Troy DeVolld: FRESH MEMORIES OF A SHORT, OUTRAGEOUSLY LUCKY LIFE IN REALITY TELEVISION

Troy originally published this on The Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors. But we think it belongs here as well:

by Troy DeVolld

devolldJust this June, as an extension of the Television Writers Summit event in Tel Aviv, I participated on a panel at Tel Hai College in northern Israel. With me were a writer from Everybody Loves Raymond, a former Spelling/CBS/Paramount exec and another writer whose career to date has been an even divide between traditionally scripted television and reality. If you’d have told me in advance that we’d spend more than half of our panel time fielding questions about reality production, I’d have thought you were completely bats… but that’s exactly what happened.

I’ve only worked in reality for thirteen years, but in just that time, I’ve worked on two dozen reality series, a number of them running multiple seasons. In the free-for-all world of reality television, shows can pump out two or three full runs a year, which certainly keeps me busy.

My secret? Pure luck, I guess. My career was built on a string of mostly lucky breaks that landed me on many of the milestone shows within the genre, and boy, am I ever grateful. From the ashes of my dream of sitcom writing rose something new and unexpected that does a fine job of keeping my lights on and the gas company paid.

So… where to begin?

I moved to Los Angeles the same year that Survivor punched a crater-sized hole in the way we thought about reality television, leaving behind a fabulously dead-end executive assistant job and a weekend gig as a barista. I was going to be a writer even if it meant sleeping in my car until I figured it all out, a very real possibility given my meager reserves and the living-room-sized interior of my 1990 Buick Century. As of Y2K, I’d had ten spotty years of experience writing for local shows and commercials in Tampa, and felt that I had as fine a chance in Hollywood as anyone else who hadn’t been a Harvard Lampoon writer.

About halfway into the cross-country drive from Florida, I pulled off I-10 into a crummy Texas motel that Norman Bates himself wouldn’t have slept in. I paid the faceless undershirt behind the mail slot for the night and stumbled into a room that I felt offered me a 50/50 shot at surviving until morning. This was not the kind of space in which people have epiphanies, except for ones along the lines of “I should probably stop with the methamphetamines.”

That night, MTV ran a special called Fear, a reality-competition hour-long that planted a group of young people in a haunted location for the night to self-shoot their adventures, each taking home a cool $5000 if they could last the night. As the credits flew by at the end, I saw a familiar name from Tampa scroll by — Christo Garcia. I knew who to call the next day to hit up for work… you know, just until someone would hire me to write for Frasier.

As luck would have it, MTV took the special to series and Christo managed to get me hired on as a logger/transcriber, processing source material for the story department. My 7pm-3am shift as a logger/transcriber started at 4pm as far as I was concerned. I showed up hours early each day, making a general nuisance of myself around the story department and talking up content I thought they’d find useful. Finally, producer Roberto Cardenas asked why I always came in at 4, and I replied that if I didn’t, no one would ever know who I was. Puritanical work ethic, check. Dash of low-key self-promotion among the bosses, check.

Everything after that? More luck.

Abrego and Telles kept me busy on Fear as I bounced from job title to job title as they went out of their way to keep me steadily employed, for which I’m still grateful. For months, I helped out with everything from research to production assisting to digitizing tapes on rare occasion. Within the first year, I was bumped up to a story producer position on the show. From there, I fell into a string of steady work — thirteen to twenty weeks at a time — that would last nearly a decade.

Luck, luck and more luck.

I know, I know. I talk about luck too much. But I felt lucky. Other friends scrambled to get staffed on sitcoms and dramas or worse, knocked their brains out on feature specs. Me, I was working 40 to 50 weeks a year right out of the gate… which I’ve managed to do ever since. The best part? Everything I worked on… even the flops…went to air. Everything. Twenty-plus shows and I’ve never had to go home with my head hung low over something not making air.

Moving forward, I tried to switch things up on occasion to keep my resume diverse and avoid being pigeonholed as either a reality competition or docu-soap producer, working on shows as diverse as The Bachelor and Dancing With the Stars. When things looked bleak, I’d go back to logging and transcribing while I looked for something else rather than sit at home collecting unemployment — a happy accident along the way being a stint as the dailies coordinator for The Osbournes, which I often refer to as my college experience in reality television. You wouldn’t believe the credits that story department had, and how much they were willing to share with me.

Almost eight years ago, after two seasons on Dancing With the Stars, I took a position as the lead story editor for Flipping Out, a Bravo series about a Los Angeles house-flipper and his staff of quirky employees. The series took off and I learned some great hard-knocks lessons about supervising story at the post-production level, which I still much prefer to producing in the field. Sure, I’ll still go into the field from time to time, but the real fun for me is always in boiling the stuff down into an intelligible story. Through weekly story calls and constant emails, I’m able to keep my fingers in the production pie, but I find I’m most effective when there’s some distance between me and a cast. It allows me to perceive them by way of their actions on tape rather than clouding my mind with things that might have occurred off-camera. Anyone who works in reality has spent time tracking down something that the field crew swears happened, but never fell into a lens.

In January of 2010, I took on Basketball Wives for VH1, earning my first Co-EP credit. I stayed with the show for three years, seeing the post story team and editors through five turns with the original cast (the fifth season premiered on August 21 to 2.4 million total viewers) and two with the spinoff Basketball Wives LA gang to similar success.

That same year, I signed with Michael Wiese Productions to write a reality television production textbook,Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to Television’s Hottest Market. I used to go into bookstores and see dozens of books on writing for film and television, but never anything I liked on reality production. The pair that I did manage to find were all about creating original shows and not about the real work of being a reality producer. One of them, which I won’t name, even offered advice on how to figure out the email addresses of major network players based on how email is formatted for the companies they helm. Really? REALLY? Your advice is to shoot someone an unsolicited email pitch? Worse, the books were always about how to pitch an original series, not about story craft in the way Larry Brody, Syd Field and Robert McKee’s books used to excite me with the possibility of simply working in the business.

Reality TV isn’t threatening to overtake Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Gray anytime soon, but it sells well enough that I’m able to enjoy a little vacation once in a while. It’s remained a television reference bestseller on Amazon since it came out, proving my theory that people really did want to know about how reality worked. I’ve also been lucky enough to have been asked to speak at a number of colleges, universities and events all over the world, spreading the word about doing reality television the right way — crafting real stories that mimic the structure of traditionally scripted shows instead of just building out from noisy moments. Reality TV isn’t the sexiest option to film school students whose heads are pumped full of the revisionist histories of successful indie filmmakers, but it’s an option to consider for those who want to make a living as storytellers.

I’d like to tell you there’s more to the story, but that about covers it. I’m one of those all work and no play guys, which I hope to remedy someday when my hobby is something other than my job.

That’s not entirely true. I do have a hobby. All these years later, it’s still going to sitcom tapings… where reality television remains the butt of a lot of jokes.

I guess we’re not out of the woods yet.