We love reality shows as much as the next guilty pleasure fanatic, whether it’s the Real Housewives series, HGTV, or the Food Network. But just how much of that reality is, well, real? And what does it take to produce one of those shows? We turned to some reality TV producers to get a look behind the scenes.
1. SOMETIMES REALITY STARS AREN’T BOOKED UNTIL THE VERY LAST MINUTE.
“It’s difficult to make things work,” says Stephen Valpes*, who has worked on several reality singing and dancing shows, including The X Factor. Because celebrities have packed schedules that are often trans-continental, it’s often pretty hard to tie them down to your show. Scheduling can be a major feature when casting a celebrity, Valpes explains—and sometimes the celebrity is booked because of his or her availability, not their star power.
2. WORKING ON A REALITY SHOW CAN BE HARDER THAN WORKING ON A SCRIPTED SHOW.
“Reality can be harder simply because it’s real people,” Angelica Brown*, who has worked on many of the popular dating shows, explains. “That human element that makes shows so great also makes it precarious for us.” The worst part, Brown says, is that there are many times when people go through the whole casting process, get selected, and then bail at the last minute or just don’t show up for filming. Other times, people are great in the casting process and then refuse to be that same personality when the cameras roll. “At that point, you’ve wasted everyone’s time, so I get in trouble with my bosses for something you’ve done.”
3. NO, THE BAD SINGERS ON THOSE SINGING SHOWS DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW THEY’RE BAD.
Remember laughing your way through all those audition shows for American Idol, The X Factor, and essentially every single audition reality show out there? While they’re funny to you, they’re usually not funny at all to the people on the show. This was the most surprising thing about being a producer on The X Factor, Valpes says. “They genuinely think they have a talent, and should be a star.”
4. THE PRODUCERS KNOW WHAT THEY WANT TO HAPPEN.
“The producers go into every episode knowing what they want, and it’s our job to get it, whether it’s tears, personal growth, a killer home renovation, or a couple kissing,” Brown says.
However, all the producers can really do is make suggestions. “If you’re on a home-building show and the producers suggest how you can sum up your feelings, it’s usually just to help move the story along,” Brown says. “People are always concerned that we’ll take their words out of context, but the people who say that they’ve been edited to look bad are often the ones caught saying horrible things. If you don’t say it, we can’t use it.”
5. THEY WILL USE “CREATIVE” EDITING …
In the biz, this is called a “Franken-bite.” “Sometimes, it’s just to make the conversation easier to follow,” Brown says. “If one person says ‘she’ we’ll edit in her name so people are clear,’” she says. “Other shows will lift a sentence in one scene and put it elsewhere.”
6. YOU KNOW HOW THERE’S ALWAYS A VILLAIN? YOU CAN THANK THE PRODUCERS FOR THAT.
If there’s no conflict in a reality show, it’s boring. So when the producers are casting, they first figure out which “bucket,” or type of role, should be for each person. For example, the person who is late to work will be placed in the “slacker” bucket, and the owner of the store will be the “moneybags” bucket. And there’s always a “villain” bucket, too.
But don’t start feeling sorry for the villain—according to one Reddit AMA from a reality TV producer (who also asked not to use their real name), the producers will likely tell the individual that they need to make them into the bad guy, and the star will get into it and really become that character. “In development materials and write-ups, you give people little names and labels,” the producer writes. “The really interesting part is when you tell someone that you need to make them ‘the bad guy.’ Sometimes, they get really into it, and it is fun to develop the kinds of stuff they’ll do or say.”
7. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, THE PRODUCERS WILL FORCE THE ENDING.
On Love It or List It, the homeowners—or participants—are supposed to decide whether they love their home after a renovation, or whether they want to put their house on the market. But according to some sources, the producers make them record both sets of endings: they love the house and they list the house. Then, the producers decide which ending they prefer based on what will make for the best television, regardless of what happens in real life.
8. SOME OF THE HOUSES ON HOUSE HUNTERS ARE PURCHASED BEFORE THE SHOW STARTS FILMING.
On House Hunters, producers take prospective buyers to several houses to make it seem like they’re going to pick between three. In truth, the choice has sometimes already been made: Producers will choose buyers who are already in escrow with a house to speed along the production process, then film two other locations just to make it seem like there’s a choice happening. As Julia Sweeten, a blogger at Hooked On Houses, explains, “The house hunters aren’t actually house hunting because they already bought one.”
9. SEVERAL WEEKS OF FILMING CAN GO INTO EACH SHOW.
Sometimes, it can take a few hours to make a three-minute segment, Brown says. Other times, shooting days can run for 18 hours at a time. It all depends on how quickly the drama happens. If there’s a fight or some action or something exciting that happens right away, the filming can be over quickly. But if the cast is just sitting around a pool and relaxing, the filming could take hours. That’s the problem with reality.
The producers might even try to introduce some chaos to speed things along. In general, they have an incentive to try and keep things short: Every day of filming costs thousands in terms of paying the production staff. “So we try to cram it all in as quickly as possible,” Brown explains.
10. TONS OF PEOPLE WORK BEHIND THE SCENES
From casting to editing, there could be a few dozen people working on any given show, Brown says. “A lot of that comes from pre-production,” she notes. “If we waited for someone to come along with the exact perfect story, the shows you love wouldn’t exist. So we have to go out and find them and figure out the clearest way to tell their story.” Often, that takes an entire team.
11. IT’S NOT A CASH COW FOR PARTICIPANTS.
Many shows offer participants discounts for their dresses and home improvement supplies. But if you’re on most renovation shows, you still need a budget of your own, Brown says. Participants don’t get the furniture for free—although they may be able to buy it. For many other people who appear on reality television, only expenses and a small daily stipend are covered. Others, of course, have been able to make it the basis for their entire careers—but those cases are few and far between.
* Name has been changed upon request.