The Scary Things A Reality Show Producer Will Only Tell You Anonymously

Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
There are few guilty pleasures more popular — or maligned — than reality television. But the fact remains: This is no passing fad. We keep watching The Real Housewives, The Bachelorette, and all things Kardashian. And the industry keeps making more of the same. Even if you’ve never seen a reality show (and, let’s be real — you have), you probably have an opinion on them. And it’s probably a not-so-nice one.

Here’s the twist: The people behind the scenes feel just the same way. I got the chance to chat with a veteran reality TV producer who’s worked on shows for Lifetime, Oxygen, VH1, and MTV, among other networks. (As he’s still working in the industry, we’ve agreed not to name specific shows.) Under the condition of anonymity, he shared a lot of surprising truths about what goes into so-called reality — and why it’s got us so hooked.
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Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime.
First thing’s first: Is UnReal even remotely accurate?
"Yes. Obviously there are aspects of UnReal that are exaggerated for drama, but I do think that UnReal accurately depicts levels of manipulation, levels of cynicism behind the scenes of reality shows, and the ways in which producers can toy with people's lives — and have actual impacts on their lives through what happens in the show and then what happens once the show airs."

Many viewers assume that a lot of the drama is entirely falsified. But is that a fair assessment? Do producers amp up the drama that’s already there, or do they just make it up entirely?
"Yes. In any reality show, I would say that the producers are not concerned with the truth. That’s not high on any producer's list of things that they're attempting to capture. I would say that in best case scenarios, the essential truth of a scene or scenario is conveyed, and in worst case scenarios, it is completely falsified.

"Sometimes, it’s falsified in the field [on set], meaning that producers will whisper things to cast members in order to guide the scene or to guide the conversation. Or else they’ll falsify it in postproduction, using editing tools to create stories which may be left of the truth. And ultimately, almost across the board, all scenes are edited to intensify drama with sound effects, the editing of conversations, the insertion of sound bites, and the ridiculously dramatic scoring that you hear in every reality show that makes it sound like you're in Titanic. Things are definitely shaped by producers."

A still from UnReal.
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Photo: Getty Images.
It sounds like you have to get really personal with these cast members, “in the field” at least.
"Part of producing someone in the field is gaining a personal connection with someone. So, in order to make that connection, oftentimes you have to manipulate that relationship because you need something from them, and ultimately, you're going to exploit that.

"Every producer is different, but I think that for the most part, producers ingratiate themselves into the trust of these cast members so they feel more comfortable — for lack of a better word — manipulating them. You know what makes them tick, you know what buttons to push. They’ve told you their deepest fears, insecurities, and desires, and you can use that to your advantage in the field — if you choose to do so."

Contestants from Bachelor In Paradise.
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Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
I can imagine it must be much more uncomfortable or difficult when you have to do it in the field. Or no?
"For me, personally, yes. I've worked in both the field and in post, and there's a degree of remove that happens in postproduction when you're editing because you're not there — you're not in these people's' lives. You see it more as a viewer would see it, and you can think, 'Oh, these are funny characters.' And so, I think it's very easy to slip into thinking, 'Oh my God, let's make her say this,' or, 'Oh my God, isn't this fucking hilarious,' when she trips and falls or when she says shit about someone else or when she pushes someone. You know what I mean? I think you become desensitized when you're watching hours and hours of this footage and these people don’t seem real.

"In the field it is a lot more nitty-gritty and you are interacting with them. But I don’t know, I think it really depends on your personality type. I think some people maybe are affected by it. And, you know, not every scene is of something horrible. There are people who have very great relationships with their cast. But in worst case scenarios I think that, yeah, it can be difficult to produce those moments in the field. And I think some people enjoy it and kind of get off on that, and others do not. I certainly did not. I do not enjoy producing those difficult moments that are pushing people toward drama and exploiting people in that way."

Contestants from Bachelor In Paradise.
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Are there any examples that stick out in your mind as particularly tough moments — whether in the field or in postproduction?
"Well, just today there was a scene in one of the shows I'm working on (in postproduction). Normally, we all use headphones and we're just in our own world working on stories. But today, another producer was working on a scene where, literally, a group of probably six women were physically fighting and screaming. She pulled out her headphones, turned to another producer, saying, 'Oh, my God, look at this. This is insane.'

"And then these two producers are sitting there laughing at these women — who are literally screaming and pulling at each other's hair. It was so intense and so loud that I actually found it quite disturbing. And, I mean, I think the people watching and laughing were also shocked, but I don’t know. In that moment, I was just like, get me the fuck out of here. I can't deal with this."

That sounds awful.
"Yeah. So, there you go."

But, looking at these shows from an outside perspective, I would guess that the two main goals of a reality producer would be to create romance or generate a fight. Is that fair?
"I'd say the main thing is conflict, regardless of what the conflict is over. You can't have any TV show without there being some sort of dramatic conflict. Not every scene is geared toward that, but I'd say shows are all geared toward searching for conflict, exploiting that conflict, and amping it up."
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Photo: Courtesy of Bravo.
So, “reality” or not, you’re still using a pretty traditional storytelling model. How do you go about identifying the good guys and the bad guys, for example?
"It's about identifying things in their lives that are actually happening and then amplifying them into a story. Sometimes you draw out storylines beforehand, or sometimes a cast member will say something in a party scene and then all of a sudden you're talking about it.

