An Insider's Guide to What Makes Good Reality TV
Reality Tv Cover.jpg

Bringing reality TV to life means turning hours of raw footage into clear conflicts and character beats. We went to Emmy Award winning editor Katherine Griffin for a look.

In narrative scripts, conflict is king. However, creating compelling, layered, and truthful characters is key to having the audience taking care of the trip. Reality TV could be the purest exploration of this concept.

One of the main differences between scripted and unscripted is who is driving the success of the story. Feature films are often directed. Scripted TV is the author and producer's medium. However, one could argue that reality TV is produced in the edit bay. Hours of footage must be cut to identify the desired conflict and character development. Reality shows, like the story, are not always based on facts, but on their interpretation by those responsible. Are there any responsibilities in this interpreted representation, or is it just entertainment?

To break it all down, PremiumBeat went to an invaluable source – Emmy Award-winning Editor for Top Chef and six-time nominee Katherine Griffin.

Editor's Insights Katherine Griffin

Griffin's work on reality television is extensive. She's worked on shows about finding love (Beauty and the Geek, Bachelor in Paradise), testing personal determination (Fear Factor, American Ninja Warriors), family dynamics (keeping up with the Kardashians), as a team to work (The Amazing Race), and outstanding career (Project Runway, Shear Genius, Top Design, Top Chef).

Documentary storytelling

As diverse as these shows are, we asked ourselves: Is there a common thread when we approach an adaptation for a reality show?

Yes, because they are all different types of documentary storytelling. In Reality TV, the editor is the visual writer responsible for keeping track of all aspects of the story. This also applies to all types of shows in the genre. A key aspect of this is the sheer volume of footage we get. We have hundreds of hours of unreplayed footage and sometimes a camera. When you cut down on reality TV, you need to figure out how to reduce all of that to one short, clear story. Often times this is a real challenge. Sometimes the key moments aren't even captured on camera and you need to get creative. Often times, I look at footage that has no natural beginning, center, or end and I have to figure out how to make a scene out of it. Just like Tim Gunn says, "Make it work!" The creativity that we have as Reality Television editors is great.

make it work

In theory, the concept of “make it work” seems romantic, but what about reality? What tricks can an editor use to aid storytelling with limited footage? And are these other tricks than a script editor might use?

No different, but I'd say it's fair to say we use certain tricks more often as we approach storytelling more from a writing perspective. Like cheating on lines from a completely different scene or using interviews to punctuate a moment. We don't necessarily have all of the elements that you would naturally expect from a script shoot. As a result, we more often search through all of the season's footage to find wild lines or reaction shots to make a scene work. When it comes together seamlessly, it's really enjoyable.

What I find remarkable about the editing of reality and documentary television as a whole is that the editors are not just picture editors. We are fully responsible for editing all sounds, sound effects, music and graphics. Literally, everything you see and hear on a reality television show has been selected and designed by the editor to tell the story. That rarely happens anywhere else in the industry, but personally I wouldn't want it any other way. I love the sound and music editing aspect of my job.

Approach projects with Avid

With so much responsibility, you need great strength. Katherine is most comfortable with Avid, which has great media management and sharing capabilities.

Personally, I only use Avid. Lots of editors jump around on multiple systems for different types of projects, and I made a short film about Final Cut many years ago. But I just really like Avid, probably because it translates so well from the actual film. It uses the same vocabulary and workflow. I learned to cut films and edited my first 16mm feature right after graduating from high school. Then I took classes to learn Avid when I first moved to Los Angeles, and it just felt so natural to me. Reality and documentary television is mostly limited to Avid, so it worked for me. It's best for working on large, shared projects, but it's also the system I use at home for my personal projects.

Reality TV longevity

Reality TV Series Keeping Up With The Kardashians Promotional Poster. Image via E! Entertainment television.

According to a 2018 study by Morning Consult / Hollywood Reporter, people's opinion about reality TV was low, but they still watched it. In fact, while chatting with Katherine, I felt the need to offer "full disclosure," which I've seen in all forty seasons of Survivor. She was very familiar with this reaction and delved deeper into what she thinks adds to the longevity of many of these reality shows.

Whenever someone tells me they love what I am working on, they always say something like, "I never watch reality TV, but …" or "I owe it my pleasure." I find that fascinating. I don't know the exact numbers, but Reality Television has to make up almost half of all programs that have billions in revenue. Yet it has this strange veil of shame around it. And Survivor is the perfect example – try naming another forty seasons show !!

