Your Questions Answered: Reality-Competition/Game Shows and Other Stuff

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Yours truly, lurking behind Bruno Tonioli and Tom Bergeron at a DWTS season finale. 

I’m spending some of this fine Emmy Sunday catching up on old business, working on the book, and FINALLY getting around to some of the questions you’ve been kind enough to ask.

First, from Jack D:

As you’ve worked on game shows (and I am about to launch one on YouTube), what lessons have you learned when doing test shoots and dry runs of a new game show? What are common mistakes? What tricks of the trade have you learned? What’s the minimum number of dry runs do you recommend? Which outsiders (if any) should be brought in to give their input? Have you ever brought in former game show hosts and/or producers for their input?

While I did work on Hollywood Game Night and have had a game show in development for a long while, I have a great deal more experience in reality competition, which I think operates on a number of the same principles. That said, here’s what I know about game shows from my limited experiences on them:

As far as the number of test shoots and dry runs, I’d say the correct number of the former is one, if it’s needed to prove something, the latter being however many you need to get it right.  Don’t shoot anything until the gameplay bugs are worked out, or you’re throwing money down a hole.

Two of the biggest things to consider: Bulletproof elimination metrics and the audience’s ability to play along at home.  In reality-competition, audience participation is replaced by making sure everyone in the audience has someone they can choose to root for as their participatory avatar.  Dancing With the Stars is one of the best examples, as each season starts with someone for every demo on the floor.

When I speak of game show elimination metrics, I mean that if you’ve got a show built to go three rounds with someone being eliminated at the end of each round, you’d better know how to handle or avoid a tie.  If no one’s out of the running until the very end, you’ve still got to avoid that tie.

Jeopardy is one of the all-time great formats because if, heaven forbid, a show end in a tie, they’ve got a contingency for a tiebreaker question in which the first person to buzz in with a correct response takes the game.  While I’m sure it’s happened a few other times, I’ve only seen it once, in the semi-finals of the 2012 Jeopardy Teen Tournament.

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What Jeopardy also handles well is avoiding the feeling that anyone is ever totally out of the game, no matter how far behind they are. The Daily Double on the board can narrow a gap quickly for someone who’s lagging behind, keeping the suspense going, and the final question allows players to wager up to the full amount of their winnings so far.

The audience on Jeopardy, of course, can play along at home, shouting answers over each other for living room domination or even when watching it alone.  I am never louder while viewing a game show than I am watching Jeopardy, except maybe when someone on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader biffs an easy question.

As to outside consultants, I have a number of friends who work full time in the genre, so I’m lucky enough to be able to fly things by them.  You can hire any game show veteran to look over your premise and pitch in their two cents, though I’ve got a great guy you should listen to about that stuff right here on the first season of my podcast REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE: Joey Ortega.

The most common mistake, I think, is overcomplicating game play.  If you can’t tell someone in a few sentences how the game works, rethink your format.  Check this out:

WIN BEN STEIN’S MONEY: Three contestants compete to answer general knowledge questions in order to win a grand prize of $5,000 from the show’s host, Ben Stein. In the latter rounds of each episode, Stein participates as a “common contestant” in order to defend his money from being taken by his competitors.

Simple, right?

Also, for trivia-based game shows, triple-check your writing to make sure that there is only one correct answer to your questions.  If you say “Mia Farrow’s famous film star ex” hoping to get Woody Allen, but your player says Frank Sinatra, they’re still absolutely right.  If you’d said “famous ex-husband” hoping to get Frank Sinatra (since Farrow and Allen never married), but your player said Andre Previn, you’d be stuck again.

Good luck with the game show, Jack!

Another (non-reality) question was posed by Krystol D:

How about taking about the latest films or books that you have read? Tell us about your favorite character in a film and why you liked it.

I’m mostly a biography/autobiography guy, and am currently finishing Kathleen Sharp’s MR AND MRS. HOLLYWOOD, about Lew and Edie Wasserman.  I’d read THE LAST MOGUL, another bio of Wasserman, some years ago, and this is an interesting supplementary take on the guy.

My favorite character of late is Joy from INSIDE OUT, and if I told you why, I’d ruin the movie for you.

