Reality Pro Tip: Hot Sheets, Revisited


In Reality TV as well as in this past entry, I discuss “hot sheets,” the daily writeups from the field that summarize the action from each day for the benefit of those who weren’t on location or set to witness it. Hot sheets are usually distributed to execs inside the production company, and (in some cases) to network execs overseeing a project who want to keep an eye on what’s developing to ensure that story is moving forward.

One of the major points of concern regarding hot sheets and field notes for me has always been overselling the content. Exclamation points make me groan. Flowery prose in what I’ve always thought should be a pretty cut-and-dried document always registered to me as a waste of time. A sunny day in Los Angeles is a sunny day in Los Angeles, not a “sunny day in which the shadows of downtown’s skyscrapers loom large over Gary, who, in fact is feeling quite small.” In the footage, all I see is Gary walking around downtown with a briefcase.

In a conversation last week that began in response to my earlier entry on this blog, someone from the story department of a major reality series told me that they were routinely being asked to spice up their hot sheets and field notes in order to keep the network execs from getting bored. The problem with this? Painting a picture of what happened that doesn’t pay off in the content. If “Sheila and Betty get into a huge fight over cupcakes,” I’d better not review footage and find this exchange in reality:

Sheila: “Give me two of those and that pink one.”
Betty: “Hey, I wanted that one.”
Sheila: “Tough break. I saw it first.”
Betty: “Whatever.”

This isn’t a huge fight. It’s barely a confrontation. If your notes are calling it a “big fight” and a group of execs see that there was a “big fight” on such-and-such a date, they’re counting on seeing two people duke it out in a rolling Beetle Bailey cloud of fists and obscenities, not exchanging four lines of dialogue and moving on.

Overselling content can lead to bigger problems than simply misinterpretation of a scene, it can lead to a demand to expand on storylines that aren’t storylines at all. What’s the fallout from the cupcake fight? Did Betty and Sheila ever make up after the cupcake fight? Why would Sheila and Betty hang out together if they had a huge fight over cupcakes?

Well there’s no fallout, because it was barely a disagreement, which means there was no need to make up, and since there was nothing to make up about, of course Sheila and Betty are still friends.

But the people who read the hot sheets don’t know that. Now they want to know if you can end episode seven with the huge cupcake fight because it sounds better than the thing you have that actually works. And when they finally see it cut into the show — there’s gonna be heck to pay.

I maintain my position that field notes and hot sheets should be as true to the real actions as possible. Anything else is just begging for trouble.

Any other pros out there wanna weigh in on this?

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