As much as reality TV producers might want you to believe that everything you’re seeing is off-the-cuff and spontaneous, the fact of the matter is that a lot of thought and planning goes into showing us this version of “reality”. There are numerous professionals, across a number of departments, working tirelessly to provide you with a TV show that is at once true to life and the people onscreen, but also entertaining. After all, no one wants to see two people getting along for half an hour!
Let’s look at how Reality TV sausage is made. Looking at four distinct stages in the production of a reality TV show – pre-production, casting, production, and the editing room – this article will take you behind the scenes of a typical reality TV set.
Something to note at the top of the article: this description applies more to conventional reality shows, and not the strictly competitive shows like America’s Got Talent or Jeopardy.
Whether you want to find out how to work for MTV or you’re simply curious about how your favorite shows are made, this article will hopefully answer a few burning questions.
This is where a lot of the show comes together. Shows like Survivor or Big Brother rely on lavish set pieces and thrilling competitions, each of which needs to be designed, built and ready for the camera. Games producers, set designers and construction crews convene to create the competitions.
On the story end, writers and producers come together to hash out a layout for the season. What wrenches will they throw in the way of competitors, what themes will they cover and what are certain story points they want to see. In the case of the latter, this is easier with shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, where the onscreen talent is involved throughout the production process.
While shows like Survivor and Big Brother have open audition casting calls, casting producers generally also keep a few people in mind that they want to see on the show. That’s not to say they aren’t open to being wowed by people who come to open casting; they just need an ace up their sleeve in case they don’t find what they’re looking for.
The degree of what’s called “producer intervention” varies according to the show. Producer intervention is when a producer steps in to guide the course of the show. In pure “reality” shows, the producers intervene very little – only in cases of emergency. In other shows (cough, Real Housewives, cough) producers will often intervene between takes to steer the course of the narrative. They might pull aside a certain person and say, “you need to get mad at her for what she did” and then roll the cameras again.
The Editing Room
Finally, there’s the editing room. This is where the narratives really come together. You’ll often hear reality show contestants complain that they “got a bad edit”. Essentially, with enough footage, you can cut together a narrative that makes anyone look a villain. Just select the worst reactions, add some ominous music, and you’ve got yourself a bad guy.
But this is also the part in the process where season-long arcs get told. Sitting down with a story producer, the editor will cut together hours of raw footage into a cohesive, compelling story.
This is a good rundown of how a reality TV show gets made from beginning to end. Then, it’s up to you – the viewer – to decide if what you’re seeing is really real.