Jennifer L. Pozner and Reality Bites Back


Feminist, media critic and journalist Jennifer L. Pozner’s upcoming Reality Bites Back (www.realitybitesbackbook.com) is available for preorder at Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

I’m eager to get my hands on it, as Pozner is one of my favorite critics of the reality genre.  While some of our perspectives on reality television content differ, what I’ll never argue is that her critical essays and lectures on a skein that so often falls back on stereotypes (leaving story to take a back seat to chauvanism and sensationalism) are quite thought-provoking.

While my own book speaks to a number of ethics issues within the genre (for example, my distaste for victimizing contestants on prank shows or intentionally humiliating participants), Pozner goes a step further, lashing out at everything from dating programs to makeover shows in a manner that paints most of the genre as irredeemable garbage.

This is the woman who called Flavor of Love the “modernization of the minstrel show,” and just look at what she has to say about everything from Next Top Model to popular dating programs:

“Fairy-tale narratives are the saccharine coating that masks the genre’s chauvinistic and regressive ideas about women and men, love and sex, marriage and money.”
excerpt from Reality Bites Back

Professor Henry Jenkins, during his time at MIT, said “Don’t look at the characters on reality TV, look at the audience usage of those characters. Contemptible behavior, even if successful, is still condemned by an increasingly participatory audience.”   I agree with Jenkins, and believe that reality programs thrive on audience’s individual takeaways from the show, not subscribing to the idea that anyone who makes it to the screen should be blindly idealized.  I’m not rooting for succeed-at-any-cost jerks, and I don’t think most of the viewing public does, either.

Pozner’s stance on reality television villainy and boorish behavior, particularly in cases where those behaving badly or on the receiving end of such behavior are women or minorities, is far more damning than mine.

Sometimes too extreme in her seemingly blanket condemnation of the genre for my taste, Pozner’s soon-to-be-released book is, nonetheless, at the top of my fall/winter reading list. If you’re a student of the genre, it should be on yours, too.

News: Posts Now Updated Every Saturday / Upcoming Reality Book


Some people just don’t understand what weekends are for, and I’m one of them. Monday through Friday’s my regular work week, but every Saturday when the alarm goes off at 8, I’m out of bed and working away on whatever personal project I’m taking on at the time. From now on, folded into whatever weekend schedule I’m committing myself to, I’ll be posting at least one blog entry.

If you are an interested reality fan, a colleague in the business, or a student of film or television production, please subscribe and comment with any info you’d like to share or additional questions you’d like to see answered. Let’s keep it lively and civil, folks!

So about the last 53 weeks of Saturdays…

For just over a year, I’ve been working on a book due out next summer from MWP, the wonderful folks behind TV and Film titles SAVE THE CAT, SHOT BY SHOT and THE SOUND EFFECTS BIBLE.

I know what you’re thinking — Troy finally wrote a juicy book about all that behind the scenes action in reality TV that he wouldn’t share with us before?

No.

I wouldn’t be caught dead writing a tell-all, because that’s just not my style. “No Comment” is practically my middle name.

The book, whose title will be announced later, is geared toward media students and working professionals interested in pursuing a career in reality TV, covering everything from the history of reality television to how to find a job in the genre, the basics of workflow from pre-pro through post to creating and selling shows. More than 20 top show creators, story producers, execs and editors contributed to the book with their own advice or by commenting on drafts along the way to the final product.

With exercises included at the end of most chapters, it’ll hopefully be ideal as a text for educators and a thought-provoking read for hardcore reality fans as well.

I’ll keep you posted as the book winds its way to press, and look forward to posting more often here in the meanwhile.

From www.johnaugust.com: Moving To Hollywood


While this blog is about and for early to mid-career folks in the reality field, this wonderful George Sloan guest entry at www.johnaugust.com offers some well-thought-out, sound advice for aspiring writers of any genre plotting their move to Los Angeles:

http://johnaugust.com/archives/2010/moving-to-hollywoo

Respect


Few people outside of the entertainment industry (and too few younger guys and gals within) were familiar with Ed Limato, the legendary agent who passed away this Saturday after a bout with lung cancer.

I won’t pretend to have known him other than by reputation and an unbelievably brief introduction many years ago, but as you can tell from the remembrances flooding deadline.com and other entertainment blogs, he was, by all accounts, a man who commanded the respect of those he worked with.

Respect isn’t something that simply comes in the envelope with each successive promotion… so in honor of the great man, I’d like to share some of the lessons in earned respect that he leaves behind — the kind that all of us can employ as we work our way up the ladder in whatever corner of the business we’re in.

