Reality Show Production Secrets
Richard Hall (Reality TV Producer) gives expert video advice on: Do reality show producers 'coach' cast members during a shoot?; What happens if a cast member has a breakdown during a reality show shoot?; Are reality show storylines written ahead of time? and more...
Do reality show producers 'coach' cast members during a shoot?
People will ask that all the time. People always ask whether reality show producers put words in people's mouths; do they coach them? A good producer doesn't do that - if a subject is particularly dense or unresponsive, you certainly could have conversation with them. I'm sure that there are producers and there are so many reality shows. There is no policing of ethics or anything like that. I am sure that there are some shows where producers do put words into cast members mouths, with the cast member thinking that will get them more air time or get them a moment that they'll look better, or for whatever reason. You shouldn't have to do it. If the show is correctly cast and correctly planned, those things wouldn't happen anyway.
How do reality show producers generate drama when shooting a scene?
I think the tried and true classic way to get drama to happen on a show, is to let somebody know what somebody said about them behind their backs. It's classic, it never fails. Anytime you put stress on people to make a decision, where their friendship is tested, where a relationship is tested, or where they have to split allegiances and have to cut somebody in and cut somebody out - that is classic. It always works.
What if a reality show scene falls flat?
If something happens where you've set up a situation where it's either too easy, non-dramatic or it's too hard and people just can't do it, the general rule of thumb in reality is that you turn everything into story. If somebody can't do something because maybe it was set up too difficult, or it was just too difficult for them, then it has to be called into question whether not they have what it takes. If something is too easy, throw it out and don't use it, and put something else in. But generally speaking, you can turn pretty much anything into story.
How do reality show producers mold a cast member into a 'character'?
That is another conception about reality TV that people give us way too much credit for, and that is molding characters. First of all, in casting a person, who that person is or is likely to become in certain situations becomes pretty clear. If somebody is going to be self-righteous or obnoxious, we will know it going in and we have every anticipation that they'll be that way when they're on the screen. The molding part I think we're given far too much credit for. A lot of that comes from people saying the producers edited me to look that way. Especially if they don't look good.
How can reality show cast members 'be themselves' with cameras around?
If you're working with people who are civilians, average people, they do forget about the cameras to some extent. You can never not know; you know you're on a set, you know that there are other people standing around getting these reactions. What happens is you stop caring in the sense that you've already kind of jumped in the water. And if the water was cold when you first jumped in, and you went like this for the first few minutes, then you get used to the water. And then you just start being in the water, and I think that is what it's like being around a camera. On the other hand, when I've done a celebrity reality show, like Celebrity Pit Club, Brat, the rapper from Atlanta, made a really great comment to everybody. She said we all know that there are cameras in here, but we're using them for inspiration, this is the pressure for us to lose weight, get in shape, get our act together. They're here more for inspiration than they are to glorify any of us for camera time. So a celebrity reality person is very much aware of the cameras, but they know because they're willing to be honest, because they're willing to expose their frailties or whatever, they're okay with it. The analogy of jumping into the cold pool and getting used to the water is more apt for other people when it comes to camera crews.
What happens if a cast member has a breakdown during a reality show shoot?
In the instances of an emotional breakdown that is actually damaging to the person, some shows require a psychologist on set. For example, The Nanny shows certainly need a psychologist on set. And they need to be able to call a stop to things when they need to be stopped, and they need to go do counsellingwhere required. Not with just the kid of the year; they do it with the grown-ups, too. Again, you have to act responsibly. If somebody is displaying behaviour that reflects a drug or alcohol problem, or something like that, again, it is your obligation to sort of engage about the root-cause of what's going on, and a possible treatment of it. I've had people on my show go into rehab voluntarily, but they had to be talked into it. They had to be made aware of the problem. They had to see themselves acting the way they were acting. Beneath that, emotional breakdowns are really part of the most honest, raw, and captivating moments that you'll ever find in a movie or a reality TV show. You can be moved when you see them, but you're certainly interested in seeing them because, again, when somebody is crying, and they break down, they're not acting. They are working with some real emotions that really give you an insight to that person, and either make you more sympathetic, or more understanding, more connected to them, give you more of a rooting interest in that person, and that is going to bond you to the show.
What do reality show producers look for in a shoot?
The key of any sequencing of any story is the planning of what people are saying, their anticipation when they're in the moment, in the post mortem and, certainly, providing conflict. You can go to any story seminar, the screenwriting story seminars - conflict will usually be in advance of story. And that is true of any entertainment medium. Any. Film, not just reality TV. That is essentially what you look for. However, you need a beginning, middle, and end of every story. You can't just have conflict, and then conflict, and then conflict without having moments in between that explain what people are thinking. You need to find out what precedes the conflict and what the post mortem on the conflict is - you have to have a beginning, middle, and end. That is classic storytelling.
How do reality show producers handle conflict on set?
When you spot conflict, the first thing you want to make sure is that you have the coverage. You want to make sure that you're getting it on camera. Then, the best thing to do is to let the conflict play out on camera. You see them talking about it, it gets heated, you go for the coverage, you let it play out all the way you can and then afterwards you take the participants aside and say "were you surprised?" or "how did you feel?" or "was she being reasonable?" or "Did he have a point?". That is how you build the full arc of that particular story, of that particular conflict.
What is a TV show 'reveal'?
A TV show reveal is when we give out a plot twist that no one, hopefully, was expecting. That is a classic thing - a reveal would be something with a twist, like you now have to switch partners, you now have to pick between these two people, you have to vote some member off your team. Those are the classic TV show reveals, and of course every show has different ones.
What happens if a 'reveal' on a reality show is flubbed?
When you give up a plot twist that no one, hopefully, was expecting. That is the classic thing - a reveal would be something like "You now have to switch partners." "You now have to pick between these two people", or "You have to vote some member off your team". Those are the classic TV show reveals. Of course, every show has different ones.
Are reality show storylines written ahead of time?
Essentially, it is not necessarily writing a story. You are certainly orchestrating your set and your participants to maximum entertainment. but you don't simply go up and say to somebody, I need you to say I'm jealous of Bob. He's a real jerk. But if you know that they feel that way, you can go up to them and say, I haven't heard you talk about Bob, especially in relation to Sarah. What do you think about it? And then they'll probably say, "Bob is a real jerk. I can't stand him." Just think smart. What we're trying to do is serve the viewer, not with something that is like a canned reality, but we're trying to help them understand the progression. We are trying to help them understand what we know about everybody on the set. We can't film everything, but your eye sees way more than the camera. When you look at what the camera has seen, and you don't see the connective tissue, the audience, the last thing you want them to do is be confused with how did the character has gone from emotion A to emotion C? That is what we're doing. We are trying to make sure that the story is all there, and that the camera, which can never be as good as the eye, will often miss things, and so we might go after it again.