You’re promised reality. The word is right there: reality TV. But can you really watch any of those shows and think that you’re seeing the same unscripted drama you’ll get in real life? Okay, it’s closer to reality than anything you’re going to see involving a laugh track or actors in unconvincing alien makeup. But there’s a reason reality television shows have directors listed right there in the credits, just like fictional dramas. Even so-called reality needs a little direction.
Spend a little time on a shoot, or watching the raw footage as it comes back before editing, and you’ll soon see how it all works. Here’s a few secrets from the inside about the reality behind reality tv.
– Blocking. You know those dramatic kinds of shots where the contestants are all lined up, waiting to hear who gets eliminated, or has to take the challenge, or gets to eat a live lizard? How about those dramatic shots of our team walking toward camera with determined expressions?
Surely you don’t think those occurred naturally! The director will, in fact, position people, tell them where to walk, what order to be in. They may interrupt the flow of things to pick up a few shots; it’s no wonder the contestants are so tense before hearing what the host has to say, they’ve been standing there ten minutes while the crew shoots B-roll of them waiting at attention. There may even have been a quick rehearsal just to see how it all looks in the viewfinder.
– Sound bites. People just don’t always speak in a way that works well for television. Sometimes we’re not clear, sometimes we don’t come to the point. So when you watch a reality show participant pouring out their heart to the camera at the end of the day, you may not be getting the first words out of their mouth. They might have been steered there by the interviewer, to get things out in one concise, complete sentence.
(How often do real live people use complete sentences?) Similarly, the host may tell his contestant she’s eliminated only once in real life, but of course you need to get those dramatic “It’s time for you to leave” (or whatever) shots for when you come back from commercial and need to recap what just went down. This happens with Hollywood-style precision, complete with “Take 2, action!” He may not even be addressing an actual person when this happens.
– Editing. Well, this one’s obvious, but still. Rest assured that it doesn’t have to be high drama all the time in peoples’ lives, as much as the show wants to get that across. For every high-stakes confrontation, there’s an hour of waiting around and being normal people. You can only pack so much into one episode…
– The scripting process. Just like narrative television, a script is written for reality TV. The difference is that this time the script is written after it’s all shot! Extensive transcripts are prepared of each tape, in a format somewhat resembling a play script, so that a master script of important shots and words can be prepared.
Voiceover narration is written with to fill in the gaps, with the same care taken that a regular TV writer would employ. If you’re familiar with the screenwriter’s organizational tool of putting scenes on cards or Post-Its and shuffling them around on a table or bulletin board or wall, it may amuse you to know that a similar tactic can be used in this arena as well.
The funny thing is, none of this information may be all that new in peoples’ minds. Casual observation of any reality TV show, combined with careful thought about what must be required to get those shots and fit them together, is really all that’s needed, though a peek behind the scenes never hurts. Ultimately there’s nothing wrong with this sort of production planning to make good television; it’s just a matter of the viewer understanding that even ‘reality’ isn’t so real. Drama doesn’t just come from nowhere. That is okay.
Indeed, the participants themselves seem to understand how television is made. “Survivor”, arguably the granddaddy of the modern reality TV blitz, hit in 2000. That’s given the world a lot of time to watch these shows, and now for the first time a generation that’s watched reality TV gets to step in front of the camera. Moments of self-realization may not make it into the final program, but rest assured, the participants are aware.
They get to know the crew, they make small talk about being filmed and doing takes and having to sit for interviews; they even take on a sort of identity as reality TV characters, and will joke about whether or not what they’re doing at the moment is going to be suitably interesting for television, feigning guilt that they’re not being dramatic enough and that people will change the channel.
A little postmodern, perhaps… a certain notion of the machines gaining sentience also comes to mind. “This is so reality TV right now,” moans one contestant on an upcoming cable program, as she attends to a messy chore for a challenge with a camera patiently watching. Yes. Yes, it is.