1) Have Respect for your Position.  Limato was known for his spectacular clothes and impeccable grooming at the office, even though he hosted parties barefoot at home.  The workplace demands that you carry yourself with dignity, and even in this age of dressing down, we could learn a thing or two from Ed.  It’s difficult to earn respect when you look like you dress yourself out of a glovebox, so take pride in your appearance as a professional.  Most of our paychecks would need a few extra zeros in order to emulate Limato’s colorful, tailored look, but for now, let’s all just start with a  little ironing and dry cleaning.

2) Demonstrate Generosity of Spirit. Mr. Limato did his best to treat those who worked to support him with kindness and appreciation.  Until reading web comments this weekend, I had never heard or read that he would rally his co-workers with cries of “Let’s Talk to the Stars,” or that he went to such great lengths to ensure that his assistants were on track to become agents rather than allowing them to sour in a dead-end support position.  I have long labored to help my story teams and co-workers advance their careers, and get a real kick out of seeing them go on to run their own shows or get a bump in title here and there, and urge you to do whatever you can to help those around you to advance.

3) Know, Love and Live Your Business.  Limato loved to quiz his assistants on classic films.  One of the most baffling things you can encounter is an aspiring industry professional who (almost willfully) knows nothing of the history of their business except a handful of big names and popular projects.   While some would argue that reality is a young genre, it’s actually been kicking around since the dawn of television.  Learn what’s worked before, what made it great, and absorb the lessons the past has to offer. Side benefit: you’ll sound more like you know what you’re doing!

Brother, Can You Spare a Month? Or Six?


During the last Writers’ Strike, there was an awful lot of noise online from disgruntled television viewers about how it was a war of the wealthy wherein writers and producers were all just greedy little overpaid pigs who were peeved that they weren’t getting their lattes fast enough.

Those kind of statements illustrate the shallow depth of understanding that many folks with 52-week-a-year jobs possess about the nature of show business.

Sitcoms and dramas are seasonal, and while many of their writers are covered under WGA agreements that provide them with residuals to help them through the lean times between seasons, their seemingly hefty weekly and per-episode paydays lose their punch when you take into consideration the amount of time they have off between gigs or the fact that coming up empty-handed during a staffing season could mean a year at home burning through savings.

In reality television, where non-WGA production is the unfortunate norm, the upshot is that it’s possible to land on a couple of shows a year, maybe even three.  Still, it’s unusual for reality folks to work more than half to three-quarters of a year.  Work a $2000 a week job nine months out of the year, and your salary looks more like $1500 a week.  Work half the year, and you’re really only making $1000 a week.

If you’re fairly new to the business, it’s even worse.  A $900 a week story assist gig eight months of the year yields only $600 a week in the bigger picture… not exactly big money in a city where home prices start in the $400,000 range and even livable apartments start at $1100 or so.

When considering a career in television, it’s critical that you have a basic working knowledge of the economics of your profession.  I watch newbies risk it all to move to LA with virtually no savings only to return home in defeat months later, and folks that have been here for a decade fail miserably and move into other professions due to their inability to manage their cash flow.

Financial guru Suze Orman has it right when she suggests everyone have eight months salary socked away.  Easier said than done, I know, but if you’re going to work in this business, you’ve got to learn to be frugal.  Don’t subscribe to an idealized lifestyle and keep your credit card balances low if at all possible.   It’s critical to your long-term health as a creative professional.

Take it from a guy who’s worked regularly for ten years and still  enjoys a nice studio apartment in the Valley.

The Economy of Story


I’ve been involved with reality television for a long time, and have seen productions of all shapes and sizes shift their story department and editor rates north and south in the strangest of ways.  

Let’s say that fictional Company A caps their story producer salaries at $1200/wk and their editors at $2500, working everyone into the ground to meet nearly impossible deadlines on abbreviated schedules.  Company B pays their story producers $2300/wk and caps their editors at $3500, maintains a regular work week, and manages to get shows out on time and on budget without driving their people nuts. 

Why would anybody want to work for Company A?  Because they don’t know that if everyone took a little stock in themselves instead of desperately jumping for the low-hanging fruit of any old paycheck at any personal cost, there wouldn’t be any Company A’s.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m at the comfortable point in my career that I can go a long stretch between gigs if need be rather than jump at something that’s half my rate just to keep the lights on, but I realize that some greener story folks just can’t.  This is what Company A is banking on.  Places like Company A are always on about how their budgets are being squeezed so they have to stay “leaner” and “more competitive,” but the reserved parking spaces next to the front door still have Maseratis in them instead of Priuses.  The reality is that Company A and Company B are probably getting the same rates from the networks and cablers, the real difference being the disproportionately large chunk of change going into Company A’s owners’ pockets that they’ll begrudgingly fund overages out of only after things start to go south.   Bringing shows in for them while paying anemic rates is like playing poker in Vegas.  Sometimes the house wins, sometimes it loses, it just depends on the flop.

