A Producer Tells Us How Reality TV Casting Really Works

Photographed by Beth Sacca
Between shows like Love Island, Britain’s Got Talent, Gogglebox and The Greatest Dancer, First Dates and classics like The Crystal Maze, the nation’s appetite for reality TV and game shows really hasn’t wavered. What’s the appeal, you ask? It’s the people. The contestants who unknowingly coin irritatingly catchy turns of phrase. It’s the players who take the show incredibly seriously and will stop at nothing to see it through to the end, no matter whose toes they need to step on. It’s seeing someone who you might’ve bumped into at the pub down the road on the telly. It’s watching relatable people take on abnormal tasks so we don’t have to.
We’ve all wondered how they end up on the small screen, though. We’ve wondered who gets picked over our mate Susan next door, and why. With news that Love Island's Molly-Mae Hague has landed a 'seven-figure fashion deal' as Pretty Little Thing's Creative Director, and at a time when the people we see on this kind of contestant-based programme pay a huge contribution to cultural chatter, we asked a casting producer to fill us in on what actually goes into putting someone on TV in the first place.
Cora* has worked in TV production for six years now. She’s assisted the casting on a few of the shows that we’ve already mentioned and other primetime staples ranging from traditional talent competitions to dating shows. While she’s not able to give too much away (some programmes will still be in confidential production stages, you see), she was able to share some surprising accounts of what it's really like working behind the scenes at such an early stage.
The general public's automatic response to people who enter these competitions tends to be that they're only in it for the fame or money. We're a very judgemental bunch. And while that may be true in some cases, Cora says we'd be surprised to hear that casting teams tend not to rely on the right applications pouring in. "There are a lot of times when we'll go out to specifically source people," she explains. "If we’re given a brief, we don’t just sit there idly waiting for someone to apply for a show and then we go 'God, yeah, they sound good'. There’s a lot of active work from the casting team to go out and seek people. A lot of the shows I’ve worked on are conscious of being very inclusive, so we need to proactively make sure we find a huge range of people from different backgrounds to bring forward, too."
Finding the right people takes time, and what many of us can only imagine to be a lot of patience as well. To endure those weeks, or sometimes months, of auditions and interviews, Cora says it's more about being a confident, sociable person and being prepared to spend a lot of time trying to get to know people relatively quickly. "You definitely have to be personable. You've got to be able to encourage people to share a bit about themselves," she says. "And I think you have to actually have a genuine interest on a compassionate level, you can't really fake it otherwise they'll know that you're being insincere, and you'll not get good or honest responses from that."
The briefs they're given really dictate how casting producers approach the search for TV participants. "This can be incredibly detailed, like 'a James Dean lookalike with his own red sports jacket' for example. Or they're more broad in terms of 'a quiz show contestant with good general knowledge and interesting personality'." But even when you manage to filter through the thousands of online applications and those promising people found out on the street or on social media, there's no guarantee that they'll even make it to that all-important position on camera, or even perform the same way they did in the auditions. I'm sure we've all thought those pre-recorded VTs you see on shows like X Factor and Big Brother feel a little distant from the person we see in action later on.
"It’s great when people surprise you! I’ve cast speciality acts before and it’s always exciting to see a routine that takes a direction you don’t expect," Cora explains. "[But at the same time] I feel like casting can be a little bit like a sales job sometimes. You can put out an awful lot of feelers, you can engage with a lot of people and get people really revved up and on board, and then they can pull out on you, or take another commitment or suddenly be in a relationship when you've been auditioning them for a dating show! In that sense it can be tricky because even though you've done a lot of work getting to that stage, your people may not make it on the show or even want to go forward at the last minute."
It's the nature of working with people, I guess. While their unpredictability might be the draw for eager viewers watching from home, it doesn't always work out quite so conveniently when you're trying to usher a programme (and its soon-to-be stars) into the next stages of production.
*Name has been changed

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