A Word on You, Me and Our Careers


 

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No, I don’t wear cool jackets when it’s 87 degrees outside.

Even at 45, well into my career, I have my moments.

Between gigs, I still get pensive and crabby and wonder if every show will be my last, just like I did at 40, 35 and 30.  I wonder, with all the ebbs and flows in the amount of reality television in production, if I will have enough when it’s all over to retire with more than just great stories.  That said, I also have moments of wild, Pollyanna-like optimism when something even begins to look like it might go right.  Those are the ones that keep me going.

Half a lifetime ago, I spent a lot of money on pitch festivals and books and all the things that would make me, I thought, a better writer/producer.  Then reality television came along and my absurd output of spec screenplays and teleplays screeched to a halt as I ran down a new and exciting road that offered less resistance and more opportunity in the then-booming reality television alternative to traditional storytelling.

Ever since Reality TV was first released in 2011, I’ve tried to remain as transparent with all of you as I can, not only about the way the business works, but about who I am and the lifestyle I lead.  My professional advice isn’t a lot of rainbows and Shineola, because my primary source of income isn’t derived from leading you down a you-can-do-it path in exchange for speaking or consulting fees — and you deserve the truth.

I am gratified beyond belief by the dozens of emails I’ve received from people who made it into the business after seeing me lecture, reading my book, or taking some of my advice to heart after just bumping into me. My goal has always been to help people break into the business, not feed the delusion that it’s a breeze to start at the top.

I guess what I want you to know is that I intend to keep it one-hundred with you for as long as I have a blog and a book and the occasional lecture to share.  I’ve learned from my lumps, and if I don’t share those with you, you might not find yourself ready to struggle through the same stuff.  You’ll think something’s wrong and you’re the only person that’s ever been through that moment, and I’d be a pretty awful person for not having shot straight with you that moments like that are totally normal.  Even the big guys usually started from scratch and had to restart a few times after that over the years.

Stay tough, stay creative, keep asking what you want to know… and don’t mistake my transparency about the realities of the business for me being a curmudgeon who’s trying to dissuade you from taking a run at your dreams.  I love this stuff, and I care about your success enough to keep telling you the truth.

Good luck out there.

 

 

Staying In the Picture


Survival isn’t something I’ve addressed often in this blog before, but with many of reality television’s best (in my opinion, anyway) behind-the-scenes players going through slumps more often than usual these days, I think it’s a good time to bring it up.

In 2010, there were just over 760 reality shows in production, according to the results of a Kansas City Star study on the industry.  Anecdotally, different sources claim that that number’s dropped slightly, but is still well above 700 shows.  Tastes change, and the amount of available work in dramas, sitcoms and reality shows naturally ebbs and flows based on what viewers are in the mood for.

I find myself working less often than maybe five or ten years ago when I’d wrap a project on Friday and start a new one Monday.  I’d been able to work as much as I wanted to whenever I wanted to, and with a decade or so of credits on a string of well-received shows, there was no reason for me to think there’d be an end to that kind of possibility.

In 2013, just after a management change at the company I’d been working for for three years, I exited a show I’d worked on for five seasons in the midst of what an exec at network called a “freshening up” of the franchise.  He left the network less than 30 days later for a new opportunity somewhere else, but the damage was done and I was out.  I chose to frame the end of my time on the show positively, as I’d had a fun run with it and had a normal, not-so-crazy time finding other positions.

The Truth: You simply cannot rely on a project-based career for any kind of stable, predictable income, no matter how good you are or how in-demand you may be for an extended period of time.

So, how do you plan?

Don’t build your life around “good times” money

If you scale your life to a place where you treat every paycheck like half or two-thirds of a paycheck, you can’t go wrong.  Save money.  Cultivate a profitable (even mildly profitable) hobby.  For me, it’s books, lectures and consulting.  For you, it could be an ebay store, house flipping, or any one of a thousand other things.

Pay cash if you want to treat yourself to anything rather then adding to your monthly overhead.  Probably the dumbest thing I ever did was move into a luxurious new pad and buy a Mercedes at the height of my time on one series.  Car payments and exorbitant rents live on, even when you’re suddenly out of work for five months.  Ouch.

Make good use of your downtime 

I’m one of those guys who sort of doesn’t know who he is if he’s not working.  I don’t have a wife or kids, and live on the outside edge of LA now (in the name of peace and quiet as I can get it) and there’s not much occupying my time outside of work except finding new ways to get work.  If you’re married and have any kids, use the downtime to reconnect with them and make sure you have something to live for outside of production or post.