Since Company B pays competitive rates for their story producers and editors, they can attract more experienced, seasoned people.  The result is a happier, more efficient work environment in which great shows can be turned out by skilled minds and eyes without robbing their employees of sleep or pride.  There are fewer mistakes, fewer notes.  The owners still make a healthy (though less obscene) profit on their shows, and generally, everybody goes home happy at the end of the day.

I’m begging you, future editors and story folks … don’t work for Company A.  Just don’t.  If you get promoted within, you’ll probably work your way up the ladder and someday be supervising shows for about the same money you should have been making down the flow chart as a story producer.  What kind of reward or long term plan is that, and why on earth would you remain so doggedly loyal to a company that would treat you like that just to get a title bump or two?

On Professionalism


I’ve got just a few weeks left as Supervising Producer on a show at a Burbank company that I’ve really fallen in love with over the past few months.  What makes it a joy to come to work there every day?  The level of professionalism within the company.  The execs let you do your job, discuss changes instead of just hammering you to do things their way, and thank staff individually for good work done on a tight time frame.  My story department is easily the best I’ve ever had.  The editors… don’t get me started.  Solid gold rockstars, all. 

What you bring to each production, in addition to your skill set, is your ability to function as a professional.  You’re on time, you’re dressed like you don’t live out of a glovebox, and you know how to integrate into a team.  These don’t sound like huge things until you wind up working with someone who can’t manage reciprocal respect for the talents and personalities of his or her coworkers.

Over the years, I’ve dealt with editors who’d physically (no joke) lock me out of the bay and cobble their own stories together while leaving coffee rings on my paper edits.  I’ve worked with people who bring their dogs to work and let ’em roam (I love dogs, but it’s really gross-out city when the pups leave little presents you don’t run into until after the owner’s taken them home). 

No matter how talented you are (or think you are), you’re going to leave a dozen or more people behind at the end of every job who can either help you find work later or endeavor to ruin your name for being a self-absorbed jerkwad who shows late, leaves early, and discounts everyone else’s opinions as garbage.

Given the choice, work hard not to be the latter.  Be appreciative of your team, respect the folks above and below you who all share the same boat, and above all, do a great job.

StoryTroy / RealityTvTroy


Okay, okay, you got me.  Before there was RealityTvTroy, there was StoryTroy, which is the nickname I actually use. 

I came by the handle while working on The Bachelor, where another Troy was working on set.  When the walkie calls got too confusing, I became “StoryTroy” in order to cut through the confusion.

By the time I got around to WordPress here, some other enterprising soul had already laid claim to StoryTroy and I was StoryStuck.  Hence the title shift.

Story and Ethics


One major difference between a character in traditionally scripted sitcoms and dramas and a character on a reality television show is that outside the confines of the tube, no one expects the sitcom/drama actor to be the same person they are onscreen.

With reality shows, participants have to live with the public’s opinion of them as individuals for a long while after their turns on tv.  It can affect their ability to function in relationships, find employment, or interact in daily life with the bank tellers, clerks, and cab crivers who recognize them.

Source material can be reworked in hundreds of ways to infuse meaning that may or may not be true to the situations originally recorded.  Guided interview content alone can completely change the meaning of a scene. 

For example, if little Judy gets up and dances on a table in New Orleans, is it because she’s a wacky funster or a lush who can’t control her public drunkenness?  Interview content alone can paint the picture, and it’s up to the ethical standards of story producers to make the call.

So viewers, remember to watch your favorite sensational shows with the same critical eye you’d watch your favorite dramas with.  And when you see your favorite reality stars on the street, don’t be surprised if they’re not the monsters or angels you think they are.

Reality Pro Tip: The Forecast Bite


Interview content can do more than merely summarize or clarify scenework, it can also invite viewers to invest themselves in your cast members’ long-term arcs with something I’ve always called “forecast bites.”

Instead of just asking your talent how they felt when x or y happened to them, ask them how they feel an event or interaction will affect their choices and actions from that point forward.

For example, which response to an interview question engages you more?

“None of us could believe what Judy did.  She really threw the whole team under the bus.”

or

“None of us could believe what Judy did.  She really threw the whole team under the bus.  I’m definitely gonna lay out some sweet sabotage in the weeks to come, but I won’t be as obvious about it as Judy.”

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