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What It’s Like to Write for Reality TV

Reality TV started to take over when producers realized they could save lots of money on actors and still draw an audience. That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t need writers. Jean Burnet worked as a writer for reality TV for a few years, and gives us a little insight into how a narrative story is assembled from hours of reality footage. She uses an example from the show Rural Cops, in which a call comes in about a wild lynx in a neighborhood.

This is what actually happened: The cop drives up to a man, who directs him down the icy road to the family who reported the lynx. Right away, you can see on camera that the lynx appears to be injured in the snow, maybe 100 yards away. The discarded carcass of a half-eaten rabbit is nearby, the snow stained red around it. The lynx isn’t moving much. Because it has already wandered too deeply into the neighborhood and because it is fatally injured, it must be put down. The cop gets his rifle, approaches the large cat. A gunshot later, he retrieves it from the snow.

This is the TV version: The cop gets the call. He drives up to a man, who tells him the lynx is nearby. The voiceover surmises the cop is hot on the lynx’s trail, so he hunkers down to start searching. The music climbs. As he drives, the voiceover reminds the viewer there are kids in this neighborhood, likely playing outside in the snow right now. The voiceover also reminds the viewer how dangerous lynx are, and explains what they generally look like for those at home who don’t know. Insert a soundbite about the possible but not yet realized danger. After a tense search, the cop arrives at the house where the call originated. The lynx doesn’t make it on camera yet, but the bloody carcass of the half-eaten rabbit does. The snow blooms red. The voiceover instructs the viewer to note the evidence: the lynx must be close, and who knows, it may still be hungry—because it didn’t finish eating. (Note the voiceover does not explicitly say the lynx will attack.) The music crescendos as the camera finally reveals the main event: the lynx, entrenched in white snow.

There is one important change, one made precisely because of our innate desire for neat narrative order. In the unedited version, you can see how the lynx reacts to the man approaching him with a rifle, paws clawing backwards as he tries and fails to escape; on television, the footage is reversed. The lynx claws forward, as if ready to leap. A moment later, the gunshot splits the air in two. You see: x-thing happens, and y-thing is the result.

So while you don’t have to come up with an original story, you must take the parts you are given and create a story around them. Burnet was surprised to eventually learn that many people think “reality TV” is all real, and didn’t know they used writers. The reality is quite different from “reality.” Read more about her erstwhile career at The Toast. 

(Image credit: Flickr user Jana Vanden Eynde)


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Someone explained "reality" shows to me as not scripted like TV dramas, but they're definitely staged, as in the producers set up the confrontation/drama/whatever and see how the participants react (or even direct them on how to react).
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