Don’t rely on your agent or manager, if you have them, to find work for you.  It’s a slippery slope, having a little time for yourself.  I’ve accidentally wasted a lot of time by not making one step every day, no matter how small, to finding my next gig.

Know how to make money when you’re in a slump

I know plenty of guys and gals with Emmys and Peabodys who strike out during a staffing season or two and either fall out of the game completely or use the downtime to build an inventory of specs that they can go out with next season.  Some have some great side businesses they can fall back on when they’re not on a show.  An editor I recently worked with flips houses between shows and on weekends.

Sticking around is important

Half the battle in any creative profession is simply sticking around. If you’re new to the business, taking a “day job” to pay the bills between gigs might be necessary just to keep you accessible to employers.  As I tell film students, the important thing is to be in town when the calls finally come.  In reality television, most jobs I’ve had start within a week of getting an interview (as many as half starting within days of the call), so I’d be in deep trouble if I was in Florida when the phone rang.

 

Thanks, everybody.


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Unintentionally photobombing Bruno Tonioli and good ol’ Tom Bergeron on a past season of Dancing With the Stars (upper right)

Today, this little site celebrated its 15,000th unique visitor.  Not an amazing number in the digital age, but impressive to me in that so many people are curious about reality television.

Thank you for your interest, everyone.   Don’t forget to use the “comments” tab to let me know what you want to know more about.

I mean, if it’s not already on the blog or in the book, of course.

“We’d need you to work as a local.”


I don’t complain about much. I’m good with long hours, I don’t mind working a little harder to get a show in good shape and turned in on time.  I can even handle parking blocks or even miles from a location and cramming into a shuttle with 7-23 other people to get to set.

Being asked to work as a local states away from home, however, bugs me.

What that means is finding (and paying for) a place to stay when you’re many hours from home, sometimes out of state or even the country working on a project.  It’s not uncommon in reality’s non-union universe, as it saves the production company money on their most tightly-budgeted shows.

Of course, for most people, it means shelling out for rent or hotel out of their own pocket. That is, unless they happen to have an accommodating friend or relative near location who’s willing to put them up for weeks or months as goodwill slowly wanes after too many nights of rattling keys in the lock at two in the morning.

I actually enjoy the road, though I’ve become fairly post-production-centric as the years have rolled by.  I live on the edge of Los Angeles, but have been put up on location over the years in great places like New York, Northern California, Vancouver, Nashville and even Texas on shows that not only provided me with a roof over my head during production, but usually a polite per diem (usually $30-40/day) to cover the cost of eating and purchasing incidentals.

It can be a lot of fun to be away from your hometown, but unless you’re able to secure a rate that makes it worth it to you, working as a local is, in my opinion, best left to the actual locals.

Reality friends: Have you had great or tough experiences working as a local or hiring people willing to work as locals?

 

 

Reality Pro Tip: Pay Your Dues, But Get a Receipt


 

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Okay, okay… this was just a sad little residual from an archived lecture. I don’t exactly have a huge stock library of me holding checks.

Let me tell you about an eight-year lesson I learned in reality television: Don’t chase checks.

The first three years of my career, I worked for Cris Abrego and Rick Telles nonstop. I started as a logger/transcriber, spent time as a story producer, logged a few weeks with the locations gang looking for spots to film episodes of FEAR, and they kept me working. Three straight years of employment, those guys gave me.

Then, after The Surreal Life, I moved on to Next Entertainment and did two seasons of The Bachelor and one of The Bachelorette. I wasn’t part of the in-crowd there, and I had to prove myself to a new bunch of people all over again.

After The Bachelor, I worked on a pilot for a show that eventually led me to Dancing With the Stars in 2005. Guess what I did there? Proved myself again to a new group of people. If I hadn’t left after two seasons, I’d probably still be there now… but I turned down a third season for the chance to supervise a team and broaden my skill set. After leaving, I had to prove myself to yet another group of people at Authentic, heading up the post story team on Flipping Out.

Hopping from one opportunity to the next in an attempt to leap up the ladder or boost your rate means taking new risks. What if you and the EP don’t see eye to eye? What if you end up being scapegoated for the team’s troubles? A million things can go wrong… and the trolley might completely stop.

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve survived minor nuisances along the way and continued to work, but I also, in the current reality environment, miss the heck out of the sense of job security that becoming a go-to producer in one place provides. Five seasons of Basketball Wives (and two of Basketball Wives LA) kept me going for three straight years at Shed Media.

