Writing For Reality TV

Reality TV still remains a much maligned source of television by critics and scripted drama aficionados, but adored by audiences and executives. Back in the day when “Big Brother” was the only reality tv show on television, it was criticized for exploiting our voyeuristic tendencies and insatiable appetite for celebrities. It was a place for ordinary people to be extraordinary and expose their lives on television in a bona fide “no holds barred” documentary. Perhaps we have an innate desire to be acknowledged, satisfy our curiosity of how others live and to compare ourselves to other people.

I was never a fan of these shows, often finding them tedious, exhibitionistic and dull. As reality TV matures to higher levels of sophistication, writers are become increasingly hired as story producers. Every good reality TV show (just like any story) requires a premise, a controlling theme and a central conflict. Otherwise it’s a bunch of inconsequential, episodic events. One of the few things that can be controlled in reality is the casting. There needs to be a main character, opposing character and supporting character tussling power leading to a conflict resolution.

By definition, this so called cult of unscripted TV doesn’t need traditional writers due to its unscripted, spontaneous “fly on the wall” nature. To further compound the issue, the stories in reality TV are often cobbled together during editing and post-production. Therein lies the storytelling craft of editing out the boring action and distilling human stories with a real emotion core that resonate with audiences. It’s a reverse-engineered technique based on the raw footage available. No storyboards or retakes here. This process of an evolving, unplanned and organic storytelling holds great appeal, particularly if it is driven by “unplanned” events.

Of course, story producers can do limited story planning before a shoot by combining the elements that could potentially generate a good story, namely drama, conflicts and obstacles to achieving a goal. Consider reality tv shows like “Project Runway”, “The Biggest Loser” and “Survivor”. The common theme is that audiences must invest in and travel with the contests and want the good guys to win. Like all good characters, we must care about them.

The character arcs are fleshed out during and after filming. Audiences are often guided through story black holes (due to absent or technically inferior footage) through voice overs. The term “semi-scripted” refers to these events. Writers, editors and producers must extract measured doses of fighting and peace (aka drama) and deliver a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of each episode, to keep the audience coming back.

It’s the spontaneous, immediate behavior of reality TV show contestants that make them so interesting. Anything which feels rehearsed doesn’t ring true and the audience quickly switches off. Reality TV show contestants have on occasion, been forced into contrived conflicts, but due to their non-acting backgrounds, they sound more like an infomercial. A stimulus may be force fed into a show when little is happening on screen, but ultimately it’s the reactions that fuel audience interest. The key is not to create petty conflicts, but ones relating to human emotions.

I’m still a non-fan of “Big Brother”, but was reduced to tears by “Sex Rehab” on VH-1 Each contestant was psychoanalyzed to unveil their inner conflicts, motivations, desires and root of their sex additions. It was highly engaging drama and deepest exploration of the human condition; storytelling in it’s purest form, around a metaphorical campfire.

Reality TV is not a danger to scripted drama or comedy, it is merely a different form of storytelling. The cultural references are current and human responses are immediate and real. The prizes awarded at the end of these shows (goal) are a bonus. The audience care more about whether the contestants have earned their prize and become better people in the process (metamorphosis). Most reality TV shows display perseverance, focus, resilience, following your goals and coping with setbacks and defeat. Seems like conventional storytelling to me.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a sound, solid distillation of the process. I’ve been in reality television for more than a decade, and this may be the first single blog entry I’ve seen that I’d feel comfortable forwarding to a newbie looking for a snapshot of how reality shows come together.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      glad you enjoyed it. I ran at Writing For Reality TV panel for the Scriptwriters Network recently.

  2. If you’re ever putting together a similar panel in the LA area again, drop me a line. I’ve just released a book on writing and producing reality television through MWP, titled “Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market” and have a few years’ worth of reality television specific content up at http://www.realitytvbook.com.

  3. kim says:

    Hi, since a decade I work for Belgian TV, writing and producing reality TV programs. Recently I lecture the filmschool students about how to write reality-based tv. I discover it is very hard to finda study/book on the basic principles underlying the writing process in reality TV (cliff-hangers, characterbuilding,…) .( you get killed by the amount of books written about scenario writing for film or tv series). Does any of you happen to know a good book/study that I could use in my class? Thank you very much.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      The Show Starter Reality TV Made Simple System: Ten Steps to Creating and Pitching a Sellable Reality Show (Spiral-bound)
      DMA/Donna Michelle Anderson


  4. christy newbill says:

    Dont know if your ready for REAL LIFE reality!

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