The reality of reality is that the genre may be the most often overlooked option when it comes to careers in storytelling. While the debate about whether or not reality television is “written” rages on, the real skinny is that story is story, and story is written - sort of.
Pause for a moment to consider host copy, interview content and carefully structured stories that can span the length of a single episode to the full duration of a series. Life doesn’t just tumble through a lens and spill out the other side of a cable as a series of engaging stories any more than a potato left to its own devices is likely to magically transform itself into potato salad.
Is reality television easier to make than traditionally scripted television? No. Is it a great place for auteurs? No way. But if you’ve got a killer instinct for story and the thick skin to survive the genre’s quick turnarounds and often brutal revision process, your talents could translate to a career in reality television.
Here are five reasons why reality might be worth looking into:
One: Easier access to the ladder
Let’s say you want to write movies, sitcoms or dramas. That involves knocking out killer specs that will hopefully get read somewhere, outperform everything else in the pile and land you some meetings. A screenplay sale doesn’t ensure that you’ll be produced or credited, and staffing opportunities for dramas and sitcoms are limited.
With reality television, you can land an entry-level position as a logger/transcriber, production assistant or even receptionist inside a production company and work your way up from within by interacting with the story department as often as you can, learning as you go while gunning for an entry-level story gig. It’s the closest thing reality television offers to an apprenticeship, and it’s how I went from being an unemployed screenwriter to a working story producer inside of my first year in Los Angeles.
Of the entry-level reality gigs mentioned above, I most highly recommend logging and transcription work. Reviewing and noting source footage for future reference by the story department is an excellent way to gain insight into the ways source material is eventually whittled into an end product.
If you don’t think you’ll need to call everything you know about character, story and structure into play once you’ve moved into story, you’re mistaken. Most reality shows are heavily formatted, and hour-long docusoaps usually hang on a five or six-act structure that requires you to do pretty much everything a drama or comedy writer does, except backwards and in heels.
Two: You still get to create great characters
Screenplay gurus advise you to develop as much biographical information and background detail about your characters as possible before starting a screenplay, but how does that process translate into working with living, breathing people?
Engaging characters in reality television, just as in traditionally scripted content, have backstories, opinions and motivations for their actions, and it’s up to you to ensure that they relate that information to the audience. This is accomplished through carefully composed interview questions or by placing cast in situations where conversation or action will reveal what you want the audience to know.
You must be aware of what’s at risk for someone personally, what her “stakes” are, to invest in them. If a participant wants to win fifty thousand dollars, what differentiates her from anyone else on the show who’s out for a big payday? If she’s a single mom who needs that money to go back to school, she becomes a real person that we can identify with.
One word of caution: As much as good stories need their heroes and villains, don’t force participants into those roles. As J. D. Roth, Executive Producer of The Biggest Loser, says, “Everyone has this concept […] that you can make a good person on a reality show look bad and you can make a bad person look good - that's impossible. You can only make a bad person look worse and a good person look better. And anyone who thinks that it's different, doesn't know how to make a reality show.”
Three: You still get to outline your stories
The notion that cameras merely follow in the world of reality television is pure myth. Want your characters to leave their home? Locations have to be cleared. Want them to talk with someone? That person will need to sign a release.
Does that mean you’ll be doing all of your outlining before shooting starts? No. But story beats that you can later hammer into a structure need to be devised long before tape rolls. Pleasant surprises along the way may provide for some great moments — but even from the inception, you should be thinking in terms of an outline.
While some shows may allow you to shuffle timelines and reorganize your story beats now and again, others are so heavily formatted that your outline’s practically written for you before you begin. An example I often refer to is the average basic-cable home improvement show, which usually comes together like this:
- “Tonight On” tease
- Opening Title Sequence
- Introduction of the Host and Designer/Contractor
- Introduction of the Location, Homeowner and Project
- Commencement of Work
- Introduction of First Hurdle to the Project
- Overcoming of the First Hurdle
- Introduction of Second (Larger) Hurdle to the Project
- Overcoming of the Second Hurdle
- Completion of Project
- Review of Project
See what I mean?
Just remember -- no matter how much content gets swapped around, trimmed, or re-edited, the end result must comply with the one overarching, undeniable rule of Reality TV: The integrity and perceived authenticity of story cannot be compromised.
Four: You still get to put words in people’s mouths
While reality television’s host copy usually lacks the poetic oomph of, say, Morgan Freeman’s narration in The Shawshank Redemption, there’s still plenty of room to get creative with narration and interview content.
Ever notice how much interview and voiceover drive the story along in reality shows? A little gab throughout helps you to interpret actions that might be confusing without a little explanation, but moreover, it’s that interview content and host copy that tells you how you should feel about what you’re looking at.
For example… you’re working on a weight loss program, and one of the first scenes is of a character inventorying the food items in her home as she peers into a refrigerator full of takeout leftovers and comfort foods. Think about how much differently you’d react to hearing the host deliver each of these lines over that image:
- “Judy’s excited to take on the challenge of losing fifty pounds. The first step? Clearing her refrigerator of unhealthy snacks and convenience foods.”
- “Judy knows that the contents of her refrigerator are making her fat, but she’s reluctant to give up her familiar comfort foods.”
- “Judy is overwhelmed from the start, feeling hopeless as she peers into a refrigerator full of terrible choices. Frustrated, she’s already thinking about dropping out of the competition.”
It’s also acceptable to ask your cast for specific interview content to help set up scenes. If “Judy” meets up with “Jill” to discuss a secret alliance, you might need a fairly specific interview bite to set the scene, like, “If I’m going to win this thing, I have to find someone who works as hard as I do… and I’m thinking right now that Jill is my best option.”
As I said earlier, integrity is important. If you need host copy or specific interview content to support your existing scenework, that’s one thing – but using it to create situations that never happened or take things out of context for dramatic purposes is another. It could cost you the trust of your viewers as well as your cast, neither of which are expendable.
Five: Year-round employment opportunities
Bringing up the tail end of the list is my personal favorite: year-round employment opportunities. If the annual staffing season (May/June) leaves sitcom or drama writers without chairs when the music stops playing, they might find themselves looking at up to a year without another gig. You, you lucky reality writer/story producer you, have the entire year to look for work.
Reality shows often run two or more seasons per year, and you’re as likely to find a gig in October as you are in July. Just about any time is a good time to be on the hunt in reality television, though December can be a bit slow as little starts up before the holidays.
Once you’ve done a few shows and your contact list has grown, you could conceivably work just about as often as you like.
Side effects of a reality television career include honing your sense of structure and forcing your brain to think about story in new, powerfully non-intuitive ways. Good luck!