Let’s talk about reality TV. It is well established that I love reality TV. I love watching it, talking about it, and I love working in the industry and making reality TV.
Like in scripted TV, there are great reality TV shows and shows that are… shall we say lackluster. In my opinion there are a few things that make or break a reality show. So today, we’re going to go through those things. I’m going to use The Circle as an example because I think it’s brilliant.
First off – What is The Circle?
It’s a reality competition show. A group of people enter the set (in this case an apartment building), they each have their own apartments where they live and play the game and are completely isolated from other… other than through a social app called ‘The Circle’. On the app, players can be themselves or catfish as anyone they choose. The goal is to become popular so that you can stay in the game as long as possible. At the end of the game, the player ranked the highest – the most popular – gets $100 000. Each week players interact with each other through challenges or through group and privates chats. The players ranked highest get to be the influencers who then get to chose who gets blocked and kicked of the game. Once people are kicked out, new people are brought in. It makes sense when you watch it.
The show first aired in England in 2018 on Channel 4, since then have had a US, Brazil, and France format on Netflix. It is extremely popular and easy to replicate over and over.
For this example, I’m going to talk about the US version that is currently airing on Netflix. We’ve just had two release blocks, and we’ve got two more weeks to go.
I’m really into this season so let’s dive into it.
The best reality shows are great formats.
Great formats are repeatable – you can film multiple seasons of the show and keep it fresh, and you can sell the format and other people can replicate what you’ve created. As a producer, I often think about the business side of show business. Selling/licensing your format is where you can make a lot of money.
The Circle (UK) has licensed it’s IP to Netflix and they’ve created three additional versions. But really — I think it’s so brilliant because it’s safe during a pandemic, and easy to replicate over and over using the same physical distant set.
Big Brother is similar – there are countless international versions of the show including Big Brother Canada. It also works really well because folks are in a contained area and you can easily re-use the set over and over. I think the Canadian format is one of the best because they don’t re-use the set. I love seeing what the theme is every year and the creativity of the art team, but it is the same building year over year which helps.
Creating spin-offs can also make you a lot of money. I love Love Island – but the Bachelor franchise has created four shows out of its original concept of The Bachelor: The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise, Bachelor Pad, and Bachelor Presents: Listen to your Heart. The Circle has sold in three additional markets so far. The Real Housewives also have countless spin-offs. There is an ecosystem there for the original creator to just sit back and add more and more value to money to their vault.
The Circle is also starting to make spin-offs. In the UK they did The Celebrity Circle: for Stand Up to Cancer. I’m super interested in seeing what they do with it. I won’t be surprised if they do more themed Circles. There are so many options.
Other great formats that I haven’t mentioned yet include Drag Race, The Idol franchise (from the early 00s), Dragons’ Den, Master Chef, and House Hunters. You know what to expect when you turn any of these shows on – but any market can replicate the idea.
So you have your great format – you need the people to make it work.
I work in casting so this is my expertise and area that I’m particularly passionate about. People make the show. You need what I call, “saturated” personalities. If you’re loud I want you to be LOUD. If you love cars, I need you to LOVE cars. I want people who live their life in colour boldly. These people translate to screen really well. I’m also looking for chatty people. People with stories. People who are open. People who I want to spend time with learning about. If you pique my curiosity, you’re probably getting pitched to a producer.
It’s my opinion that the best reality shows have people who reflect us. Us = our full viewer community. I want to relate to the people on the screen – and so does everyone else. So every possible group out there should be represented. The best shows are the shows with the most diversity. I want young people, older people, I want a range of jobs, interests, cultures, abilities etc. I’m really looking for the gambit. But you can’t just check one box – I need you to be a ven diagram of a lot of things because I can only have so many people on a show.
The Circle is great because everyone is there – young, old, married parents, single people, multiple cultures, abilities, sexualities – it’s the grab bag of people.
I need people to root for and people to become the villain – so we might cast people who are the best and people who could be polarizing. It’s a TV show. It needs to be entertaining so yes… I might gleefully cast people who I think would date or would fight.
Then as a producer – we’re going to ask them questions that will help introduce these people to the world in the way we want you to see them. So when people often ask if there are production favourites… obviously. However, I will say that sometimes production’s favourites are not the people who are the TV favourites. There are people who I loved off-camera and hated on-camera and loved-on camera but couldn’t stand off-camera.
It’s our job to give you fun people and The Circle always has good people. In the first season, it can be hard to get good people – you need to work at it, but if you have a good format… people want to be on the show moving forward which gets you better people and can make a stronger format. It’s circular.
I always think about something that Andy Cohen once said about how they get housewives on the show. His basic point was that you can buy a lot of things, but it’s very difficult to buy fame. As shows get bigger they become platforms and in 2021 – people *really* want to be famous and it’s an easy way into an #influencer lifestyle. You know The Circle is doing something right when celebrities like “Lance Bass” are willing to be associated with the show.
So all that being said – with a strong format and good people you can make great TV but you need those big moments. Those ‘OMG’ jaw-dropping eliminations, or fights, or cute showmances… and this is where people often ask if shows are rigged.
The answer is no but yes. It’s structured. Say if they want person A and B to date, it’s very easy for a producer to ask each party if they think the other is attractive in a way that insinuates that the other party thinks so. It’s equally easy for producers to fuel feuds.
Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race – where there is no external voting, well… the winners are pretty much decided from the get-go. It’s very easy for production to float along their people. Same with Bachelor – you can easily keep one or two ‘production picks’. That being said you never know how people are going to react so you get major mistakes, awkward moments and people you thought were shoe-ins get cut. In shows where there are comps and voting… it’s really out of your control and anything can happen.
Sure production can give a certain person a leg up in a comp or a secret power etc – but again that’s to ensure a good TV show.
When I mean anything can happen – I was working on All Round Champion and one of our athletes broke her leg. That is not scripted. That is real and painful and caused the show to pivot. She probably would have come close to winning if that hadn’t happened. Things always happen that are out of the control of producers.
What I’m trying to say is that its entertainment and yes there producers can control things but really how folks react to those controls… well that’s completely up in the air. It’s why I love working on Reality TV shows. I honestly feel like I get to watch the show happen in real-time. I know what might happen but I love watching our casts react to our special surprises. It is so much fun to sit in video village and watch the people play the game.
If anything… it’s the story editors who can twist things and make things feel bigger or more dramatic. Everyone always asks why the ‘producers’ do x y or z. They should be asking why did the editors cut it like that?
To bring it back to The Circle – they have a great team of editors. They always cut to the right reaction at the right time. They have smart and snappy writing that matches those cuts. The music and sound effects they chose to use makes the show so much more fun.
Love Island has incredible editors and The Real Housewives have a great team of editors. I get super frustrated with Bachelor editors because I feel like the whole show in the promos – but they are also very good at creating emotional situations with the edits.
When I think about making reality TV shows I think about these things. I need a great format that I can sell so I can make a boat load of cash, I want great people that will make the show sing, and I need editors who can work with what footage I’m giving them.
I’ve got a couple ideas in my head for good formats. I’ve got a dating show. I’ve got a workplace show. I’ve got a doc style show. I don’t know if these will ever see the light of day… but I’ve got ambitions. One will one day 🙂
What do you think makes a great reality tv show? Are you watching The Circle this season? Let me know in the comments.