Atop each episode of any reality series with a continuing story, some disembodied voice opens the show with “previously, on…” or “last time on…” or some other variation of the same before blips of content from past episodes are run to get new viewers up to speed and old viewers refreshed on what they might have forgotten since last week. Sometimes, in addition to that look back, audiences will also be treated to a “tonight on…” that shows you key moments from the episode you’re about to see, baiting the hook and daring you to change the channel and miss out on the big content to come.
Beyond those, at the end of many acts within a show, you’ll be offered a “coming up” glimpse of something that lies ahead.
Finally, in the show content itself, you’ll often encounter flashbacks to material from previous episodes or even, in some cases, earlier in the same episode.
So what’s with all the time travel, Doc Brown?
Networks, production companies and reality show story folks are always concerned that the one thing you missed when you had to duck into the bathroom or run off to stir the soup in the kitchen will send you into a logic spiral as you try to compute what it is you missed, causing you to disengage and turn the channel. Why are contestants X and Y fighting? Who is this Z person everyone’s talking about? Who are they talking about falling down the stairs?
Let’s start with the question all reality story folks should ask themselves when working this kind of content into the show: “What does this moment buy or clarify for us?”
In a “previously on” segment, it’s not enough to cut a bunch of past fights or participants having minor breakdowns to create a noisy open. The content must be selected with an eye toward the story being carried forward into the current episode and what information new viewers need to know if they’re just tuning in for the first time. If participants X and Y had a huge fight last week about something that boils over into a brawl this week, you’d better set up that past fight in your previously on. If participant Z took a spill down the stairs and everyone laughed at him, but no mention of it is made in the current episode, it shouldn’t appear in the “previously on.”
The good news is that if that tumble down the stairs comes back three episodes later in the form of a huge speech about disrespect by participant Z, it’ll still work in that episode’s previously on — because previously on content is evergreen. Stuff from a season’s first episode will play effectively in the sixth or tenth episode if it’s setting up something that gets paid off.
Flashbacks across episodes follow the same rule. Superfluous flashbacks are a waste of time and take us out of the moment in the current scene, so unless you need them to clarify an action (Z’s tumble down the stairs could illustrate the point of X and Y discussing how Z is an uncoordinated klutz who’s probably going to seriously hurt himself), don’t use them.
“Coming up” end-of-act teases should share sensational or engaging content from the act or acts to come (the latter is referred to as a “deep tease”). The caveat? The “coming up” tease shouldn’t give away the store. Don’t tell me who gets eliminated or who wins a challenge… just show me someone struggling, yelling, crying, or posing the question that we’ll all be dying to know the answer to, like “Tell me the truth, X, did you cheat against Z or not?”
I’m all for the devices above — but only when they serve the story instead of distracting from them. Ask yourself when you see these devices used in your favorite shows, “Why did they feel they had to do that? What did it clarify or buy them?”