You probably think that you're a savvy viewer who watches a lot of reality television programs and knows what's real and what's "reality," right? Well, according to a new book from one of the people behind the camera, even the simplest tricks are enough to fool the audience.
Troy Devolld is an Emmy-winning reality show producer who's worked on The Osbournes, Dancing with the Stars, Surreal Life, Flipping Out and several other shows. Now he's written a book that shows you just how the reality sausage gets made. Sure we all know that some footage is fake and things are massaged, but finally there's an insider to let us know just how it goes down.
Here's an excerpt from Reality TV: An Insider's Guide to TV's Hottest Market which comes out August 1 where Devolld looks at a standard home improvement show and shows us how time is compressed, the stakes are raised, and perception is altered with a simple voiceover.
The recipe for every reality show is different. Sometimes writing and content manipulation are applied as sparingly as one would sprinkle a strong spice, and other times they're the main ingredients. Some shows follow a natural timeline and endeavor to play reality straight, in which case the story team's focus is applied to the compression of time. Other programs shred content like a salad shooter, stitching together bits of dialogue and action, repurposing scenes left and right.
There is no reality show I'm aware of that's comprised of a straight-up, uncut piece of source footage. Someone's there, pulling strings behind the scenes to at least some extent, on every reality show there's ever been, compressing time and performing myriad other duties to make the end product more engaging and entertaining.
Why do we hesitate, then, to acknowledge the work of storytellers in the reality genre? If real life doesn't happen in thirty and sixty minute increments complete with ad breaks, how can there not be some kind of creative work going on behind the scenes?
That, friends, is a mystery so easily solved there's no need to call in Scooby Doo and the Mystery Crew to investigate. Reality shows have writers and producers (with unusual job titles) that all endeavor to shape story and bring you the most realistic end product they can… a passable imitation of life.
But how does it all come together? Here's a simple exercise that'll help you to understand the basics.
In high school, you may have peeked inside a frog or two in biology class. Ages ago, frogs became a standard tool for basic anatomical study due to the fact that their physiology makes them easier to dissect than most other types of animals. More pointedly, our little green friends have the misfortune of being comprised of easily identifiable guts.
In the world of reality television, basic cable home-improvement shows are my first choice as "lab frogs" because most of them share a similar construction and aren't generally too complicated. They easily demonstrate concepts like compression of time, use of host voiceover and interview content to enhance stakes and that sort of thing.
Try this little exercise at home: Select any do-it-yourself home-improvement reality program and prepare to study two or three episodes. Make it easy on yourself and try a thirty minute program first.
Grab a stopwatch and a notepad, settle in and start viewing. Count the number of acts and jot down when certain events occur within the overall structure of the show.
During your review, keep an eye peeled for these specific moments:
• "Tonight On" tease (a glimpse ahead at the show you're about to see)
• Opening Title Sequence
• Introduction of the Host and Designer/Contractor
• Introduction of the Location, Homeowner and Project
• Commencement of Work
• Introduction of First Hurdle to the Project
• Overcoming of the First Hurdle
• Introduction of Second (Larger) Hurdle to the Project
• Overcoming of the Second Hurdle
• Completion of Project
• Review of Project
Amazing how all the action across all those episodes falls into pretty much the same order over the same number of acts every time, isn't it? How fortuitous that every week something naturally goes horribly awry with a budget or deadline not once but twice, the second time always worse than the first! Well, gang, if every fix or remodel was that problematic, pretty soon no one on Earth would let those shows' contractors and hosts anywhere near their gutted, mold-ridden run-down fixer-uppers. I know I wouldn't.
In all fairness, a few things are bound to go a little haywire any time you're doing a project with unskilled labor. But as to whether or not an entire project could be jeopardized by someone's wife leaving a hammer outside in the rain, well, our friends in the story department are just the ones to blame for putting more than a little spin on that action.
How much spin?
Just look at how much interview and voiceover drive the story along. Most of the heavy lifting in home improvement shows is done with those devices - voiceover and interview. Sure, a little gab throughout helps you to interpret actions that might be confusing without a little explanation, but moreover, it's that interview content and host copy that tells you how you should feel about what you're looking at.
For example… you've got a shot of a guy looking at a section of rotted flooring. Think about how much differently you'd react to hearing the host deliver each of these lines in conjunction with the image:
• "Ted sees this as a challenge. He'll have to replace the entire floor, and he can't wait to dig in with his new tools."
• "Termite damage means the cost of the project could triple. It's the beginning of the end for Ted's dream project."
• "The good news is, the termite damage is confined to a small area. Ted's lucked out this time."
Wait a minute… you mean you could be looking at something that happened naturally, but was narratively tailored to suit the broader storyline?
Like I said… story is story, and story is written. Sort of.