I’ve worked as an editor of reality TV shows for about eight years — I’ve worked for 30 to 35 different reality series, and probably edited 300 to 400 individual episodes. Most people understand by this point that reality shows are entertainment, but there’s a trust element there — when it’s called reality, viewers want to believe. As editors we walk the line, though, and in some shows we kind of jump over it.
The caliber of producers and executives in reality TV is terrible because reality shows are so cheap — you can make a whole season of a reality show for the cost of one episode of CSI, so the network just promotes a bunch of knuckleheads to be the producers. So you have to manipulate more than you should — nothing happened on the show because the producers didn’t do anything.
One show that really walked the line was a design competition show — as the show went on, the network became aware of what characters viewers were responding to, and the actual competition got lost and it was just like, “who do we want to kick off this week? How can we manipulate things so one person leaves or one person stays?” One season the winner was supposed to win their own show, and the network continuously kept this cast member who was far less qualified and far less intelligent than the others but who was cute and bubbly and filled a demographic niche they were looking to fill for a host on their network. By the end the network got their way, and she won. But it turned out she had just gotten pregnant, but they were like, “oh, we don’t want a pregnant lady.” They worked it out somehow with her — she never got a show. It was kind of shitty, although it was also poetic justice that the network pushed this lesser product and it backfired.
One technique producers use to make a good show is to cut the contestants off from outside world — no cell phones, no internet, no TV, no leaving. People get bored. Sometimes production will specifically draw things out, so people have to hurry up and then wait around forever. It’s basically like putting animals in a cage.
Then in interviews the producers will say things like, “so-and-so was looking at you funny, what do you think of that?” They try to turn people against each other, and they’ve been sitting in a cage, so people start cracking. That’s when the gold happens. You want that big act-out. Producers call them “teasable moments” — moments you can use in the preview to tease the show.
I have worked on some really good shows. I edited multiple seasons of a show about substance abuse with a very famous doctor, and that show went out of its way to just show the truth. A lot of editors are just conditioned to twist and tweak the footage, pump up the music, add lots of sound effects — we would do that early on and the producers of that show told us to stop. They also didn’t want any manipulated interviews. In the industry we call them frankenbites, where you put together one sentence from one answer, another couple words from another answer, another sentence from another day, and make it look like one interview. This rehab show refused to do that. It was also a show that tried really hard to do good for cast members. The producers did a lot of work after the show had aired, following up with these people. Some shows, as soon as production is over, they send them back home, and who cares if they got a disease or they’re sick or whatever.
The worst one I worked on in terms of manipulation was probably a dating competition show. That one basically just put some oversexed drunken kids in a house and let them go wild. Sometimes the producers would ask a contestant something like, “what do you think about Steve? You don’t like him?” And the contestant would say, “no, I’m not going to say that I don’t like Steve.” And the producers would ask us to cut everything except, “I don’t like Steve.”
In terms of shows that I haven’t worked on, some of the ones that I think are especially bad are animal training shows. There are things that people don’t know that happened beforehand, in order to create this perfect scenario for this expert to magically whip a troublesome animal into shape. The viewer doesn’t know the animal had to take an hourlong walk to be super-tired before the expert got there. Hell’s Kitchen is also edited a lot — they just manipulate the hell out of the interviews. It’s really frankenbitten.
On the flip side, I think Intervention is a good show. It kind of just holds a mirror up, and you don’t need to manipulate much. There’s not much salaciousness and not much sizzle. And Big Brother’s a great show. It’s like a science experiment, like putting a bunch of rats in a glass bowl and watching what happens.
Sometimes I feel guilty about manipulating the footage, but I maybe feel more guilty about the dumbing-down of reality TV. We put out quality emotional, dramatic products, but as soon as they go to the network, they’ll decide “our audience doesn’t have that attention span” or “people in Middle America won’t like it.” They’re basically saying, “our audience is too dumb for that.” I feel guilty about dumbing down the product for this imaginary viewer that I don’t believe exists, or if it does, I think we have a responsibility to educate viewers and give them something smarter.
But I don’t want to bash it too much. As a kid who moved to California wanting to edit, this industry welcomed me in — it’s not about where you went to school, it’s just like, “can you do this,” and “can you do this by tomorrow?” Reality TV is kind of a red-headed stepchild in LA, but the great thing is there is no script, so I can really affect the show. If I see something better or different in the footage and put it in there, and viewers like it, I’ve essentially helped write the script. I’m very proud of working in reality TV. But viewers should remember: if something doesn’t seem real, it’s probably not.
As told to Anna North.
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