I think the personal connection that viewers feel to these shows and the people or situations in them is exactly what gives the shows their longevity. Reality TV is essentially a piece of life. Regardless of whether it's documentaries like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or The Deadliest Catch or a competitive series like Top Chef or Project Runway, they are a glimpse into an already existing subculture. It's incredibly good to see! And because we're watching real people instead of trained actors, people can't help but introduce themselves on the show and wonder what they would do in that situation. Since casting changes every season of the year, unlike screenplay television, a show can keep the same construct from season to season, but still feel fresh and exciting with a whole new group of people. That's what gives these shows endurance.

The secret of casting

The amazing race

Reality TV show The Amazing Race. Image via CBS.

Casting seems to be everything when it comes to reality TV. We were curious: what are the secret ingredients that help a performer's popularity wane over an entire season?

Again, I think the formula for success is to cast authentic people willing to share very personal aspects of their lives in a controlled environment (there are cameras and everyone knows they are being filmed) where anything can happen. Anything can be said and there is no redo or undo. And of course the editing.

Provision of a roadmap

That's the problem, isn't it? Expect honesty and vulnerability from people who know they are being filmed and edited. How much actual reality can you expect to capture? And who is driving that? In stories, the scriptwriter provides the text. Do producers on reality TV provide the roadmap and agenda or is the show really included in the footage?

There is definitely a road map. By the time I edit a show, the on-site producers have been working with the producers in the post (sometimes they're the same person and sometimes they're not) and they have worked out the general structure of the episodes and the season. However, when it comes to documentaries I edit rather than a competition, there's a lot of trial and error and plenty of room for exploration. Sometimes whole storylines develop from an interesting aspect of the footage that resonates on screen, or sometimes it turns out that what the producers thought was the A-story doesn't serve the entire season and is scrapped. More than any other genre, it is really editor-controlled. One of the things that fascinates me so much about reality TV is that if three different editors were given the same roadmap and footage, you would really have three very different shows.

The narration of the character

Archetypes arise in reality television. Heroes and villains, the madmen, the cutthroats, the trustworthy or the intense. Obviously, decisions have to be made to support a character's narrative that works within the show's drama. What does it cost people and has a participant ever questioned their representation in the processing? What are the ethical concerns when a reputation is damaged because they are real people rather than fictional characters? Katherine spoke about it.

I'm sure this happened a lot in the early days of reality, but I feel like this has evolved significantly even over the course of my career. In the beginning it was the wild west and people might not have known what they were getting into. I'm sure there have been people who have challenged their portrayal, but the contracts they sign are very explicit. I don't know any specific ones, but I'll never forget when I went to one of my very first shows at a company that no longer exists and a character was classified as gay. He didn't come out alone and I was ashamed. I remember my producer saying, "You have to leave your conscience at the door, Griffin." Of course, I didn't work there much longer.

I don't think such ethical concerns arise anymore, at least not at any of the shows in my sphere. I actually believe that the opposite is now the case. I've just finished a season of RuPaul & # 39; s Drag Race All Stars and the executive producer worked closely with me to make sure the portrayal of each queen honors exactly who they are.

Most of the time the characters reveal themselves and we just let them do it.

The future of reality TV

Where is the future of reality TV going? Will influencers like the Kardashians, the helpers like the Queer Eye team, Insert City's Real Housewives or the competition shows show the way? Katherine sees a new trend based on a new normal.

I think this culturally turbulent time that we are going through is going to have a huge impact. Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of our government … they will all inform shows that are evolving. Due to its documentary style, reality TV is perfect for addressing current events directly. It reflects the time. It actually pains me that the term “reality TV star” has become so derisive because of the current resident of the Oval Office, because I consider reality TV to be very powerful and extremely creative. It has such a large selection and there really is something for everyone. Who would have thought a couple therapy show would be so magnetic and raw? Or that you could have so many different shows about baking? I think it's great that these shows show such incredible talent and in some cases shape the industry. It is powerful!

The makers of the industry could be the most tangible beneficiaries of reality TV. For storytellers and storytellers, the gem that emerged from talking to Katherine was her observation that "mostly characters reveal themselves". Her job is the interface between art and technology, but her talent for viewers, supported by the medium's continued popularity, is to find the film material that makes everyday people relatable and empathetic.

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Cover image from Rhythm + Flow via Netflix.

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