So, let’s be honest. We all know that reality TV isn’t really, well, real. Even if the people we see on the screen are real people rather than actors, and even if they aren’t given a script to read from, we all understand by now that what we see isn’t necessarily the truth of what went on. Enough reality stars have now complained about their words being misused or their character being misrepresented that we can understand there’s a bit of leeway when it comes to the term ‘reality’.
What you may not realize is exactly how far producers are willing to go in order to make the show as dramatic as possible. After all, more drama means higher ratings, right? You want to see something going down on the show, and if it doesn’t, then you might be bored enough to not bother tuning in for the next episode. But there are times when what happens isn’t as interesting as it looks. So, what can they do then?
There are a number of tricks of the trade which are used to create drama where there was none in real life. You might know a few of them already, but you certainly won’t be expecting them all. You’ll be amazed at just how much you see on the screen is totally made up – and once you know the techniques, you might just spot them in a few of your favourite shows from now on. This is how producers make reality TV shows as dramatic as possible.
15. Bringing In Extra Cast Members
When a reality TV show airs, normally we all get to know the cast members fairly early on. If it’s a competition, there may be a few who leave early that you never really get to meet properly. If it’s simply a drama, then you will have a core cast who the camera crew stick with for the duration of the show. However, it might not just be the people in the final edit who took part in filming. Many shows hire extra cast members, only to leave them on the cutting room floor if they don’t perform as expected. “If somebody just doesn’t deliver, they just begin naturally to fade because the edit bay, honestly, is a meritocracy,” says Sean Dash, a reality TV producer. “The best characters win out and the best stories win out. People who don’t deliver just end up on the cutting-room floor.”
14. They Expect Cast Members To Play A Role
Another thing that producers are guilty of is asking cast members to change their whole personality in order to fit on the show better. One producer recounts what happened when a villain on the show turned out to be a really nice person, and kept letting that show through: “Listen, you were cast in this role. If you want to make good TV, if you want the series to come back and make more money next year, then you need to play along. If you don’t, you’re going to be cut out entirely.” The idea is that contestants are told they need to be a certain way, and if they don’t play along, they don’t get to stay on the show. With that ultimatum, a lot of people will play to type. It’s better to get five minutes of fame and some money than go home empty-handed except for your morals, right?
13. They Film Everything To Create Storylines
A great way to create a situation where you can pick and choose storylines is to film literally everything. On The Biggest Loser, producers have eleven cameras trained on the contestants for eight hours a day, which means 88 hours of footage altogether – and that was filmed seven days a week, so to create that one hour episode, they had almost unlimited scenes to choose from. When you have a lot of footage compiled, you can move it around and use it to make whatever kind of storyline you like. If a show seems to focus on individual cast members or contestants, that probably means that they are shooting a large amount of footage, which makes it much easier for them to chop and change the timelines. That probably means that they will. Cutting down 616 hours into one hour means the producers are in charge of how the story is presented in a very real way.
12. They Add In Extra Beeps
You know when someone on a reality TV show is hardcore when their speech is smattered with bleeping noises, designed to cover the use of swearwords. This often happens in times of confrontation, when they get angry and start yelling at other people. As a producer, though, you might start to worry that the dialogue your cast members are producing isn’t quite interesting enough. Maybe they don’t sound angry enough, or they stuttered a few times, or they were just talking normally without expletives. Well, that’s fine – you can easily liven it up just by throwing a few more beeps in there. No one has to know that you’re just covering normal words up to make the conversation sound more exciting than it really is. This technique has been used in Duck Dynasty, amongst many others. Next time, look closely at the lips of the person being beeped out – if you even can.
11. They Ask Cast Members To Recreate Events
When something happens that the camera didn’t witness, producers might decide that they want the cast members to act it out again. They will try to be accurate to what actually happened, but the reality is that it’s a staged conversation or outburst, and people may change their wording or their reactions to improve their public persona. “There are going to be times when great things happen that we weren’t present for, but it affects how the cast feels and it affects how they operate going forward,” says Rahel Tennione, a producer who has worked on shows like Real Housewives. “Sometimes, you have to do a pickup interview where you explain this is what happened. It’s very natural and very normal, and I think shows that can afford it, do it. Is it the ideal and best way to do things? No, it isn’t, because we’re humans and not robots and very few shows run 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week surveillance.”
10. They Manipulate Emotions By Lying
One of the producers of The Bachelor admitted that she would lie to the contestants in order to make them cry on camera. “The night they were going to get dumped, I would go to the hotel room where they were staying and say, ‘I’m going to lose my job for telling you this, but he’s going to pick you—he’s going to propose’” Sarah Gertrude Shapiro says. After they were dumped, she would join them in the limousine and deliberately squirt something acidic into her eyes to make herself cry in ‘sympathy’, while playing the love song that had been chosen for the contestant. “I’d have arranged with the driver to have the song play just until I got a shot of her crying—then cut the music so I could start the interview,” Shapiro explained. “They’d often tell us to drive up and down the 405 until the girls cried—and not to come home if we didn’t get tears, because we’d be fired.”
9. They Create Conversations From Scratch
Don’t have a clip of a character saying what you need them to say for dramatic purposes? No problem – just take lots of clips and stitch them together until it sounds like they are saying it. This is common enough in the industry to have been given a name: frankenbiting. One of the most common signs of this happening is when a person starts talking on-camera, but then the shot cuts away and they are left speaking over the top of it. This will allow the producers to cut together soundbites that wouldn’t look right if you were still watching the person talking. This can be used to make someone sound more hurt than they were, more angry than they were, or even change the meaning of their words entirely. One Survivor contestant complained that when he spoke up to criticize another cast member, his words in the final edit were changed so that it sounded like he was supporting that person. It’s easy to create heroes and villains using frankenbiting.
