Skip to main content

What it takes to make good reality TV

By Pamela Berger, Special to CNN
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Thu October 27, 2011
Sharon, Kelly, Jack and Ozzy Osbourne, shown here in 2004, were the stars of MTV's
Sharon, Kelly, Jack and Ozzy Osbourne, shown here in 2004, were the stars of MTV's "The Osbournes."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Osbournes" was a much different reality series than what is on today
  • Writer says a good reality show has to have a plan
  • Producer says audiences may be expecting too much from reality TV

Editor's note: Since 1993, Pamela Berger has worked as a producer and writer for a variety of network and cable outlets. Most recently, she has worked as a development producer for Target Entertainment and field directed for the "Real World/Road Rules Challenges" on MTV set in Canada, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica and Argentina. Berger also works as a freelance editorial producer for CNN in Atlanta.

(CNN) -- As a television producer I tend to lead with my right brain, embracing all things creative and aesthetically pleasing.

I cringe at words like spreadsheet or amoeba. So bringing quantum physics into the discussion right now to discuss how to make quality reality television would seem highly unlikely. Yet that's exactly where I need to start.

If you took physics in high school, you may remember the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It states, "The more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined or known."

Stay with this for a minute because it correlates to reality television in that the more care and focus you engage in to produce a reality show, the more you actually interfere with the very realness you are trying to convey. The fact that the cameras are seen and known to the people being filmed alters the final product and you therefore risk influencing the participants' responses as well as the viewer's perception of realness.

To observe is to disturb, so for all the fanatics out there who criticize reality TV for not being real, let's just all accept the fact that as long as cameras are filming willing participants, we are delivering an influenced version of reality. That being said, there's a big difference between good reality TV and bad reality TV.

AH, THE OLD DAYS ...

About 10 years ago, executive producer R. Greg Johnston became an extended part of the Osbourne family, which at the time included heavy metal artist Ozzy Osbourne, his wife, Sharon, and their teenage kids, Jack and Kelly. After spending some time with Sharon and hearing all the crazy stories of what actually happened in their home, Johnston asked if he could bring some cameras over to follow the family around for a bit. It became an extended stay of three years. During that time, Johnston and his team captured some of the best moments in reality TV history with the hit MTV show "The Osbournes."

Because the Osbourne household was not 'normal' by typical standards, the footage was captivating. All Johnston needed to do each week was check the family's calendar and plan to follow along, as cameras were there 24/7. He was shooting celeb-reality before the genre even existed and allowed scenes to happen naturally, without suggestion or manipulation. "Their lives were going whether we were there or not," he explains. "To even suggest that they do something for the camera, they would tell you to f*** off."

AND TODAY....

"'The Osbournes' was very early on," says Matt Odgers, executive producer of more than 30 reality shows. "It was a magical time back then as there was no budget, no time constraint, no model to follow. Now the networks want to know how long you're shooting and what you're shooting as it's a business model."

It's crazy to think today of showing up on set with 15-30 people and cameras on shoulders, audio guys at the ready and not having any idea what you're going to shoot. You have to know, which leads us to the first "must have" in today's reality world. A plan.

EVERY SHOW NEEDS A PLAN ...TO THROW AWAY

To sell a show, you have to have a plan that details how the characters will evolve from point A to point B over the course of the entire series. Emotional turning points and events are mapped out based on what producers know and expect from the cast. This plan is used to not only sell the show, but also to provide an outline for how the production will proceed on set each day.

What one has to remember, however, is that you are shooting real people with real emotions and you can be 100% certain they will often do or feel things that are not part of your plan. This will and should happen. As Williams explains, "Within the first five minutes of shooting, be ready to start constructing a new plan for the unexpected turns of what's happening in the moment in these real people's lives." He adds, "The best producers are the ones with the confidence to throw their plan away."

SO WHERE'S THE LINE?

Odgers doesn't hesitate when it comes to this question.

"The line is this, when one talent thinks they are being manipulated, then they are being too manipulated," he says. "When the talent turns to you and says, 'What do I say?' then you are scripting a show."

Producers also must be wary of overzealous talent -- those who approach producers and ask, "What do you need from me here?" They want to deliver the story points we want and go home. That's when a show loses its credibility with the audience. As Odgers puts it, "If you try to get them to be actors, then you get crappy acting."

