
  • En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”
  • The Breeders’ “Cannonball”
  • Ashanti’s “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)”
  • Capital Cities’ “Safe And Sound”
  • Len’s “Steal My Sunshine”
  • Modjo’s “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”
  • Alessia Cara’s “Stars”
  • Kesha’s “Timber”

Watching it air on TV in its original form—how I had intended it to sound—was a really special, gratifying feeling. I worked so hard to clear and score, and make it sound good. Going on the forums and seeing a few fans say Music was on point tonight! was and still is so fun for me.

And then the episode hit streaming platforms, every last pop song ripped out and replaced by a hollow, lifeless, inanimate library cue.

I knew it was coming, but it was a sad, sad day.

While I don’t think my decision to use Vanessa Williams’ “Work To Do” during episode 1311 cameos is one that will be noticed by the vast majority of the fans, I can say with confidence that music and the way TV sounds is very important to the overall end product. 

Don’t get me started on MTV’s The Real World, and how the entire first season’s original score has been all but lost forever.

Many fans will never get to experience the scene where Julie, Norman, and Heather go roller-skating in its original form, as the editor’s scored it with CeCe Peniston’s club anthem “Finally.” Since the season was released on DVD, the entire first season’s score was ripped out and replaced with library cues—and of course, this is the version they put on streaming platforms.

Now, to answer a few of your more pointed questions/suggestions: As far as making deals with up and coming musicians, that would be more of a legal decision entirely up to CMT and/or ViacomCBS’s overlords.

This could prove difficult as ViacomCBS would likely want full rights so they could use the music permanently, which would likely screw the artist out of a lot of money/ownership/rights.

Also, because this is a cable show that’s not on a major network, the likelihood of CMT spending the money and going through the legal process of creating a songwriting contest in order to procure original music for the show is very, very slim.

Also, it was Viacom that oversaw the creation of the universally-loathed DCC:MTT theme song—so I’d be genuinely scared to see what kind of music they would go for if they went down this path.

I’m not saying these aren’t great ideas in concept! It’s sadly just all about the bottom line. It’s our job as producers to be as creative as we can within the confines of a corporate structure, which in itself can be limiting beyond belief. 

You may recall an episode during season 15 (in the bubble) that Mickey Guyton, a young female country artist, was featured on the show. There have been a few more country artists that have made appearances. I think this is CMT’s way of featuring “up & coming” artists, but not necessarily dictating how said artist’s music is being used or limiting the artist to writing songs for the show. 

I will say that producers of the show always try to clear as many of the actual songs the squad dances to, with varying degrees of success.

Most notably, during season 15, one of the veterans, Kristin, danced to a Kanye West song for her solo. Her entire performance was an homage to Black Lives Matter, and her dance was highly coordinated to specific elements of the song.

But we couldn’t clear the song—because Kanye West. So, it was replaced by one of our other pop cues. Many of the fans felt that this was done on purpose by the editors in order to make Kristin look bad.

While this was not one of my episodes, I can 100 percent say that the producer and editor who worked on that scene were not trying to make Kristin look bad! They just had to work with what they had.

You’re never going to see the show using music by Kanye West of Beyonce or Jay-Z; most of these major A-list artists own the rights to their music, which makes it much harder to clear.

Ultimately, he TV episodes are the only way to see the episodes in their original form.

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About the author

  • Eric Reynolds

    Eric Reynolds is a post story producer who has worked on a number of unscripted television shows addressing a wide variety of subject matter, who aims to expand the boundaries and capabilities of what is possible in the realm of unscripted television, with a focus in live TV integration and hopes to someday launch a small network in partnership with up-and-coming products/brands that would broadcast programming specifically geared towards ultra-niche audiences. Find him on LinkedIn.

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Friday 25th of February 2022

Thanks for the insight! I work in reality TV in Germany and after reading this I'm so grateful that we don't have to go through all the trouble! There is a central organisation that most artists (99,9% of big artists) join, that manages all licensing and royalties. All TV networks have deals with that organisation that let's us use any music, however we like and all we need to do is give a report what song is used for what duration so the artists get compensated out of the network deal.