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17 Reality Show Employees Dish on What Really Goes on Behind the Scenes

Millions of people watch reality shows every single day. Whether you’re into the drama of programs like Real Housewives, love home renovation stories like Property Brothers, or get wrapped up in dance competitions like Dancing with the Stars, most of us have to admit to watching at least some reality television on a weekly basis.

What’s it really like to work on one of these shows, though? How much is real, and how much is really scripted? If you’re dying to know, these 17 people who have been on set are here to tell you!

17. I always figured the craziest people were plants.

Not me, but a friend told me that one of those reality tow truck shows tried to hire him to play a crazy customer. The staged shot was that the crew was going to try and take “his” rusty pickup truck from his lawn, but he was supposed to come at them in just a wife beater with two sawed off shotguns.

I believe that the big black woman of the crew was supposed to run at him and knock him out with a wrench, but I can’t remember the exact details. Even though I think he turned them down, it goes to show how much of “reality” shows are staged for those who didn’t know it before.

16. I guess he didn’t want to eat cold food.

In the very first episode of Top Chef they ever filmed, Tom Colicchio flipped out because the dishes the contestants had cooked were getting cold while the film crew took “food p**n” shots of them.

From then on, all the contestants have to prepare two dishes. One for the judges to sample, and one for the cameras to pan over and show the audience.

15. Sometimes the producers get desperate for drama.

I worked on American Ninja Warrior.

Member that time that video of a “naked” guy running around on the course? It was planned and fake, the “streaker” is one of the testers of the course, so he knew exactly how to do it, and he wore underwear.

PAs (only with iPhones, not Samsung) were called to go into the audience and film it and upload it to youTube. Yuuuup pretty dumb and lame. I laughed about it, thought “wow EPs are desperate” and went to Crafty and filled up on chips and soda.

14. There aren’t exactly scripts, but…

I’ve worked on almost 20 different reality shows in the past 15 years, I have never seen a script created for participants in any way. I HAVE seen the contestants told what to say, I have seen scenes re-staged to get what the director/producers want. Never scripted. It is far easier to tell them what to say and have them parrot your way of saying to get it right. Non of these folks can act worth a s**t. It is easier to just do call + repeats.

I’ve never worked on anything on TRUTV as they are the bottom of the barrel and are known to screw folks on cash so i cannot say their dreck is not scripted. But usually story producers have a clue who likes/hates each other, (alcohol is always introduced to get to the roots of this quicker), then the emotions are manipulated in predictable ways to get the needed shots. Noways, so many know the reality game that many participants will offer to redo a take immediately.

Those are the folks who want to use a show to get famous.

Release a s*x tape – it is infinitely quicker way to fame if you want it that bad.

13. Scripted v. Staged.

My old boss had a reality show. While I wouldn’t necessarily call it scripted, many scenes were staged to some extent and they would often film multiple takes. There were also a lot more “friends” and celebrities (office was in LA) stopping by on the days they were filming.

12. There are tons of leading questions.

One of the first production jobs I took was on a reality show TV Pilot called, “Life Begins at 40”. It was a show that followed the lives of a couple who put their dreams on hold for their kids, and the show helped them pick up where they left off after the kids left the nest. Really sweet idea, as the husband wanted to run a car garage and the wife wanted to own a bed and breakfast. There were a few things that come to mind of how contrived shows are:

During segments where the couple were talking, the “director” of the show was behind the camera guiding them through the conversation. They arrived at the house they were staying at, and the husband noticed the wife overpacked. The director, off camera, would tell the husband, “Wouldn’t you say your wife packs too much?” to which the husband replied, “Yeah, Honey, you packed way too much!” The director then said, “Wouldn’t you say that she packed up your entire closet?” “Yeah, yeah, sweetie, did you pack the entire closet or something?”

During another segment, the husband sends the wife on a mission to go buy an auto part for the garage he is working with. The producer was going to send me to basically pre-plant the part she needed, that way she wouldn’t have to pay for it. Turns out the segment was scrapped because she asked so many questions to the husband she knew exactly what she was supposed to get (as opposed to the “drama” that would unfold when she was supposed to call the husband about the part at the store).

The couple didn’t know, but they were going to another state for the second part of the show. I created their plane tickets (they would get real ones when they got to the airport). So, over dinner, when their bill arrived, they opened it to find the plane tickets. I had a little fun with them the night before when they asked me if I would be with them for the entire production. I responded, “I’ll be with you the entire time you’re in Florida”, which was true since they were only there for one more day. After the reveal, they realized what I did when I was driving them home and we had a nice laugh.

Those are the only stories that come to mind (that was nearly ten years ago!) It was a lot of fun, and everyone was really awesome. Definitely had more of an “Extreme Makeover” vibe rather than the catty, angry and drama-filled reality shows.

