Let’s say you’ve been approached about being on a reality television show. You’ve given it some thought, and you think that the experience might be fun. There are some nagging doubts in the back of your mind about whether or not you should sign on the line, but you’re not even really sure what you need to know to make you feel more comfortable or help you decide to walk away.
First, understand that your life will lose a certain amount of spontaneity for the duration of taping. If you’re being followed, a producer and camera team can’t just follow you to the mall, to the grocery, to a club you like, or to some place you decide you’d like to go to on very little notice. It’s not an issue of manipulation or control, it’s just that locations have to be precleared. If you have existing commitments or things you’d like to do, consider it your job to discuss them with your producer and story team as early as you can so that they can try to help you make arrangements. Big travel is quite likely out, so if you’re planning to be out of town for two weeks in the middle of shooting, make sure that’s discussed and approved before you sign on to do the show. Given the fact that most reality shows are on tight budgets, the idea of you being out of the story loop for ten days has a massive impact on production.
Be clear from the onset about access and how production works. There’s virtually no such thing as a pure follow show, where a crew simply tags along during your everyday life and winds up with enough story content to fill six, eight, ten, thirteen or fifteen episodes. You will probably be asked to do certain things that will help steer story, like having dinner with a friend or cast member to discuss an issue that’s been weighing on you. You might even be asked to reenact some part of your life that happened off camera. You’ll most certainly be asked to come in for interviews time and again, often being asked about the same topics if previous answers don’t completely explain what happened in-scene once the post team has had a crack at the material — we don’t like having to ask you similar questions over and over again, either, but until a scene starts to come together in post, we don’t always know every aspect that will require clarity in order for viewers to understand the action.. If you are too busy or someone who is overly protective of their downtime, a reality show is probably not a great idea for you.
Understand from jump that honesty is essential. In my book, Reality TV: An Insiders Guide to TV’s Hottest Market, I complain a little bit about cast members who are self-producers. These cast members are so worried about being seen in a positive light that they often withhold information in interviews or refuse access to many parts of their lives. The unfortunate end result of withholding or walling things off is that now other cast members (and post-production based story people) are responsible for telling your story. Would you rather talk about a disagreement with a cast member or simply allow that cast member’s interview content to define your role in that conflict? Your words and feelings matter, and when you’re the member of a cast who never wants to discuss anything negative, you often come off looking like someone who’s dishonest and overly concerned with their image. You are putting the power of your personal story in the hands of others if you don’t open up — and if you can’t handle granting genuine access to your thoughts and feelings consistently, a reality show is probably not a good idea for you.
You’ll need to help tell your story. I know that this sounds simple, but it’s true… you’ll need to be an active participant in planning if you want “TV you” to seem like you. Producers will constantly be asking what milestones or events you have coming up, so if there’s something on the horizon that you think the producers might be interested in taping, let them know. One of the hardest parts of our job is trying to forecast where your life is heading, what obstacles you’ll be facing two weeks or two months from now, and ensuring that your storylines are advancing. If we don’t know what’s coming up for you, we’ll start making suggestions: ”How about you all go to dinner? How about taking a trapeze class?” Trust me, none of us want to spend another afternoon shooting someone on a trampoline or having a three hour lunch about nothing, and one of the things many cast members resent about their reality experiences as they happen is having a schedule of simulated life events that make very little sense. The more you bring to the table in terms of communicating and coordinating with your producers, the more screen time you’re likely to have and the more you’ll be able to have fun living your real life instead of the cartoon version.
Once you start, don’t judge a team by their past credits — do, however, judge a production company or a network by theirs before you sign. I’ve been all over the place in my career. I’ve done shows I’m proud of and shows I don’t bring up very often. If you’ve signed to do a show and find out that a story producer assigned to you has a credit on Teen Rednecks Hitting Each Other With Bagged Hammers Season Five, that producer is probably thrilled to be working on a show with real story and not that clinker they were offered for eight weeks when they were totally broke. If, on the other hand, you haven’t signed yet on a show made by the production company that put out not only the Teen Rednecks Hitting Each Other With Bagged Hammers franchise, but Half-Naked Mud Bog Sexy Time Show and Randomly Punched in the Face as well, you are probably not about to embark on a life-changing journey of self-discovery and wonderment. If you liked those shows, though — don’t let me get in your way. I’ll go one step further and just suggest that you don’t imdb people you’re working with. We all have our crazy exes… and by exes, I mean ex-shows.
Remember, the money is terrible — so do it for fun. Being on a reality show isn’t a job that’s going to sustain you. I know plenty of people who signed on to do shows for $500 an episode or a few grand at most. Sure, it can turn into something by a third or fourth season, but for now, it’s not going to pay much. Don’t let this become a sore spot for you when you’re being asked back for your fifth interview on the same subject because the post team needs a few bites in order to shorten a scene without losing information. Again — do it for fun.