What multiple seasons of several shows translates to on your resume is that you can be relied upon. You can jump from show to show to keep busy, but there’s nothing like being able to convey that you can be counted on to deliver.

Why work so hard to pay your dues over and over and over again when you can show people an extended period of reliability? I have one friend who’s been on the same show since she graduated from college 25 years ago, riding her reputation all the way to an Executive Producer slot.

Pay your dues, but try not to put yourself in the position to have to pay them again every time you jump to a new employer.  Looking for the exit door at the end of a single season over a tiny little $100/wk raise might hurt you more in the long run than it helps.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Critics


I’m a basically happy guy, and only a couple of things ever really get to me in a way that messes with my default mood.

Dealing with the occasional insecurities of other people who need to tear others down to fulfill their own power fantasies is one of those, but what are you gonna do? It’s Los Angeles.

The other? The never-ending critical war on reality television.

I’ve been working on getting past both of these things, and I think it might finally be time to let it go. You can’t make anyone think differently than they do about shows they won’t even watch any more than you’ll ever be able to convince your mother to try sushi, another craft that takes years to perfect.

How do you know you won’t like what you don’t try?

I can share the findings of studies that show that girls who view reality television more readily see themselves as leaders and role models among their peers.

I can tell you that you haven’t seen anything until you see what goes on behind the scenes of artfully directed and choreographed live reality-competition broadcasts like Dancing With the Stars.

I can tell you that one of my favorite media scholars (one of the world’s most respected, in fact) has stated time and again that it’s about the audience use of the characters and that virtually no one is looking at the villains of any work on television and saying things like “I want to be just like that.”

But none of it is going to alter the opinions of people whose chief aim in life is to hate everything.

Thus, I withdraw from the battlefield and back to the business of just trying to figure out how to make the shows I’m on better than they might deserve to be. I’m going to keep my head down and apply my hard-won story knowledge to making sure that you can follow a story, cheer for your heroes and boo your villains. I’m not going to resort to making the good guy always right or the bad guy always wrong to appease people in media who insist that reality shows have “too much conflict.” I might, however, point out your hypocrisy in supporting scripted shows chock full of violence, sex and language while you’re creating a big hullabaloo over someone throwing a glass of water or getting crafty to undermine someone they’re competing with.

I’ll close with this fun fact: No one who has ever used the Kardashians as a show emblematic of bad TV at one of my lectures has ever subsequently admitted to watching even one episode of any of their shows. Their full opinion on the family is reliant on TMZ and tabloid gossip.

Wait, did I say I’m letting all of this go? Maybe I’m not quite there yet. But I’m trying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go for a barefoot walk in the grass and work on my breathing.

Pro Tip: Promoting Yourself


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Invitation for my “Tenth Year in LA” party several years ago.

With hundreds of hours of television in the rearview mirror, you’d imagine that it would get easier for me, this business of promoting myself among my peers.  Truth is, it can still be tough.

I’m very big on gentle reminders… the occasional email here or there, a lunch invitation between shows to catch up with those I’m often too busy to connect with in person or those who are hard to connect with unless it’s over a quick bite near wherever they’re working.

Others in the business go big.  A successful Executive Producer pal of mine threw a birthday party for herself this weekend at a trendy venue designed to hold about 35 people. Many multiples of that number showed up to pack the little space, invited guests including company owners, network execs, and other busy colleagues who knew it would be a fun opportunity to reconnect with each other as well as wish the birthday gal a great night.

However you choose to stay in touch with colleagues, do it.  I moved to the outer edges of Los Angeles last year, so I find it more important than ever to remind people that I’m around, as individual gigs can take me out of social play for months.

There are plenty of ways not to keep in touch.  Bulk emails letting people know you’re available for work actually breed resentment much of the time.  If you want to let people know you’re available in social media, do it in code.  I might announce that I’m “wrapping a project for some really terrific people” and let those I’m connected with put two and two together rather than straight hit them up for work.  If there’s something coming up, I’m sure they’ll call.

A personalized (not bulk) email with an updated resume attached is also a nice way to go.  Let people know you have an out date coming up and you just wanted to be sure they have an updated version of your resume in case anything’s brewing where they’re working.

No matter how you approach keeping your name in play, don’t just drop in digitally when you need work.  Cultivate those relationships.  The continuity of your employment depends on it.