Remember when that guy from "Storage Wars" got fired and then sued A&E, telling everyone who would listen that the show was a fake? And when that guy from "Duck Dynasty" started saying gross, racist things, and websites began outing the whole family as “yuppies in redneck drag?”
TMZ covered those scandals, inviting callers to discuss whether the shows were “real” or not -- and I sat back laughing, because I write for shows like these. I could have had my 15 minutes of fame by Skype-ing in to TMZ to tell my truth, but I would rather protect my income.
What they don’t tell you about reality shows is that the people are real, but the situations are totally not. Many times, a “star” -- or main character -- is found, and then an entire show is built around this charismatic or weird person. There may be legit members of their entourage, or such side characters can be hired to fill out the story. Think "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" or "Millionaire Matchmaker" -- people or situations are planted, in order to increase the drama. The actors know what type of events will be happening and are usually asked to improvise dialogue as they go. Voila: a train wreck that’s hard to turn away from.
And duh -- of course Rick’s “buddy” experts on "Pawn Stars" are not really always available to come on down at the exact moment he calls with a client who seemingly walked in off the street to sell him something. (Yes, the show would have had to audition and choose the seller with the interesting item, arrange a shoot with them in the shop, and have the expert appraiser available just off-set).
I have a friend who is now a well-known actor, but as an up-and-comer he was hired to play a guy getting his car repossessed on a reality show. Though his job and name were different on the show, every time this old episode airs, his friends from back home still call and write to offer condolences for his bad luck. Apparently it can be confusing to sort what’s real from what’s not.
The shows I’ve worked on are primarily competitive game-show-type formats or episodic docu-dramas. (It’s illegal to set up the outcome of a game-show, by the way -- see the movie Quiz Show for more on that). I am a freelancer hired to write what are called “treatments,” which briefly summarize a production company’s show idea. They need to show these treatments to network executives in their pitch meetings.
If the treatment makes it through the first round, I am sometimes called upon to brainstorm and write up potential episodes. For example: “What if they happened to find the makings of an anarchist bomb-making lab, and then -- BOOM! An explosion?” (I actually wrote a potential episode like this and forgot about it until a year later while flipping channels in a hotel room and I saw it. “Oh wow, they used it!” I said to my husband while pointing at the TV. “I wrote that.” We laughed about it and then we fell asleep.)
At times, the production company may shoot a “sizzle” -- sort of a teaser or trailer used in the pitch meeting to illustrate what the show would look like. If the network likes it, they give it the green light and a sale is made. I get a flat fee so whether it sells or not, I am usually on to the next project by the time those decisions are made.
The reality of writing for reality shows is that’s it’s a writing gig college never could have prepared me for. (All the rules of “good writing” go out the window, because Hollywood loves superlatives! And adjectives! And they really really very much love their intensifiers! And exclamation points, because we want it to be exciting!)
It’s cool that I get paid to dream up funny and interesting scenarios. My cable bill is a tax write-off, since I have to stay current and watch the competition. I am always learning a lot because I have to research subjects in-depth to help producers pitch their ideas knowledgeably.
In the last few years I have gleaned a ton of information about micro beers (and I don’t drink), butchers (though I am vegan), basketball, football, and boxing (I hate sports), crime scene cleaners (that was kind of fascinating), underwater excavators (who knew that was a business?), exotic fish and pet collectors (gross), drunk drivers (collaborating with bureaucratic law enforcement was too much for the networks to keep their interest), and the seedy world of comedy clubs, among other things.
These are all for shows that never got made, by the way. Yes, lots of money is spent on shows that never make it to the small screen. So if you think what’s out there now is bad, just imagine the ideas that get rejected before a pilot is even approved.
Am I contributing to the idiocy of our society? Maybe. We all vote with our views -- or lack of. Being a hired inkslinger, I usually don’t get to share my educated feminist point of view, but it’s rewarding when I can sneak it in there, even if it’s just to say “Ahem -- there aren’t any women in here.”
I rarely watch reality shows for fun -- but when I do, they’re the creative kind, like "Top Chef," "Project Runway," or "Design on a Dime." The formats are excruciatingly predictable but at least the people are truly talented… I’d like to think so, anyway.