The Reality About Reality

Last week, I wrote some not-so-nice things about reality television. Full disclosure: I’ve worked on more than a few reality shows, and had some bad experiences. However, I received some emails and comments that take exception with what I wrote.

A reader who asked that I not reveal her name or the show she works for (which is definitely recognizable) responded with this:

I’m someone who has climbed the ladder in reality programming and I want to quibble a bit with your “Reality Television Is Very Different” post, because lots of reality shows actually are union — particularly the studio and competition network shows. (One thing that has happened before is for IATSE to turn a blind eye on the first season, but insist on organizing future seasons. Makes sense because it gets the show picked up, which creates work.) And while those shows are definitely lower budget than scripted, they aren’t always slumming it. I promise you that the crafty on a show like Idol or The Voice blows away any Warners Television program. Some of the companies like One Three Media (that’s Mark Burnett), Freemantle, and Bunim-Murray can be great places to launch a career.

All definitely true. And conversely, there are a whole bunch of scripted shows that are cheap, and filled with unprofessional crew.

Let me also suggest to your PA readers that there’s an advantage to working on lower budget competition / reality shows (by the way, we prefer “alternative programming”)… sometimes the stakes are lower for everyone involved, ergo, the stress level is lower. You know how every PA in scripted is always on eggshells, afraid they could sneeze wrong and lose their job? Not so much the case in the alternative space. It’s less institutionalized and can be fun more fun to work. That counts.

I totally agree.

It’s true, making the side-step to scripted is hard. But it’s also true that you’re learning a lot of the same skills (professionalism, navigating show politics, storytelling, etc); you’re still meeting people with connections at studios, networks, and agencies; and if you climb the reality ladder, it can be a nice side-career while you make your own movies or write your own scripts in the off-weeks.

It’s tough to pull off, but it can happen.

As someone who works in alternative programming but came to LA with the dream of working in scripted (and the dream is still alive!) I would recommend to your young professionals to keep an open mind. The first goal of any PA is to not go broke in LA, to turn gigs into a career. Happiness and professional success can be found outside of telling bar stories about your time on the hippest shows.

The common perception that reality work is “lesser work” is an ignorant perception, and one that the big money people at the networks and studios don’t really subscribe to. They speak the language of ratings, which can be found on any kind of show.

When it comes to money and ratings, reality TV is certainly a good deal. And it’s not like I’ve never worked on a scripted show that was awful.

Andrew’s response was a bit more mixed:

I, unfortunately, fell into reality very quickly after college and started up the ladder really rapidly. Now I’ve been producing it for years. While it has afforded me great opportunities to travel the US and work on some pretty interesting shows, it’s not what I want to do. I recently worked as an office PA on an untitled feature, but it was only for a week. And I had to take a reality job again to pay the bills.

I interviewed at a studio for a permanent PA gig but was not hired because I have way too much experience in the field and they felt it would be bored there (which would not be the case since I am just trying to get my foot in the door, go figure).

And that’s another issue: reality can become a gilded cage. You’ll get promoted quickly, make lots of money, and then find it harder and harder to leave.

Lastly, StoryProd puts me in my place:

Cheap shot, dude. Cheap shot.

Scripted/Non-scripted are just two totally different beasts which is why not many people make the transition.

They’re just different. That’s it. No one side of the business is any more or less talented than the other. There are plenty of people in reality who love their jobs and are amazing at it!

Reality isn’t better than digital work, or better than film or better than scripted TV. They’re just different mediums with different expectations and different skill sets required.

Dear readers, don’t take my opinion as gospel. As you can see by the above comments, you can be talented, happy, and successful in reality television.

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2 Responses

  1. The quoted comments in this post ring true: there are smart, creative, capable people working in every arena of the film and television industry, including Reality TV. In a world where 90% of everything is crap, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of scripted shows are indeed garbage, but Reality TV pushes that axiom all the way to the limit and then some, because the only thing worse than watching a bad scripted comedy or drama is watching pretty much any Reality show.

    Slather all the lipstick you want on that pig — put it in a pretty pink dress, pull a blonde wig over its head, and call it “alternative television” if you like — but a pig is still a pig. Even the worst scripted show has a staff of writers who are trying (if not succeeding) to craft a decent story, but every Realty show I’ve seen is just another sorry lineup of wide-eyed yahoos or pseudo-celebrity jerks yukking it up on camera. Gene Simmons, anyone? Honey Boo-Boo? Duck Dynasty?

    Thanks, but no thanks.

    Crap is crap, scripted or not, but those who put their effort into scripted programming at least have a chance of someday working their way up to a show they might be proud of — a “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Sopranos,” or “Walking Dead.” That’s not going to happen in Reality Television, which will always be a carnival barker with slicked-back hair and a car-salesman smile trying to con the rubes into the tent to see the Bearded Lady.

    This is just my opinion, of course, not the gospel. I understand that there truly is no accounting for taste, I don’t really care what other people like to watch on TV — that’s their business, not mine — and am in no way passing judgement on those who work in Reality. We all do what we must to make a living in this business, period. I’ve worked on some horrendously awful dreck over my career just to earn a paycheck and pay the rent. Hollywood isn’t easy for anybody, and all the newbies and PA wannabes who read this blog should understand that.

    But if it’s easier to get started and climb the less-stressful ladder of Reality Television than to tilt at the windmills of scripted shows, remember this: the easy way rarely leads to anything truly worthwhile in Hollywood or anywhere else. And that means those who go deep into Reality TV had better love what they do, because they’re likely to be doing it for a very long time.

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