SES 2011: From Survivor to Shaq, It’s All Reality

Reality shows are ubiquitous in almost any programming lineup, sports networks included. Programs like Hard Knocks, The Amazing Race, and Shaq Vs. have blurred the line between reality shows and sports, creating new challenges for production teams across the industry. At SVG’s Sports Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles on Tuesday, reality producers from the sports and entertainment worlds took the stage to discuss workflows, media storage, and direction techniques.

“You always hear the cliché that sports is the ultimate reality show, but it really is true,” said Gary Waksman, senior producer of original entertainment for MLB Productions, who has produced The Pen and The Club for MLB Network. “You can’t script it, it’s raw. That’s why people watch it. You have to keep that in mind when you’re [producing a sports reality show] and sometimes just stand back and let the story play out.”

The Key to Success: Detailed Notes
Reality-show staffs have the unenviable task of turning hundreds of hours of raw footage into a half-hour or one-hour program. For most producers, the key to streamlining this process, and to keeping their sanity, is attentive and detailed note-keeping.

Survivor has shooting ratios in excess of 250:1, which is an amazing number,” said Relativity Real’s Kevin Green, who has served as co-executive producer on Survivor since 2004. “Managing that media becomes a monumental task. The most important part is keeping quality notes in the field concerning what stories you are following and which cameras are covering those stories.”

The same goes for sports-oriented reality shows. When dealing with an accelerated shooting schedule and an unpredictable personality like Shaquille O’Neal on Shaq Vs., freelance producer Gary Lang (who has also produced ESPN’s Shifting Gears with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Spike TV’s Pros vs. Joes, and a number of other reality and sports programs) took exhaustive notes to stay on top of the storyline.

“On Shaq Vs., we had a very quick turnaround,” he explained. “So we had a live group and a post group, and we were basically working at the same time. Our shooting ratio was about 150:1, and we turned those shows around in just two to three weeks. Notes were very critical. You couldn’t miss any of those little Shaq moments because, if you weren’t paying attention and logging them, the moment was gone.”

Creating the Characters
According to Greene, there are two schools of thought when it comes to producing reality television. The Survivor philosophy is to let the drama play out on its own without giving the participants any emotional direction. The second, which is often deployed in so-called docusoaps, is to push the story along by directing talent in one direction or another and even roughly scripting certain scenes.

“I prefer to let people be themselves because they’re better at being them than I am. That’s what Survivor has done,” said Greene. “But many producers believe they have to make the story happen. A lot of situations on those shows are set up in order to generate an interesting story.”

Other producers come in with a rough outline of characters and plotlines and go from there.

“We have a list of the players that you want to humanize and characters and storylines we want to develop, but that will change along the way sometimes,” said Waksman. “We pretty much know the people we’re dealing with from over the years, so we play to their strength and weaknesses.”

For a live event like the X Games, reality elements take on an entirely different role. While the drama of the competition is real, the athletes’ personalities must also be brought to light throughout the production.

“At the X Games, we work with the athletes a lot ahead of time so that we can build them what they need and know what to expect,” said Tim Reed, senior director of sports and competitions for Global X Events. “We have to know what’s coming so we can build it into the [storyline]. Then, hopefully, we’ll get something spectacular out of it.”

The Trust Factor
Perhaps the most important element to sports-based reality shows is the subject’s relationship with the production crew. Unlike on traditional reality shows, the athletes have a job to do aside from the show and are not obligated to participate.

“The trust factor is absolutely critical when you’re dealing with athletes,” said Waksman. “They’re not there for the cameras, like in other reality shows. They couldn’t care less about us. You have to prove that you can stay within their routine and not take them out of their element. If you show them any indication that you don’t belong in a clubhouse, you’re in a for pretty tough stretch.”

Lang seconded that notion, saying that the most important factor to any athlete-focused reality show is keeping to the athlete’s schedule. “Athletes have very strict routines, and, if you break their routine, they get very upset. If you have a half-hour window with an athlete, you better get your shoot done in that half-hour. If they walk in and you’re still adjusting lights and moving cameras around, it’s going to be a very tough day.”

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