11. A niche story, but interesting.

So I used to have these two American co-workers. One of them was signed with an extras agency and would occasionally get small roles in films and TV.

One day I hear the extra telling the other guy about a London club which for the opening night had an open bar after a £20 entry fee. They decide to go and the other guy says “hey why don’t you come Martlar?” So I agree to go to this club.

The extra finds me later to say it’s actually part of a show here called The Real Hustle that shows how cons are pulled off. His agency has asked him to invite people who wouldn’t recognise the presenters and spoil the con. So I go along with it knowing I’d get my £20 back at the end of the night.

Afterwards the producers took us to a bar and bought us all a drink. Talking to the other people there, about two thirds of the people “conned” were in on it.

10. Paid actors? What!?

A close friend of mine worked in casting for several shows. Most notably: Pawn Stars. She told me one night while we were drinking that around 90% of the time the people bringing items into the shop were NOT the true owners. They would scour the internet for people selling interesting things and then hit them up to see if they wanted to bring it on the show. If the true owners were total duds and not suitable for camera work, they would pay them a few bucks to take the item and have a trained actor bring it to the pawn shop for the purposes of the show.

She also said that Adam Richmond, the guy from Man Vs. Food, got so sick and out of shape from all the crap he ate all the time that he could no longer be insured. They had to change the format of the show so that he would coach people in eating competitions, as opposed to doing it himself.

9. Why not just call it a scripted series then?

A few years ago my parents owned a restaurant where an episode of an MTV “reality series” was filmed. It was totally staged and MTV gave them details about what would go down in advance.

8. This was an amazing concept.

I worked as a fake contestant on a game show, it was my job to screw up various contestants as much as I could.

Before each episode shoot, they would tell me challenges and ask me to practice being terrible at it. Finally being good at being terrible paid off.

7. That seems like it would be a hard thing to sign.

I wasn’t actually on a reality show but I almost was. We had to sign paperwork agreeing to “re-film” scenes that didn’t look good the first time or things the camera didn’t catch. We also had to agree that our words could be edited however they wanted (so they could basically take things out of context/manipulate the way we came across). Dropped out at the last minute though, so I guess I’ll never know what it would have been like to be on tv.

6. This is the best story.

MTV did a reality special on my hometown in the early 1990s, profiling it as “the worst place in the world to spend spring break.” They came for two weeks with a comedian host and made fun of us constantly. For one episode they wanted to showcase the town’s music scene, so they got a dozen 3rd graders to play Hot Cross Buns on recorders. I was one of those 3rd graders.

The comedian came in the day of and was super serious. He told us this was our big break and would be broadcast to a million people. Naturally, we responded by taking it VERY seriously and felt that we were representing our town. When the cameras started rolling, it was obvious that it was total bulls**t. The comedian kept jumping up and down behind the cameras shouting “POOPEY LIGHTBULB” to make us laugh. Then he gave us fake Ray Bans and t-shirts.

5. Here, have another drink.

Alcohol consumption. Talent gets plastered, producers get results.

All special events, trips, etc. are planned and paid for by the production. During those moments, there’s incredible pressure on everyone to deliver good material.

The crew is overworked and underpaid. I clocked on average 100hrs a week. On one show, I worked over 30 days straight without a day off (I was on a weekly contract, not hourly, so they could get away with it).

A genuine, unaltered moment in the final cut of an episode is as rare as a unicorn. (It doesn’t exist).

4. They do sometimes get a head’s up.

I worked for a bakery that was on, and won, CupCake Wars. The premise of the show is to surprise the bakers with a few, more often than not, odd ingredients and see what they’re really made of. In reality, we found out the ingredients a few months before the show. Had we not known, there’s no doubt we’d have lost.

There are definitely people who thrive under pressure, both in performance and creativity, and they have better things to do with their time than crank out cupcakes for Food Network. Tell an unprepared contestant they have 40 minutes to make a delicious cupcake using tater tots and nine times out of ten you’ll have a middle aged woman sobbing into her mixing bowl.

3. People aren’t always what they seem.

I’ve worked in TV and film for a decade. Here are some I can mention:

Remember that show MTV Cribs? Most of the rappers houses were rented specifically for the shoot. Actors and sports stars were their real houses for the most part.

Gordon Ramsey is actually a pretty nice guy. The Hells Kitchen restaurant is a set in a soundstage. The customers are usually friends and invited guests of the show and its crew.

Most reality shows are scripted to an extent, and the cast is usually coached to say certain things during a those interview style shots to help tell or shape a story. They are cut together and manipulated as needed to tell different stories. Most of the time they are talking about something totally different than what is happening on screen.