By realitytvtroy



I spoke a little bit about this to some attendees at Story Expo this past weekend, and it bears posting here.

You’ll often hear reality producers talk about taking “ownership” of their shows.  It’s that satisfying feeling wherein the time and emotional investment you’ve made at the episode or series level feels like it has paid off, and that your voice has come through in the show.

What has to be remembered when seeking “ownership” of your work is that ultimately, you have a showrunner, execs, and a network to please.  Your idea of what the show is can be compromised by everything from its bottom line to any one of a host of issues beyond your control.

Always, always, always care about what you do, but remember that some arguments aren’t worth having and that your first job is to have one.  Ownership isn’t always possible.

This is why it’s critical to understand your showrunner.  Do they like to discuss story or dictate it?  What’s their vision of the workflow on their show?  Do they thrive in times of calmness, chaos, or both?  Figure it out.

Some years ago, I had an exec at network who created problems just so they could heroically resolve them later.  I’ve also had a company owner who would show up and ALWAYS trash the first act of a rough cut and storm out, seemingly operating on his unspoken philosophy that good work only comes from stressed out employees.  While he apparently never saw a California Cheese commercial in which “Great cheese comes from happy cows,” he was clear about the level of ownership he took in the programs he made.

The real world is about working.  Creating and feeling fulfilled is a luxury afforded to few, even in a “creative” business.  Understand that your EP/showrunner has worked a long time to get where they’re at, and that one of the most important aspects of their job is expressing a vision, theirs, consistently.


By realitytvtroy

Hi, folks.


There comes a time when a fella really wants to update his blog with something useful, to not simply plug something he’s got to sell or rehash some old thing he’s covered before, but there just doesn’t seem like there’s anything to be said at the moment.

I’d imagine it has something to do with being up to my elbows in a move from North Hollywood out to Sunland, where it’s quiet enough to decompress after each long week of work on a show coming back to HGTV next year, finish up the second edition of REALITY TV, and enjoy myself in the stolen moments between answering emails, consulting and all the other reality stuff I find myself doing — like revising not one but two lectures coming up at Story Expo in less than two weeks.

It’s a great life, but sometimes I get tired and have to walk away from things or handle business for a minute.  How about this — help me out by requesting something I could contribute to the blog for you next week.  I feel awfully bad about taking such a long hiatus, and would really love to share something new with you.

By realitytvtroy

Reality Pro Tip: Superteases

Many newcomers to reality television may be unfamiliar with the concept of a supertease or supertrailer. 

Think of them in much the same way as you would a movie trailer. The idea behind a supertease or supertrailer is to convey a sense of what a full season will look like, and convince viewers to tune in.  These may run at upfronts, online to promote a new show or season, or at the end of a first episode.

While there are many ways to approach cutting these, I have always found it useful to divide the supertease or supertrailer into a series of clips and soundups categorized by similar emotional tone.

For example, you may wish to open a super tease with a question or hypothesis for the season. A character might make a statement like “If they think I’m going down without a fight, they’ve got another thing coming.”

From that hypothesis, take the first turn into a group of loud or exciting moments. From there, consider grouping five or six sound bites that are of a dynamic nature… argument, exclamatons, pronouncememts. 

After that, consider taking a downshift in intesity into some more personal or emotional moments.

You get the idea.

After four or five good shifts in tone, bring your supertease/supertrailer home with a heavy string of conflict moments (or, if more appropriate, liveliest positive moments) the biggest, baddest sound bite you can find.  A declaration.  Something that packs a wallop that will define your series and season as it puts a button on the 90 seconds to three or four minutes your supertease or supertrailer will run.

You can apply this same philosophy to your sizzle reels, too. 

By realitytvtroy


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Response to AND ANOTHER THING, my new book on the TV network notes process, has been mostly sunny now that everyone’s figured out I’m not bashing anyone.  Boy, are we touchy about the notes process!

Here’s a brief excerpt from the book, which is downloadable for free at through Saturday.


When you are writing or reviewing notes, keep the following five things in mind:

Is it necessary? Think about what the note buys you. If you are adding something, is it worth the time that will have to be lost elsewhere in the show?   Will you sleep that much better knowing that this change has been made?

