SES 2011: Primetime Reality Programs Build Drama Without a Clock

At first glance, the productions of The Amazing Race, Hard Knocks, Live Poker, and the Miss Universe competition would seem to have little in common, but, at the SVG Sports Entertainment Summit held in Los Angeles last week, four execs revealed the common ground they all stand on.

For example, all are greatly influenced by the Internet and the ability to give TV viewers and fans content that they otherwise would not have seen.

“TV is not going to die, but the Web and TV will provide content concurrently,” said Colin Hornett, producer and head of new media for the Miss Universe organization. “We use the Web to show the contestants who make the cut celebrating and going crazy [backstage] and to also show those who didn’t make it coming off in tears. Those are real moments and can [help viewers build] a connection to the contestants.”

Profiles of the contestants are also important on the Web because, unlike with professional sports, viewers don’t have years to get to know the contestants.

“Miss Universe is empowering women,” Hornett said, “and we want to tell that story. The Web provides us that opportunity to allow viewers to know the women outside of the evening gown and swimsuit.”

The pressure for that extra content is always there, said Phil Keoghan, host of The Amazing Race, noting that, even when he is trying to sleep, he will have the camera with him and shoot extra shots. That extra work can pay off financially.

“If you get elements you need [for a good shot] and hand that content over, then a sponsorship deal could follow, and that is worth money,” he explained. “And where things are going is to make content so that where it lives and how it is accessed is seamless; it isn’t like the Web is ancillary. We will make content, it’s on a screen, and it is part of a world that we call ‘entertainment.’”

John Faratzis, executive producer, Live Poker Productions, has a different challenge with respect to extra content. Poker Websites are a major sponsor of Live Poker Productions, and they want hits. So, as much as possible, content on TV drives viewers to the Web for additional content (players are given Flip video cameras) and also access to competitive poker sites.

All the productions represented at the session face the same challenge of producing live and relatively unscripted competitive programs. They have much of the drama of a live sports event and all of the challenge of a live sports production even though they often lack a play clock ticking down to zero.

The Amazing Race, for example, shoots 13 episodes in 25 days and covers 50,000 miles. A staff of 50 travels with the show, and additional operators are hired around the globe.

“It’s produced by an extraordinary group of people, and it feels live because it is,” said Keoghan. “We get one chance to get a shot, and, if we don’t get it, it’s over. And, when we get to Argentina and there is political unrest, we can’t stop the world to create our own world.”

Faratzis has a little more control over his environment, with additional opportunities to build memorable moments. “The emotions are exposed because there is no faceguard or helmet. So we may make the dealer hold the card for a little longer for raw, real emotion.”

Ken Rodgers, senior producer, NFL Films/producer, Hard Knocks, said that his team also faces the challenge of capturing the right moment: “Once we made a decision, there is no going back, so we will focus on the characters that we find interesting.”

Wading through hours of footage for one episode takes a lot of work, but it has also led to team members’ developing an innate sense of what makes for compelling TV.

“If you see something in the Avid editing suite and you love it or laugh at it the first time you see it, don’t worry about whether someone else will like it,” Rodgers said. “Trust your instincts. When you get into the mode where you have 15 people over your shoulder, the quality gets diluted. You need to go with your guts.”

For reality TV, music also is key to adding drama.

“Music tells the viewer how they should be watching something, and it can set the mood and also signal a new moment,” said Keoghan. “It’s a powerful tool and absolutely paramount that the music is right.”

For Rodgers, a mix of original music and licensed pop music is important also in giving viewers a break. Because Hard Knocks has no commercial breaks, “musical montages allow the viewer to turn off a part of their brain and relax.”