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What are the essential elements of a great reality show?

Reality Show Storytelling

Mark Cronin (Founder & Producer) gives expert video advice on: Does reality TV use scripts?; What happens if the stories that emerge during a reality show shoot aren't interesting? and more...

What are the essential elements of a great reality show?

The essential elements of a great reality show are much the same as any great story or entertainment show. It's not ground-breaking information to know that people like a story about characters that they either like or dislike but in some way compel them. Reality shows are about conflict and resolution; characters struggling against something, trying to overcome obstacles, and come out the other side with a success story. People like the classic three act structure. They like being introduced to a problem, and then the problem getting worse in act two, with a big plot twist near the end of act two and a big resolution in act three. It's classic story-telling. The good reality shows follow it exactly the same way, just as good movies, plays and books follow it the same way.

Does reality TV use scripts?

Very little reality television is done without a plan, but it's definitely not a script. You don't know exactly what's going to happen, you don't know exactly what people are going to say, and you will often have to be open to any outcome.

What is a 'soft-scripted' show versus an unscripted show?

There are two kinds of soft scripted shows. Some people call them hybrid shows. One type of soft scripting is the kind that comes from fiction towards reality, and that would be something like The Office, which starts out with fictional characters in a fictional company in a fictional workplace. It moves towards reality in that those people are so absorbed in their characters that they improve some of the scenes and some of the camera work. They know pretty much where it's going, but they improve through this soft scripting. Another one like that is a little closer to reality: Curb Your Enthusiasm. The character Larry David is very similar to the real guy Larry David. That's not really his wife, but she is similar to his real wife, and some of those things didn't happen to him but something very similar to that did happen to him. Some of those things actually did happen to him. It's kind of all mashed up and the soft scripting here improves the show. You get a show that goes from fiction towards reality and it's not like from reality towards fiction. The shows that I do, which are usually competition shows or some kind of social experiment reality shows, start with full on truth. These are not fictional people and it's the true story of what happened in this experiment, but it moves towards fiction. Some things you see that happened first, we don't show happening first, we show them happening second. Sometimes we'll tell the story either in a compressed way or in a more compelling way. What we are basically doing is that we are amping up the truth. We are fictionalizing a little bit the truth of what happened on reality shows. We move into soft scripting in that way. Soft-scripting comes in both directions.

What is a reality show 'set piece'?

When you're producing a reality television show, you don't want to just watch people live their lives in the rawest form, in general. That's boring. So what reality producers do is they have set pieces in which the cast participates in some way. In The Surreal Life, a show I did, a newspaper would come in the morning and tell them what they were going to do that day, and it might be that they had to put on a show for kids in the back yard. All of a sudden, you get, "Who's the director? Who's going to be in charge? Who's a good actress? Who's going to be a bad actress? Who's going to say something inappropriate to the kids?" There are all kinds of turmoil and problems that come from that one little set piece on a reality show. After that, what happens is unpredictable, but the set piece was scheduled weeks in advance. We knew we were going to have them do a backyard play; weeks in advance we located a school that was willing to bring the kids to see the show. We produced it and we sent it in and what happened was the true story of how the reality show cast reacted to that set piece.

How do reality show producers decide which stories to focus on?

When we're producing a reality television show that's a social experiment, we're watching characters interact with each other, get to know each other and overcome the obstacles and set pieces that are being thrown in their way. We have a department of people called the story department that are watching events unfold and following the characters and the friendships and all these little things. While we are shooting the reality show, we start figuring out what the final product is going to look like. Who is going to be the villain? It is obvious; usually you have cast it that way. There is always somebody that nobody is going to like and there is somebody who is the voice of reason or the force of good. Very early on we can figure out what is going to be the story of the reality show. Often it is good versus evil but sometimes it's friends overcoming difficulties with each other. Whatever the story is, we know about it in the field and we go with what is going to be the most compelling; what's going to take us through the most number of episodes, what is going to be interesting to the home audience. It is really a gut feeling all the time in reality television.

What happens if the stories that emerge during a reality show shoot aren't interesting?

If you're a reality television show producer and you're watching your show get recorded, and it's not interesting, it's probably your fault. You either cast poorly - you cast uninteresting people - or you produced poorly - meaning that you didn't set up challenges or conflict or activities that make compelling television. You made some mistakes along the way, possibly; maybe you're halfway through the season and the most interesting people in the whole reality show have been eliminated, and you're looking at a boring show. It's your fault. What to do about it? When things are boring, it's time to have a big meeting, and talk about what we can do to get things going. An example of this can be, "Let's have a birthday party! Send in a birthday cake, and everybody's got to buy the birthday boy a present, and boom! Now we've got a problem." You have to come up with something that causes problems, that starts things up and gets things flying. "Let's make somebody the boss for the day." - That's always good. Putting somebody in charge is always a good method of getting things heated up on a reality television show.