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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Reality TV Producers

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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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