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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Reality TV Producers

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.

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. Image credit: Getty Images

“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 stars of HGTV's Property Brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott. Image credit: Getty Images

“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 …

Roberto Martinez and Ali Fedotowsky. Image credit: Getty Images

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

Kim Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, and Kris Jenner. Image credit: Getty Images.

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.

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists
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The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

A view of a meteorologist as seen on-screen and in the studio against a green screen
iStock

On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, Dallas-based meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4 writes on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

A young TV weatherperson in a snowy scene
iStock

“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

A meteorologist forecasting a hurricane
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People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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