8. They Encourage The Storylines They Want
If a certain storyline would be more dramatic – such as a couple of cast members breaking out into an argument – the producers will try to subtly influence them into taking things in that direction, without giving them direct instructions. “I like to be like an assassin. I’ll try to subtly get the story way before the scene,” says an anonymous producer. “I’ll put it into their heads so they think about it organically. I’ll trick them. Basically, I’ll sort of give them story beats a couple days in advance or remind them what’s happening in real life and what we want to see in a subtle way, so they don’t know I’m doing it.” Sean Dash agrees. “You simply prompt them and you say, ‘Hey, so-and-so, I know you feel this way, tell him about that,'” he says. “In a weird way, you’re doing on-camera therapy, but all you’re actually doing is bringing out the tension that exists between these two people and letting them talk it out.”
7. They Get Contestants Drunk
If your cast members are a bit too boring, there’s a good way to liven things up: get them drunk! They will be more likely to speak their minds, funnier on camera, and just might end up making a fool of themselves for your show. Win-win, right? “It’s how they get you to be more talkative, more sensitive,” says former The Bachelor contestant Leslie Hughes about the house’s large supply of alcohol. “When I came in for the producers’ weekend, I remember it was like 12 noon, and they were like, ‘You want some champagne, wine?’ And I was like, ‘It’s 12 p.m., noon!’ And they’re like, ‘Welcome to the Bachelor family.’” Contestants were then encouraged to drink as much as possible when filming scenes, with champagne, wine, beer, and spirits always on tap. No wonder everyone is emotional enough to burst into tears at any moment.
6. They Place Cast Members Purposefully
You may have noticed that some shows have occasions when cast members get together in a certain setting, where fights often break out. One of the reasons for this is that the producers like to direct people into situations where confrontation is more likely – such as asking two people who hate each other to sit next to each other. This is very prominent in Real Housewives. “A lot of that is prearranged seating,” the anonymous producer said. “You’ll say, ‘When you walk up, you’re going to sit next to him and sit across from her,’ in some cases. Sometimes the whole cast knows where they’re sitting, and sometimes they don’t know. Sometimes just a few know.” By asking certain people to take certain positions, but not informing others of why they are doing it, tensions can easily rise to the surface. Even though they aren’t forcing the argument to break out, this technique can force cast members to bring their grievances forward.
5. They Shoot And Air Scenes In Different Orders
Another way to create drama is to film scenes, and then cut them up to show them in a different order. This can make storylines change hugely, and increase the amount of perceived drama. Keeping Up With the Kardashians is notorious for doing this, and if you’re looking closely, the continuity errors will give it all away. You can also look at the social media posts and appearances of the stars to track what was filmed and when. There are whole blogs dedicated to examining the timeline of this show in particular, but a lot of reality shows out there are guilty of using the same tactic. It’s more interesting to see lots of little things going wrong for the characters at once, and have them looking like they’re headed for a breakdown, than to show the reality of small things happening and being dealt with day by day.
4. They Set Up Fake Scenarios
This is one of those techniques that sounds so cartoonish, you wouldn’t even think that it was possible for it to actually be used. But the truth is that producers often set up entirely fake scenarios just to make good TV. Think about the renovation shows where everything is finished on a shoestring budget and done within 24 hours – they usually have crews working for much longer than that, and spend more too. On House Hunters, producers have been accused of using houses that belonged to friends of cast or crew members that weren’t even on the market. They just need something that looks good to film the episode – it doesn’t matter to them whether it’s true. In other words, if you’re looking for a new house, the best bet is probably to go to a real estate office, not a house hunting reality TV show.
3. They Use Actors And Body Doubles
While you’re watching your favourite contestant on screen, you might not actually be watching them at all. Shows like Survivor, where the shots can often be from a distance, use body doubles for some scenes. They also use those doubles to occasionally recreate scenes, for example to provide a more graceful finish to a challenge for one of the contestants if their filmed ending wasn’t quite right. They also use professional models or actors, called ‘mactors’ in the industry, to fill out the cast members. Why? Because they are more likely to take direction, respond well to the camera, and look good while they are doing it. We think we want to see the average Joe on our screens, but honestly, we don’t – ratings are best for beautiful, talented people and freaks. That’s why shows that take applications often only take a small percentage of contestants from them.
2. The Producers Force Interaction
Do you ever wonder why people on reality shows spend all of their time talking to one another? This is especially interesting on shows like Project Runway or even The Bachelor, where everyone is trying to compete for a single prize. You might think that it would be wiser to keep to yourself, concentrate on the game, and ignore the petty in-fighting that goes on. That only ends up being harmful, and making friends with the other contestants isn’t your goal – and can even sabotage your game if you end up getting too attached. But, it turns out, it’s hard to stay isolated when you are cut off from everyone and everything. “The only things I was allowed to keep were my journal and my Bible,” says Bachelor contestant Leslie Hughes. “We have nothing. We are completely cut off from the world. We have to talk to each other—we have nothing else to do.”
1. They Can Film Multiple Endings
While you might think that the outcome is bound to go the way that producers want it, given the amount of manipulation going on behind the scenes, there is still a chance that the way they planned it doesn’t work out. For ratings, that is. Sometimes, it can give a bigger ratings boost if people make choices that go the opposite way to what you expected. For example, in Love it Or List it episodes, homeowners are supposed to decide whether to keep their newly-renovated home or put it on the market. However, as one Reddit user revealed to the world: “My aunt and uncle were on “Love It Or List It” and they had them record both endings and the network chose which one they thought was best. They are still in the house and they love it, but the show says they listed it.” Filming both endings gives producers the chance to test both out and decide which will do best.
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