Reality TV — the very institution that has saved the medium by delivering high ratings at low cost — has also pretty much defiled the culture in all the obvious ways. What is perhaps less than obvious is how manufactured and unspontaneous it all is. To understand the reality behind the unreality of reality TV, we spoke to a former producer of such fare. The anonymous producer tells Bob about some of the elaborate staging and scripting he participated in while helping produce these shows.
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[TV SOUNDTRACK/UP AND UNDER]
As Alan Sepinwall just said, in our era there are two kinds of TV, the really great stuff and - the rest of it. Let’s dwell for a moment on the rest of it. Reality TV, the very institution that has saved the medium, by delivering relatively high ratings at low cost, has also pretty much defiled the culture in all the obvious ways. What is perhaps less obvious is how manufactured and unspontaneous it all is. To understand the reality behind the unreality of reality TV, we spoke to a former producer of such fare. Alas, because he has signed ironclad confidentiality agreements, we could only speak to him under the condition that we not identify him or the shows he worked on. He says that many people outside of the industry simply do not understand how unreal reality TV is.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: When I talk to people at parties, I always tell them like, look, I’m gonna tell you something that may shock you for like half a second and then it will make total sense: Reality television, it’s really all fake. You know, like yeah, yeah, we can tell it’s fake.
And I’m like, no –
BOB GARFIELD: No, no, it’s really all fake.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Fake. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: How fake, and how long did it take you to figure that out?
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: I was working my first day on the show and I was in the backseat of a rental car, and the driver and the guy in the passenger seat were both story producers for the show. And I thought, well, what a cool job. And I told them like, look, I, I usually do, you know, journalism and documentary work and actually I'm super curious to work for a reality TV show. I wonder like how much of it is documentary and how much of it is theater. And they both started [LAUGHS] laughing, and they turned back to me and they’re like, “We’re story producers, this is all entertainment.”
And they’re like, okay, this family that we are shooting we actually cut two of the family members out because, you know, they weren’t entertaining. And I found out they’ve changed people's names. If you're watching a reality TV show and you looking around the room, maybe it's one of the shop shows, underneath the shop counter where they’re, they’re making their transaction, the director is squatting down –
BOB GARFIELD: What?
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: - whispering things into a little microphone. I kid you not.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait – wait, wait, wait, wait. [LAUGHS]
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: And he actually is – he’s shouting things –
BOB GARFIELD: No!
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: - “Cut, try that again but look like this is a really hard decision,” and then they’ll take another shot. And then they’ll say, that's great, let's get that but we’ll do it in a close-up.
BOB GARFIELD: I, I think probably figured out long ago that the producers encouraged conflict between characters or contestants, or whatever they are, but are, are you saying that they’re actually intervening second by second in the taping of these shows?
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Oh yes. I mean, we give them a - script. It's a loose script but it's a script. Everyone gets one in the morning. When you show up, you get the wardrobe ready, you make sure everyone who's gonna be on camera that day is prepared with what's gonna be shot that day. They need to understand the conflict that you are introducing or they’re resolving in this scene. And then you kind of coach them.
Like I realized that these directors, they’re one part little league coach and like encouraging things [LAUGHS] and then providing a little discipline when need be, and then one part amateur acting coaches, where they're saying, you know, look off into the distance when you say this or, could you actually stand closer and maybe look down? It, it really projects the anger that you're feeling a lot better.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s this show called Storage Wars that you did not yourself work on but you had friends work on.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Right, right.
BOB GARFIELD:Storage Wars is based on this little cottage industry of people buying essentially unclaimed storage material from these large-scale storage sites, right?
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: They, sight unseen, buy the contents of someone's bin and, you know, either they hit the jackpot or they don’t.
[STORAGE WARS CLIP]:
ACTOR: Welcome to some 1930s original pen and ink Picassos. This was a very rare find. I paid $600 for that locker that those Picassos were in, and they’re gonna be anywhere from 8,000 to $12,000 dollars apiece.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: My friend’s job for this show was to get word from his boss in production of what antiques needed to be purchased. He would go out to antique shops and to other places and he would find whatever the executive producers wanted him to find or the, you know, closest thing to it. Or sometimes they would mail him stuff. Then he would go into the storage unit, he would put it in there. He would show a picture of it to the – you know, let’s call them what they are – “the actor” who is going in to the storage bin to look for a valuable thing. And he would say, oh, look for this thing, just try and find this thing. And so, he would pretend to be very surprised and pretend to say, I think this might be worth something, and then they would bring it to appraisers, which were not always or even often actual appraisers. And knowing that ruins the excitement of the show.
BOB GARFIELD: As absolute fraud often does.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Right but it’s TV and people, they always say this excuse like, “It’s TV, I watch it for entertainment. I’ve had a hard day, I’m looking to relax.” And I think the – yeah, that’s – I don’t want to rob anyone of that.
BOB GARFIELD: So in the fifties, the big programming fad was quiz shows and then it came out that quiz shows were rigged, and it was such a scandal. It, it ended up being the subject of congressional hearings.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: So does this rise to the level of the fifties quiz show scandals?
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: No, I don't think so. When you’re gonna park yourself in front of your television, I think you’ve just got to choose like do you really want to be putting that kind of entertainment into you, and do you really want to be supporting the production of more shows like that? Like, no one who I worked with at this reality TV show wanted to work for this reality TV show. It just seemed like we’re doing this because it's how you make money. I mean, I don’t know if viewers stop supporting these kinds of shows, those talented people would get a chance to use their skills for something that I think would be ultimately just a lot better storytelling.
Maybe it's idealistic but entertainment isn't just to tune off. I think that people want to be told a story. They want to see a story come to life in front of them.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, mystery interviewee, thank you very much.
ANONYMOUS PRODUCER: Well, I’m glad I could, could share these stories outside of a bar.
BOB GARFIELD: Our mystery interviewee is a veteran of reality TV. He has since left for greener pastures.
[STORAGE WARS CLIP]:
ANNOUNCER: Self-storage, over two billion square feet of space in the U.S. alone, enough room to house every man, woman and child seven times over. Behind these doors - are some of the world’s best-kept treasures. But when storage bills go unpaid, the contents within are put up for auction.