Most reality stars don’t “decide to part ways” with the show. The money is too easy. 75% of the time there were asked to leave or not return. It’s easier on everyone if we never say “fired” unless you are Donald Trump.

MTV was illegally using music for years and years for all of its shows. MTV was a major source of exposure in the 80’s and 90’s for music, so they took advantage of their position and illegally used copywrited music in all of their TV shows, especially reality shows without permission or compensation to the publishing and sync rights holders. They were eventually sued by all the major record companies in the late 90’s/early 2000s when they ceased to be the music player they once were and had to cease use of copywrited songs. Cheaper reality shows had to resort to library songs while the bigger shows had to pony up licensing fees for major artists.

Award shows like the MTV movie awards, Kids Choice awards, etc were merely created as cheap ways to get big names and big ratings. Artists are not compensated for showing up at these events and look bad for not showing up to accept the made-up award. Easy money.

I’ve never worked on Dr Phil, but he is a giant douche to everyone especially his crew. Needlessly and entirely for his own ego.

2. They are really long days.

Nice.

Something I can finally comment on. I’m a Production Sound Mixer based in LA and I frequently find myself on reality gigs. The pay is pretty good but the days are very long. Minimum work day will be 12 hours (the most I have done is 20 hours in a single day) with the only real break being a half hour to an hour lunch. This is pretty typical for most LA based productions.

So what do our days consist of? Well, yesterday I started a new reality ENG style doc for a major network which pretty much fits the typical “reality shoot” mold. Usually a day or two day before picture is up, the crew will receive a call sheet. The call sheet has a list of the cast, crew and shot list along with other details about that particular production day. The shot list details which talent will be in each scene along with details of when and where the scene will take place… AND what we are there to shoot in each scene.

Every scene is shot under the guidance of the director and producers and not unlike scripted episodics or features, the scenes are shot multiple times. This means that when you actually watch something happen in reality television, not only was that scene and the actions/conversations within planned days before, you’re likely watching the forth or fifth time that “real” event actually happened. Very rarely can any of these untrained actors nail a scene on the first take. If there’s time to shoot another take, you can bet your ass the director is going to call for it.

Have you ever been watching a reality show and after a cut from one angle to another you think, “well, gosh… Shouldn’t a camera guy be standing right there? The previous angle just one second before that cut was from the exact direction I’m now looking directly in!” Well, that’s because that’s from another take after the crew has repositioned to run the scene again for coverage.

Next would be the audio element… My world. Ever been watching the new hit reality show “Hardcore Midget Pawn” and out of nowhere an angry customer bust in the store screaming and yelling with sound as crisp as can be and in perfect frame from multiple angles? Well, that was 100% planned. Before that, a tech like myself would have placed a lav mic and transmitter pack on the angry customer’s person, tested levels and RF reception while still having a little time to make any adjustments as the camera department established the action of the scene, the lighting, camera lens selection and all that jazz. So buy the time that angry customer bursts in the door, we have already prepared everything, have slated the take and called “ACTION!” And now await their surprise visit which we will shoot numerous times.

1. Well that would be irritating.

I’ve worked in TV and film for a decade. Here are some I can mention:

Remember that show MTV Cribs? Most of the rappers houses were rented specifically for the shoot. Actors and sports stars were their real houses for the most part.

Gordon Ramsey is actually a pretty nice guy. The Hells Kitchen restaurant is a set in a soundstage. The customers are usually friends and invited guests of the show and its crew.

Most reality shows are scripted to an extent, and the cast is usually coached to say certain things during a those interview style shots to help tell or shape a story. They are cut together and manipulated as needed to tell different stories. Most of the time they are talking about something totally different than what is happening on screen.

Most reality stars don’t “decide to part ways” with the show. The money is too easy. 75% of the time there were asked to leave or not return. It’s easier on everyone if we never say “fired” unless you are Donald Trump.

MTV was illegally using music for years and years for all of its shows. MTV was a major source of exposure in the 80’s and 90’s for music, so they took advantage of their position and illegally used copywrited music in all of their TV shows, especially reality shows without permission or compensation to the publishing and sync rights holders. They were eventually sued by all the major record companies in the late 90’s/early 2000s when they ceased to be the music player they once were and had to cease use of copywrited songs. Cheaper reality shows had to resort to library songs while the bigger shows had to pony up licensing fees for major artists.

Award shows like the MTV movie awards, Kids Choice awards, etc were merely created as cheap ways to get big names and big ratings. Artists are not compensated for showing up at these events and look bad for not showing up to accept the made-up award. Easy money.

I’ve never worked on Dr Phil, but he is a giant douche to everyone especially his crew. Needlessly and entirely for his own ego.

I’m not surprised at all, but I do love a good behind-the-scenes pick!

If you’ve got some experience and relevant stories to tell, we’re here to listen!