How To Write Reality TV
For a number of years, I made my living as a reality TV writer and story producer (which means “a writer that gets better pay”) on a handful of shows. Some you’ve seen and some never made it to air. The term “reality TV” simply describes show without professional actors. In most cases, it’s just as fake as regular TV. I’m not bagging on the genre, but when people discover I used to write reality scripts, everyone asks the same question: “How do you write for reality TV?” Every shot you see and every word you hear on a reality TV show passes through a writer at some point. Here’s how it works.
Every reality show employs two types of writing. The first is what I did. I was given a transcript of some segments and all the raw footage. The producer and/or director would give me some notes on what beats they wanted to hit. In most shows there’s a formula, so if you know the third act typically ends with a cliffhanger, you look for a way to do that with the dialogue/footage you have. You also write any voiceover if the show uses it.
Using these elements, you piece together an AV (Audio/Video) script. Formatted differently than a regular movie or TV script, it’s more like what news programs use. Each production company or network may have their own version of it, but basically an AV script has multiple columns. Two of those columns contain video and audio info for each shot. So, if I want to have a bit of interview audio play over a shot of a car driving away, I need to put exactly where the driving shot can be found in the video column (i.e., Tape 012, 00:34:17, car driving away) and the exact quote I want to play over it in the audio column (i.e., Tape 003, 00:45:52 JAKE: I just had to clear my head, you know?). Music cues also go in that column. A producer then tweaks the draft, it gets sent back for revisions and, once the script is approved, an editor uses it to piece together the episode.
The other way reality TV is written, which is a lot more deceptive, is on set. The director or a producer on set will tell the subjects what to say to get the story they want for the episode. And yes, for the less scrupulous shows, sometimes that literally means giving them a specific line or lines. Usually, however, it means the subjects are told what needs to happen in the scene (a fight, an apology, whatever) and the subjects do it in their own unique way. I guess, in that way, it’s sort-of real.
When I worked on ESPN’s American Dragster (available on DVD and Netflix streaming!), we had a very small crew. Before the season started, I sat down with the producers and we talked about what kind of topics and stories we’d like to cover in each episode. Then, I created a list of questions to ask during interview segments to help us focus on each topic. The director and producer tried to capture that story with the caveat that, if a more immediate story arose during filming, they’d go with that instead. After the shoot, I’d piece together the script to tell the best story we could. Of course, that kind of production is rare and that kind of flexibility does not exist on most major reality shows.
Reality TV is entertainment — not documentary, not news. It’s entertaining because the shows tell a story, but good stories don’t just unfold. They’re crafted and that always involves a writer.
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