Reality programming: from great idea to great TV

Yes, the truth is stranger than fiction. That’s saying a lot, because TV fiction did get pretty strange for awhile (Remember Small Wonder and Manimal?). But that can’t compare with what people are doing in real life, and how much of it they’re willing to do in front of a camera while getting a nice paycheck for their antics.

"Little House on the Prairie" reunion? Nope. They're Amish, and the subject of more than one reality show

“Little House on the Prairie” reunion? Nope. They’re Amish, and the subject of more than one reality show

This is one of those good news/bad news situations. Yes, there seems to be an audience for just about any lifestyle these days. But, because there are so many reality shows and a limited number of television slots, the competition is pretty fierce. We’d love to say the bar is pretty high, but we’re forced to acknowledge that some questionable shows made it over that bar. Or perhaps snuck under the bar in the dead of night when no one was looking.

There are several things you have to emphasize if you want to sell a reality show, be it about your life, your job, someone else’s life or job, or some totally awesome competition. (C’mon, if they did Cupcake Wars surely they’ll be willing to swallow your idea for Frittata Fracas.) Developing a complete treatment is a lengthy process that can’t be dealt with here, but we can give you some pointers to help you see whether your project has enough substance to merit the time and effort a treatment entails.

Can You Make More Than One Episode?

First, you need to prove there’s enough material to get you through multiple episodes. At least eight (including the pilot) is a good number, but even six is workable. A network may not want to commit to an entire season, but might consider you as a midseason replacement. Hey, it’s a foot in the door.

OK, you've got the basic idea. But can you get eight episodes out of it?

OK, you’ve got the basic idea. But can you get eight episodes out of it?

Storyboarding and concept development are not only important for outlining the premise of the show, but outlining the basis for all of those episodes. You can always plot out a few extra, just to show potential backers and the networks that you’ve got material for a second season too. What will happen in each episode? Is there an element of conflict, competition, or suspense (audiences love all of the above)? And do you have episodes where things turn out unexpectedly so that the viewers won’t know what to expect from show to show? The surprise eliminations on competition-style shows are always fodder for water-cooler chat the next day.

Who Will Be On Camera

Next, consider the appeal of your proposed on-camera talent. If this includes you, ask other people for an honest opinion, and be gracious in accepting it. If the answer is: “NO! You should NOT be on camera unless they’re casting The Hunchback of Notre Dame! “ they have at least kept the feedback in a private setting rather than letting you be savaged by critics on a national level.

You should have basic bios for anyone appearing on camera consistently. If they’re in more than two episodes, they should have at least a short bio, unless these are just brief walk-ons. Keep the bios short and punchy, and highlight what makes this on-camera talent so compelling, and most importantly, why the audience will feel a connection with them. Or at least, why viewers will be interested in them, because as several shows (which shall go nameless to avoid lawsuits) have proven, a cast of complete jerks can be highly popular. Make sure you also explain how you will reveal these neat tidbits about the talent to the audience. Will it be part of the narration in the opening credits, or will this info come out in bits and pieces episode by episode? These bios will be used outside the show. The networks will likely want to give you a show page on their website, and they want to know there will be good material to post there. Bios are an essential part of that, and a big part of any promotional material the networks may issue.

Time & Fallout

Finally you have to consider two potential down sides: The time commitment and the fallout. If the show gets the green light, it will involve a significant time commitment for the talent and the production team, especially if there’s any travel in the show. It can be grueling for people to be on the road for weeks at a time, especially if they have families. If the families are part of the show, the added stress of traveling together on tight deadlines can make any existing tensions even worse. Production companies like Hencar know about this and accept extended travel as part of the process, but you need to be honest with anyone who’s going to appear on camera (including yourself) about just how much time will be involved.

There’s also fallout, such as the exposure a show brings. If the show is very successful, the people involved will see changes in their lives. They could be recognized everywhere they go, and that’s not always a good thing. Some days you just want to throw on a ball cap and a t-shirt and walk down to the corner coffee shop for some quiet time, but if you’ve become a local celebrity there might not be much quiet involved. And, worst-case scenario, there’s the fallout if the show flops. While a lot of people are eager for their 15 minutes of fame, it isn’t much fun if 13 of those minutes are filled with derisive laughter from critics.

Hencar will guide you through all of these steps as well as the longer process of developing a treatment if you want to pursue your dreams of a reality show. Be aware that we’ll ask some extensive and sometimes tough questions, but understand that you’d face these questions at some point anyway, and it’s better to be prepared with solid answers. So if you really think you’ve got something special, don’t hesitate to give us a call and see how we can turn your dream into your shot at the big time.