Economics of scripted "reality" shows

A common complaint about various reality shows is that they are scripted. I have taken some film production classes, and I was taught that the whole reason reality shows exist is so production companies don’t have to pay writers to make a script. Of course, making a scripted one defeats the entire purpose of this, and you might as well make something with an original story.

But how scripted are they? I assumed it wasn’t much more than “OK, we need some tension here - you two guys yell at each other, OK?” You think they give them lines and motivation and all that stuff?

Just saw a video on facts about Pawn Stars. The video makes a few points about the scripting. Those purchases aren’t walk in strangers with items for sale. They are vetted before hand, giving Rick time to do a little research and act like he knew all about the item. The set isn’t the pawn shop as apparently Nevada law forbids filming in a pawn shop, so they made a matching set to use. There was a guitar brought in once, claimed to be Jimi Hendriz’s guitar. It was Jimi’s, no doubt. However the guy who brought it in worked at a guitar store down the street. It seems the expert Rick called worked at the same guitar store. A blogger recognized both parties as employees of that guitar store and spilled the beans.

So basically, Pawn Stars is totally scripted in the sense that the items vetted prior to ever making it to the “store” (read that store “set”) for filming.

No, the whole point is that they don’t have to pay actors. Professional actors are expensive. Trailer trash is cheap, and often free. Ask Jerry Springer. And so are washed up celebrities trying to get back into the spotlight. And a lot of so called “reality” shows are really just game shows (American Idol, etc) which have always been cheap.

Also they aren’t scripted so much as staged. They’re told what to do and how to act and where to do it, but Honey Boo Boo and her mom probably aren’t memorizing lines. So they still don’t have to pay writers. It’s more like the director has an idea and says “let’s do this today”.

I once worked on a documentary for the History Channel. Prior to taping, I did about two months of research and forwarded my findings to the production company so they could block out the episode. When the crew arrived, we worked out the shooting schedule and decided what we would talk about in general. Then we just went ahead and shot the episode. No scripting was required, except for the narration that accompanied the episode. The only things that were “staged” were the meet-and-greet sequences.

The same when I co-hosted a radio show. The DJ and I would discuss something for maybe 30 seconds during a commercial break, and then we’d wing it when we were back on the air.

They don’t use either writers or professional actors. They do however all use *amateur *actors, people with good looks, personality etc. just without any paid acting gigs on their resume. ‘Scripted’ is a very specific thing, having an actual script written by a union TV writer, that is rehearsed and memorized and performed. Generally by professional actors (being able to memorize lines is part of being a professional actor). The production people give ‘reality’ actors general ideas about what they want to have happen. Then of course the shows are heavily, ***heavily ***edited.

The shows are incredibly cheap because not only do they not pay writers or actors, they spend almost nothing on sets, wardrobe, etc. A couple cameramen, sound guy, a few flunkys and a director is all it takes. Of course 99% of all reality shows disappear without a trace, but if just one is even a modest hit on basic cable it can be a license to print money. For a season or spin-off or two at least. That’s why they work financially.

These shows aren’t scripted. They’re improv. No producer is sitting at a table working out the beats for the cast. The cast members are supposed to do that for themselves and improv the situations themselves.

And you can do wonders with editing. Just splice in a reaction shot, and you’ve suddenly got drama where none existed before. Alice says something stupid, cut away to a reaction shot of Bob rolling his eyes, and now Alice and Bob have a conflict. Never mind that Bob was rolling his eyes over something else that happened hours later.

I’ve never watch Pawn Stars but I’ve watched most of Hardcore Pawn (a similar show, except set in Detroit). Many of the supposed customers start yelling about how the store staff isn’t giving enough in pawn on their merchandise. I suspect that the “customers” are told that if they’re bland (meaning polite and well-behaved), they’re not going to appear on television, so many of them act out. (It may be that they get an appearance fee if they appear in the finished show, so there’s a monetary incentive as well?)

Chrome Underground, worst example of unreal reality show I’ve ever seen.

Sounds like on “Wife Swap” where they always took the most totally opposite families and put them together. In 2 weeks you know they will get 50 minutes of good footage. Just put 2 average families together and the drama wouldnt be as big.

Then you throw in how many of the people are actually hamming it up for the camera with the hopes of getting their own reality show which is really what happened with “Duck Dynasty”.

I read how the Duggars were only paid between $25,000 and $40,000 per episode while the average tv show costs $2 million to $3 million to make.

Here is a site which shows how much several current and past tv series cost to make.

It’s a long standing issue between reality shows and the writer’s guild. The guild thinks the writers should be paid union wages and the producer’s don’t think the writers are writing scripts so they can be paid less.

One way to reduce union pressure is to talk cast members thru what the writers want them to say, rather than have it written down. Look Ma, no script!

Reality shows are so well known to be non-reality, that Mariah Carey wants everyone to know her new E! show isn’t a reality show. It is actual …, well, “reality”. (Sure Mariah, sure.)

Reality shows are sort of a combination of daytime soap operas and the ‘high-concept’ sitcoms of the 60s like I Dream of Genie or The Munsters. They’re cheesy, tacky melodrama but with some specific (and ridiculous) ‘gimmick’ to grab your attention. Thing is unlike those high-concept sitcoms, which were extremely expensive for the time, these shows are even cheaper to produce than soap operas*!* Soap operas are ruled by union pay scales for everything, in front of and behind the camera. Reality shows, as has been said, are the cheapest things to ever be made for TV.

It’s flash over substance, quantity over quality. Which is why they all, ya know, completely suck shit… :smiley:


There’s a real big area between ‘acting exactly as they would if they weren’t being filmed’ (which frankly is just about impossible), and ‘consciously trying to get their own reality show’. Everyone will act at least a little different when they know they’re being filmed. Some will be more cautious and nervous (and these types will be edited out and not asked back), while some will (not necessarily consciously) act up and be more dramatic. And of course, as directors show appreciation for the acting up, the people will likely (again, maybe without realizing it) start trying to give the director more of the crazy drama that they seem to like.
[Comparisons to the current political situation are left up to the reader]

I always thought “scripted” reality shows meant that they give the participants instructions on how to behave (be insane and super-dramatic!) and more importantly, they contrive situations and events to place the participants in, so that they can generate drama. Like they might have financed the Duggar’s trip somewhere that they know will cause drama. Or they might pull strings to get the entire “Real Housewives of <somewhere>” into some swanky gala, and then convince one of them to dress really inappropriately or something.

I’m pretty sure that they’re not doing readings of lines and rehearsals, etc… but nor are they literally doing the mere voyeuristic watching of some interesting people either.

I made a joke about this earlier today actually.

Ms Cups is a fan of Vanderpump Rules and they were doing their reunion show and the host dude said to one of the girls “You weren’t invited to this party, so why did you go?” and I snidely remarked “well, the producers said it would be good TV if I showed up, so I did!”

Snide remarks like that are why the wife won’t watch tv with me in the room. So we both win!

They are amateur actors by definition. However I saw a talk about a guy who was on a show where the premise was that they were stuck in a house after the apocalypse and had to use what was on hand to fend off the savage gangs. He worked for and still works for IBM, in now way has good looks the way you mean, and is not an amateur actor except by definition that he was on a show.
They got tasks to do for each show, so there was scripting in that sense, but certainly not in the they get sides before the shoot sense.
Just like on game shows they do select for who will work well on camera, and I suppose they cast for the different personality types they want.