Kevin Williams, executive producer for such programs as "What Chilli Wants" and "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency," has the same sentiment and believes colleagues must know the cast inside and out to allow them to be their authentic selves.

When working with Chilli on her quest to find a guy on "What Chilli Wants" for VH1, he says, "Chili doesn't drink and lives a very clean, healthy lifestyle, so you can't put her in a bar with a bunch of guys that are trying to get her attention. That has nothing to do with who she is."

EMBRACE THE SMALL MOMENTS

It's the small, intimate moments that are also unexpected that every episode needs.

Steve Hryniewicz, director of "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and "Top Chef: Masters," agrees.

"Those subtle moments that help develop characters are like little gems," he says.

From a longing look made across the room to squeezing someone's hand or even a wink, little moments can speak volumes.

One of Johnston's favorite reality moments happened when an injured Ozzy was trying to retrieve the family's newly adopted cat from outside. Johnston describes the scene this way: "Ozzy is hobbling around in his robe with his injured leg trying to get this cat to come back inside and yelling for Sharon and every time he would get closer to the cat, the cat would walk just far enough out of his reach. Over and over. It was hysterical and highly relatable."

EMBRACE THE EDIT

Reality shows are made in the edit room. As Emmy-nominated editor Tom Danon explains, "Until it gets to us, it's like a bunch of very well-shot home video." The process for the reality editor is a time-consuming one and the best editors are also the most creative, know their footage and are good storytellers.

Reality television is often shot in controlled chaos situations, whether that be a party, a bar or a competition set and those situations are also loud, with minimal resources covering all participants. So suffice it to say, you don't always have all the moments to tell a complete story.

"We need to find pieces to create a moment or create the impression we caught this great moment that maybe the cameras weren't ready for," Danon says. "Ultimately, we have to look through the footage and see what story the producers were trying to say in the field and then see what story we can tell with the footage we have."

To ensure viewers are entertained, editing for emotion and flow is paramount. Jordan Browne, editor of "Hell's Kitchen," "Same Name" and a slew of VH1 hits says, "It's our job to monitor the pace of the cut and to make sure people are speaking at a rhythm they would normally speak. We constantly have to edit their conversations for time, we just can't make it look like we are."

EMOTION IS THE KEY

For every producer, camera person, editor and network executive, emotion is the gold we wait for and rely on to propel the story forward. Whether it's extreme excitement, sadness or amped up craziness -- strong, real emotions are what captivates an audience and create a great story.

As Danon explains, "Emotion is always the key. You spend weeks shooting a lot of filler and then you get one great emotional moment and you can build a whole episode around it."

Real emotion connects the audience as the characters themselves become human and relatable.

SO WHAT'S THE FORMULA?

Browne has heard the common complaints when it comes to reality shows: "It's all fake" or "It's all scripted," to which he says, "(The audience) expects too much from reality. Reality is just a title for a genre. What they should expect is to be entertained."

And to be entertained, a careful balance must be struck. It begins with the understanding that the best reality is unscripted and captures real people showcasing real emotions. Editing must then occur to tighten time, heighten emotion and enliven our imagination. Taken all together, you have very watchable, very good reality television.

A NEW REALITY MODEL

Odgers believes the reality genre is ready for a new way of being.

"The key to reality television is to keep it fresh," he says. "It's imperative to try new things and to think on your feet, because if you don't give the audience something new, or something that feels new, they'll tune out."

I was surprised to see the recent premiere of the American version of "The X Factor," as I believe it is doing exactly that. Although much of the content is overproduced to the point of nausea, (Don't they realize the cool guy in class never has to try that hard to be cool?) I liked watching the actual auditions. It was here that the producers decided to showcase the little moments between the judges and contestants that would have normally been cut, small scenes that felt the most genuine as they occur after a contestant has walked off stage or between acts.

I also noticed they did something smart in setting up a few hidden cameras. The participants were still mic'd, but the audition and hoopla was over. As the contestant finished his or her audition and walked off backstage, an out of view camera was there to capture personal moments between them and their family or friends. Utilizing this method, the producers were able to capture raw, true emotion such as the participants whispering in excitement, seemingly believing all the cameras had moved on to the next contestant.

In watching these scenes, we the viewers were observing reality without reality being disturbed and the difference was obvious. These scenes just felt different. They felt real. Mr. Heisenberg would have really liked that sly maneuver.

Of course, the hidden camera gag is now blown for season two, but hey, it's a really good start.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT