Monday, April 6, 2009

Writing Reality

"The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”

- Tom Clancy

As much as I hate to admit it I watch reality shows. They are the bane of all TV writers existence because they take away valuable air time from potential scripted shows and because most are not covered by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which means the writers are not protected when it comes to residuals, health and pension and fair pay. And yet, I have to admit, as much as it pains me to do so, I get a kick out of watching celebrities butt

All the best elements of a good TV episode are there including the number one requirement of any good scripted show: conflict.

Many years ago I worked as a writer/segment producer on one of the forerunners of Reality series, Love Connection. (I was fortunate because by the time I was hired to write for the show it had just become signatory to the WGA.) The first thing people say when they find out I worked for the Love Connection is, “They used writers on that show?”

Yes, they did. Lots of writers.

Which doesn’t mean the show was fixed. It wasn’t. The couples were real people. The dates they went on were real dates. And the responses they gave to the questions that were asked of them were honest. But it’s not easy to condense a six-hour date into a seven minute segment without… massaging it. There was one rule of thumb on that show: The date was either a love connection or it was a tragedy. There was no in between. No gray area. No neutral dates. If a contestant was not romantically interested in the other person then it was my job to find out why and like any good scab, to pick at it until it bled. It wasn’t pretty. But it was great TV. An eleven-year run will attest to that.

As segment producer/writer it was my job to make sure the couples I was responsible for knew which questions they were going to be asked and what their answers should be, all based on what they had told me, of course.

That was my only dalliance working on a Reality based series.

Now Michael Rotman, on the other hand, has much more experience in Reality TV than I do, which is why I turned to him for this week’s interview. In addition to working in scripted television, Rotman is an Emmy Nominated writer for his work on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. He has also worked as a writer/producer on shows such as; The Simple Life, Strip Poker, South Park and Nanny 911. He has also directed many shorts for the web including the Atom Film hit, "The Stripper's Pole" and "Maximus Puss: Suicidal Cat" starring Penn Jillette for Michael's film, "Star Wait" which he produced and directed through his company, Monkeys In Silk Productions. is available nationwide on DVD at You can see more of his work at and follow him on Twitter at Mike Rotman.

Jeffrey Berman: How does writing for a reality show differ from a scripted series?

Michael Rotman: First off- yes, reality is written. Now that that’s out of the way…

Having worked on both scripted and reality shows there isn’t that much of a difference between the two in terms of what needs to be written. Both reality and scripted [TV] rely heavily on story and characters. Without someone writing the story lines and developing the characters, you simply don’t have a show.

The reality shows I have worked on are more of the hybrid reality or soft scripted. In these, there is very little difference from a scripted series. The stories, character arcs and some jokes are written out before shooting begins. Depending on the show these “scripts” range from 5 pages of a bullet pointed story to 45 pages of full sit-com script.

The main difference, in Reality [TV] is that the characters aren’t given the scripts to remember. The director or field producer knows what he needs from each character and guides the characters toward the story. What isn’t crafted in the field is then crafted in the edit bay. But the bottom line is thanks to the writer or what is known as “story editor” in Reality- everyone knows where the story is going.

Obviously the other big difference is pay. Despite the fact that Reality is storied and written just like scripted shows- the money is very different. There are no script fees or residual in Reality and the pay is at least 1/4 less than scripted writers make- and thus it is much cheaper to produce.

JB: How much planning and production goes into reality storytelling?

MR: Reality shows are very low budget – 12 weeks of planning, shooting and editing and the show is pretty much wrapped. Because of this- everything is under a very tight time frame. Unlike sit-com where a writer may break the story with other writers and then go home for a month and write the script- reality is pretty much – get a breakdown of the characters from casting and then write out the story within a few days. From there you begin shooting and as things change the story is constantly being punched on set by producers and by producers and editors in the edit bay.

JB: Would you consider a reality shows like The Simple Life more character driven or plot driven? And why?

MR: The Simple Life is more character driven. I remember as the dailies would come in everyone from the loggers to the PA’s to the story editors could not believe the things Paris and Nicole were doing out in the field. That being said, no TV show can run on just character. There still has to be a plot involved otherwise it really is reality and as we all know, real life can get pretty boring. On The Simple Life, each episode of the first season had a very distinct plot. Sure it’s amusing to watch Paris and Nicole try to operate a deep fryer but unless they’re fired from the fast food restaurant and eventually have to redeem themselves it’s not a TV show- it’s just clips of crazy things happening.

JB: What are the critical elements every reality show must have?

MR: Over the top dramatic music and lots of close-up cutaways?

I think it’s the same critical element that is important in scripted TV- characters. Anyone can film a show in a restaurant but without someone screaming and yelling like Gordon Ramsey it wouldn’t get attention. I think the reality viewer more than scripted viewer likes to watch crazy, psycho-drama unfold.

JB: What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to develop an original reality series idea?

MR: Attach a big personality to it. Every reality show premise has been pitched a dozen times. What will make your pitch stand out is the character(s) that you bring to it. It’s also very important to have tape of that character to show the network or production company. You can’t just go into a pitch and tell them you have a great show about a plumber- you need to show them at least 5 minutes of tape on that plumber and his company. Without a personality attached - you’re really just spinning your wheels.

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