"For example, on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills — which I don’t work on — the word 'Munchausen' was brought up in relation to the cast member Yolanda [Hadid]. And I would imagine that once the producers heard that, they decided it was going to be a storyline. They would set up scenes in which the women break off and talk to each other about this one word that was said. That’s how natural storylines are enhanced and encouraged, and then repeated to create the drama you’d see in a traditional TV structure."

Stars of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills.
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Photo: Getty Images.
Obvious question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Does a cast member’s physical appearance factor into their storyline — or into the way they’re characterized on screen?
"Yeah, well, certainly. But I do think larger personality aspects factor in as well. Like if someone is just fucking psycho, I don’t think it actually matters if they're ugly or beautiful. Clearly, appearance makes a difference any time you’re putting someone on TV, but in terms of vilifying or making someone a hero, I don’t think it’s all about appearance necessarily."

I guess I was thinking more specifically about dating shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
"Oh, I see. I haven't worked on those, but with those shows, honestly, most cast members are just really hot. For those producers, I think that’s the main objective — eye candy.

"But I have worked on another dating show. In that case, when it came to casting, it was more about finding people who were attractive and who were quote-unquote 'upmarket' — meaning people who didn’t appear poor, people who seemed to have some degree of affluence."

Wow. I guess there’s a pretty obvious cultural concept of what that means, but did you get into the specifics of what "upmarket" looks like? I mean, does that mean white people?
"Oh, sure — white. Upmarket meant white, upmarket meant affluent. Initially, there were a number of African American people on this show, and the producers wanted more white, 'affluent' people."

Contestants from The Bachelor.
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Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Okay, you’ve talked about what goes into instigating or faking a fight. But, on a dating show, how do you fake romance? That seems like it would be much harder.
"Not necessarily. Just as you can falsify anything dramatic, you can also falsify romance. It’s the same tricks: romantic swelling of music, sounds effects, editing, the looks that happen between people. Especially if the couple in question does wind up getting together on the show, but perhaps the chemistry doesn’t translate on screen. In that case, in the editing you'd kind of manipulate those moments to make it seem like they're falling in love, or edit dialogue in a way that makes it seem more heartfelt than it was in reality."

On that note, it seems like Bravo's Real Housewives franchise and ABC's Bachelor/Bachelorette series are always the most popular, even though they’ve been on forever. Why?
"I think The Bachelor is based on a very relatable idea of romance, which hits the core of human experience. Yes, it's a garbled and hilarious and ridiculous interpretation of romance, which is, I think, why some people watch it. I think others watch it because they really are invested in it.

"With The Real Housewives I think it's gossip. People love to gossip, people have loved to gossip throughout all of time — and that show is all about gossip and relationships."

Contestants from The Bachelor.
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Obviously, we have a role as consumers. We keep watching, so these shows keep getting made.
"Yeah, sure. Money talks in the entertainment industry. Whatever is most highly rated, whatever brings the most ad dollars, whatever people are watching the most is what is going to succeed. And new shows will be modeled after that success."

Plus, they’re cheap to make, right?
"Oh, in terms of the industry, yes, it's much cheaper to produce a reality show than a scripted television show, because the cast is all nonunion labor. So, you don’t have to pay people nearly what you would actors. I'm sure the Real Housewives are getting bank at this point because their show has been on for so long. They probably have agents now, and because of their significant success I would imagine that they're able to negotiate.

"But, for instance, if it’s a dating show where new couples are cast every week, you might get $500 or $1,000 to appear on the show. For the most part, these people don’t have agents or representatives. There are no unions there to protect them — or really anyone who works in this field."

Contestants from The Bachelorette.
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Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
So, having done this work, are you able to enjoy reality shows as a viewer?
"Not really. Well, I guess that’s not true. There are certain shows which I watch. I love RuPaul's Drag Race, which I actually think does — in a rare twist — wonderful things with the genre. I think it actually is a force for a lot of good.

"My boyfriend has made me watch The Real Housewives, and I've actually kind of gotten addicted to it. But they're all rich, so I don’t know. I feel less bad [laughs]. It's still problematic in many ways, but you know, everyone has their guilty pleasures.

"Look, it's not — I don’t think it's black and white, good or evil. I think that there are certain shows which I would not watch because they just get too intense for me, and there's certain moments on The Real Housewives which are pretty dark and evil, which I do not like to watch. But I don’t want to say, 'Don’t watch reality TV. It's all terrible.'"

Of course.
"It's a little mindless entertainment sometimes. But I think it is good for people to just be aware of what actually goes into it — to be aware of what they're watching and take that into account.

"Essentially, these are just like really low-budget, nonunion, scripted shows. You’re shaping the story in very similar ways, but instead of using actors, you’re using people’s lives."

Contestants from The Bachelor.
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