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This post originally appeared on VICE Australia
The following account of the sexually charged, but still somehow deeply boring, world of a reality TV producer was provided to VICE by someone who has worked in the industry for several years. In the interest of their job, and to ensure they could divulge the good stuff, they've asked to remain anonymous. While they don't name the shows they worked on, it's safe to say if you clicked on a story about reality TV, you'll probably be able to figure it out.
There are two types of people in the world: those who would do reality TV, and those who wouldn't. Those who would see it as a legitimate career option. They know they could end up writing books, making albums, working in TV, designing cookware, and hosting late night game shows. They apply because humans love shortcuts. Reality TV looks like a warp zone to your dreams, bypassing boring shit like a four year apprenticeship peeling garlic.
Plus, there's the makeover factor. Don't underestimate the appeal that holds. No matter what happens on the show, at the very least we'll turn you into a solid 8.5. People will do pretty much anything for the spotlight once they've had foundation applied with an airbrush gun.
"People will do pretty much anything for the spotlight once they've had foundation applied with an airbrush gun."
On the other side of this are all the producers like me. I've worked across a range of TV shows that I won't name because I really like my job and want to keep it. But if you watch reality TV in Australia, you've seen my work. People have a misconception that reality TV producers are puppeteers, pushing contestants to breakdowns. But good producers care a lot. When you're working 100 hours a week on a show, the wellbeing of these strangers is your entire life.
You're a surrogate parent, sibling, personal assistant, and confidante to a pack of adults who aren't allowed to take a piss unaccompanied. It's a huge, choking responsibility, and over the course of filming, you get to know them intimately. You know their psychological history, their shoe size, who needs fungal cream, and who had a UTI. You know which contestant packed a vibrator for "anxiety." Sometimes, you walk in on them fucking. It's a production assistant rite of passage to walk in on a host giving or receiving a blowjob.
Talent shows are especially full of hook ups. The waiting around time is at a maximum, and artistic types tend to be more loose than their home-renovation counterparts. Dancers in particular are used to spending a lot of time half undressed, getting in and out of skimpy costumes; they're all unbelievably beautiful, have known each other for ages, and all sleep together. That openness can cause run-on issues though. On one dance-focused show I had problems with a minor celebrity sportsman who wouldn't keep his shirt and pants on backstage. Usually I wouldn't mind, but the roving cameras complained they couldn't use their B-roll footage because there was a naked dude in the background of all the shots.
With all the pressure, as a producer you're aware of never getting too obviously involved. We never make anybody do anything they don't want to do. If a contestant is angry or upset, a producer might get them talking about what they could possibly do to address the issue. The contestant often organically talks themselves into action. Questioning a judge, confronting another cast member, storming out of a scene, or yanking someone's hair extensions can all be brought about by subtle encouragement and nodding.
Having a winning contestant or star isn't about the drama. To be good on TV, you just need to be able to talk. The audience can fall for you if you're self-conscious (endearing), a bogan (relatable), rude (honest), as long as you're charming. And that charm can be hard to pick ahead of time, it's not a matter of ticking boxes like "loudmouth vegan" and "opinionated single mom." Australian audiences want something more complex—which is uplifting.
Producers have favorites too, obviously, and it's exhilarating when they do a great job. The good ones show up, don't complain, and act grateful. But this is reality TV, so there are also those who make everyone's lives a living hell. They make the assistants cry, bully other contestants, spread rumors through the greenroom, and generally shit-stir their way through the entire experience.
Contraband becomes a big focus. Some will beg and bribe their driver to take them to McDonalds or stop at the liquor store. Sometimes they get treats like half a glass of wine, but often it's a dry environment. One contestant was so desperate they created a mouthwash and Red Bull cocktail and hid it in the garden for secret swigs.
Another pair on a dating show were given an hour and a half to grab a coffee and some fresh air unsupervised. They proceeded to drink seven glasses of wine each at the pokies down the road. We had a bachelorette who would get so drunk, she had to have her wallet taken off her by a chaperone every time she boarded a flight. One family day, a contestant went for lunch with his wife and two little kids, and came back five hours later stoned out of his mind.
Contestants are never prepared for what it will be like or how much they'll be at the complete mercy of production. They often have to do awkward advertorial-type stuff on camera, like using certain tools or mentioning how a certain product is really helping them complete a challenge. They need to put aside their personal feelings about white sugar, Powerade, or Chrysler carbon emissions. One contestant was assured her leather kitchen boots were a specially-ordered vegan version.
"They're told they have a value, and that their story matters."
They know without them, reality TV wouldn't exist and they think they can handle the machine and maybe drive it to their advantage. The ones that think they can outwit the system are the most hurt in the end, and who claim they were manipulated. That anger comes from a sense of shame that they never had it sussed after all.
It's not uncommon for contestants to have a personality crisis once filming ends. They've lived alongside very exaggerated personalities and spent months thinking strategically about themselves and who they are as a "brand." They've had an entire team producing every moment of their lives, and they get comfortable with the sense of ease and routine. Everyone on set knows their name and someone tells them where they need to be next. They're told they have value, and that their story matters. That they matter. It's a shock when that all just goes away.
But despite all the meltdowns, I actually feel pretty good about reality TV. It's cool to see regular people work their guts out and surprise themselves. The high moments on set send a wave of adrenalin through the entire crew, and you can physically feel it when you've made a moment of really mesmerizing TV. That's what we live for, that's why we pick up fungal cream for strangers.