Is it in service of the story? So you remember a clever thing that happened on set or (for reality) in the notes that doesn’t relate to the story. Does it need to be in the show? Can it live as a web extra instead of being crammed into a scene, getting a laugh but letting the air out of the story you’re supposedly moving forward?

Is it worth the financial cost to address? (Reality example, but universal in terms of reshoots) You could really use a pickup scene where A talks to B about what happened last Thursday, but the show’s wrapped. You’ll have to hire three people and fly them to Wisconsin to get the pickup. Is there another way to solve the problem, like a simple VO from the cast member from the scene who lives in town? (If it’s worth it and within budget, ask away)

Is it worth your relationship with the team? In the event that the note is contentious or controversial, ask yourself why you’re not willing to let the content pass as is. Again, if you feel strongly about it, give the note.

Is this an issue that can actually be solved? Don’t waste your time and others’ by tilting at windmills.

By realitytvtroy

New e-Book: AND ANOTHER THING promotion at

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Just wanted to let readers of the blog know that AND ANOTHER THING, my e-book on the television notes process, is finally available at  The book is free through Saturday July 4 as part of a release promotion at, after which, it’ll still be around for just $2.99.

The book takes aim at the notoriously contentious television notes process, wherein execs and creatives often bump heads.  The intention here is to get both sides of the equation on the same page with early-career advice on how to give constructive notes, checklists for assistants and new execs to consider during the notes process, and much more.

By realitytvtroy

Update: The REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE Podcast and Documentary Projects

The documentary and podcast are alive… ALIVE!

I’m finally realizing I can’t pull everything off that I’d like to without a little help, though… so if you might, for some reason, be in need of a shirt with my cheery mug emblazoned on it, here’s where you’d get one and support the effort.  

The REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE Podcast and Documentary Project.

By realitytvtroy

Moving On, Staying Put

Another friend just gave up on reality television and moved into a more stable profession… and I can’t blame her. 

I’ve always loved reality television, but it has its pitfalls… one of which is the unpredictability of employment.

Case in point… I recently wrapped an incredible gig on a show that was pulled from production not because of its quality, but because the new network president opted to go another direction with programming.  Many shows in production, not just ours, were unceremoniously ditched, and the hell of it was —  it’s just one of those things that happens.  No bad guy in the scenario, just business.

I’ve always hated that line on the back of my book cover that says something about getting in, getting real, and maybe even getting rich.  It can be done, but it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to get there.  That’s why the focus of my book is on craft, and not the sexier, dreamier prospect of creating shows.

It takes years to make it in L.A. or New York — and those places aren’t cheap.  You can’t reward yourself too early, because you could always end up in a situation like I did last year and not land somewhere for months after 14 years of wall-to-wall work on countless hits… and as much as I try to practice what I preach when in comes to being financially conservative, six months at home is an unexpected sock in the guts to pretty much ANYONE with no notice.

New to this? Save your money.  Have a roommate… the kind that pays in cash instead of excuses.  Don’t try to be a baller, because no one cares if you drive a 1991 Nissan except you.  There’s a major studio head out here driving a Subaru Outback, and I spent two and a half years on the train/bus in LA before replacing my dead Buick with a ten year old Jetta.  I’d been working 11 years before I finally bought a “nice” car, and frankly, it’s sometimes the most expensive one in the parking garage.  You can bet I think about that stuff during my dry spells.

Remember how you used to feel when you had a few hundred bucks in the bank after paying the bills?  Imagine having tens or hundreds of thousands fifteen or twenty years into a career.  Remember how you felt when you were a few hundred in the hole at the end of the month, sweating a thirty dollar overdraft fee?  Now try feeling that way with 20 grand in credit card debt after watching your savings atrophy because the work dried up.

Those are the times you think about finding something else.  My friend saw that exit from show business life and jumped at it.  Me, I’m a single guy.  I can stay at the craps table and keep rolling.  I’ll be up again tomorrow on some other smash hit, feeling like the world is my oyster, because I live to tell stories and teach the next generation how it’s done.  It’s all a never-ending gamble that could end with me selling a company for tens or hundreds of millions… or as a kindly old greeter at a big box store.

Do this… do anything… because you love it. 

By realitytvtroy