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Reality TV — Low Cost Programming that Produces High Ratings

Article Highlights

  • Budgets for reality shows can range from $100,000 and up to more than $500,000 per episode.
  • Casting is the most important aspect of a reality show.

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With hit shows like "Jersey Shore," "The Real Housewives," and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," reality TV has become just as popular - or in many cases even more well-liked - than the average scripted TV series. Reality shows aren't just a hit with viewers, networks also welcome the relatively low production costs, as most cost a fraction to produce compared to their scripted counterparts.

"Reality TV has opened our eyes to what is compelling and informative in our world and worlds we don’t live in," says Scott Manville, founder and president of the TV Writer’s Vault. "Yes, there's a lot of low-grade content out there, but if we're looking at the good it's done, we have to acknowledge how it's entertained and educated us. Viewers tune in. Advertisers respond to the numbers. Networks produce more to sell more."

Reality TV has also become popular with networks because it's far cheaper to produce than a scripted TV show, says a reality TV producer, who prefers to remain anonymous, with credits including a number of hit reality shows, including "Extreme Makeover Home Edition," "Bridezillas," and "Wife Swap."

Manville agrees that scripted TV programs often cost networks much more money than unscripted shows.

"An episode for a scripted series can be anywhere between a half-million and millions of dollars depending on the network and content involved," Manville says. "Reality TV is much more manageable in terms of getting content produced and on the air, with much less risk. But the process reflects that as well. It’s much easier to sell a reality TV show."

Depending on the network and content, Manville says budgets for reality shows can range from $100,000 to more than $500,000 per episode.

The reality TV producer says, shows like"Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," where episodes focus on Honey Boo Boo and her family's life in their Georgia hometown, are cheaper to produce than shows like"The Real Housewives of New York City," where each season typically involves cast members taking an extravagant vacation together.

The producer also says, costs to film a reality TV episode vary on the length of each episode.

The Authenticity of Reality TV

Reality show skeptics often argue that these TV series must be staged, as much of the content is often pretty outrageous, but the producer says, this is really not the case.

Some reality shows are very set up and scripted, while in others the producers are just kind of along for the ride, the producer says.

"I worked on ‘Bridezillas’ and everyone thinks you’re stirring these girls up, but you don't have to," the producer says. "As long as you cast good people you’re going to get what you want out of them. Everything goes back to casting. If you cast really, really good people your show’s going to be a hit."

As long as you cast good people, you're going to get what you want out of them. Everything goes back to casting. If you cast really, really good people, your show’s going to be a hit.

"[With] 'Bridezillas,' [the wedding was] already happening, [so] you know there’s going to be some sort of drama there," the producer says. "If you cast certain people they’re going to be involved in activities already, like with "The Real Housewives of New York City.' Their marriages might be in trouble, so you can kind of capitalize on that stuff."

The producer uses "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" as an example of reality TV characters that the public is oddly fascinated by.

"As long as you have good characters that people care about, that’s when people get invested," the producer says. "It goes back to casting. On the shows I’ve worked on, the people have absolutely been themselves. I worked on 'Wife Swap.' Literally you’re finding the craziest people possible."

It's important to find reality TV cast members that are truly interesting, because that's what makes for an interesting show, the producer says.

"Honestly real people aren't actors, you have to find people who are somewhat crazy, (in an outgoing and funny way)," the producer says. "If you don"t your show is going to be kind of dull. You need big personalities. You have to find people who are genuine yet compelling."

The producer says, they also like to ask cast members questions about what's going on in their lives right now to create a storyline. For example, if a cast member has a crush on someone, the producers might set up a date for them to go on and film it.

"A lot of reality TV gets the reputation that it's all scripted, but you have to set some things up to move the story along. You put people in a situation where they can talk and let it play out."

Manville says scenarios and circumstances based on true life stores get a more organic result of emotion and drama from cast members.

"A producer has to make choices on what to cover, what not to cover, and then editing it all to build a cohesive storyline," Manville says. "Of course they're going to exploit moments to build the storyline. That's storytelling, even in scripted projects. TV and film should be a 'heightened reality' no matter what the genre."

Manville says producers build a beat sheet of events and scenarios that they cover, while shooting film from various points, and then tie it all together during the editing process.

Reality Shows Are Here To Stay

Both Manville and the reality TV producer agree that this type of programming is here to stay.

"It's already proven so," Manville says.

Cale Hall, president of Creative Approach, a design, advertising, and print agency in Savannah, and Business instructor at South University, Savannah, says reality- based shows will continue to be popular with consumers. Hall cites reality TV series such as "Intervention," "Hoarders," and "Celebrity Rehab," as well as animal documentaries on PBS, National Geographic, and Animal Planet as examples of those with staying power.

"Reality TV does have the potential to withstand the test of time," says Hall, who is also a graduate of South University, Savannah Business programs. "More reality TV has influenced some consumers' behavior insofar as some people have begun to style their lives after the cast members featured in reality shows, especially younger demographics."

Critics can argue that reality TV is a low-cost, low-quality fad, but that certainly does not appear to be the case.

When it comes to judging the quality of a scripted versus reality TV shows, the producer says, the two cannot be compared.

"The difference is really apples vs. oranges, - they’re two different animals," the producer says.

Manville agrees that the two types of shows can't be measured up against one another, as they're completely different genres.

"Entertainment is a subjective thing, so where one thing is quality to one person, it's not to another,"
Manville says. "A gripping documentary is much more fascinating and informative than the best scripted series produced.... to me."

Author: Laura Jerpi

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