We admit it. We’ve been watching a lot of reality TV lately. Fortunately, we’ve turned it into something “productive” by providing Atlanta INtown readers with a weekly recap of each delectable Real Housewives of Atlanta episode served up by Bravo TV every Sunday night.
Watching all the wig-pulling, table-throwing, back-stabbing and general going-over-the-topping left us curious about what goes on behind the scenes of a reality show. How much of reality TV is real? We’re lucky enough to know someone who can fill us in. Producer Pamela Berger lives here intown Atlanta, but works all over the world.
Over dinner at Paul Lunacy’s Black Market (delicious and highly recommended), we coerced Pam to spill all the beans she could. Lunacy’s food and wine are excellently paired with secrets of the trade.
Thanks for agreeing to chat with us. To get started, can you name some shows you’ve worked on?
Flavor of Love, Strange Love, Real World/Road Rules Challenge, Rock of Love, My Fair Brady, Atlanta’s Bait Car and most recently Braxton Family Values with Toni Braxton. I’m producing another season of Real World/Road Rules Challenge for MTV next.
How did a nice girl like you wind up in a Flavor Flav/Keeping up with the Kardashians world like this? (Wouldn’t that be a nightmare love-child!)
I started out at Turner and originally worked on children’s programming – teaching kids about what scientists do, nature shows, et cetera. I’m a documentarian at heart, and I fought moving into reality television for a long time. But, I’ve really grown to like it because of the people I work with on set and also because of the spontaneity of what happens in front of the cameras. Although I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, it always amazes me what people do and say when the cameras are rolling.
What do you do when you’re working on a show?
On a reality TV set, I’m usually a story producer. As a story producer, I follow the story points as they unfold on the set each day and write a summary of what happens. Then, I interview cast members about the story points from each day’s shoot. From hours of interviews, I’ll pull out the sound bites I want to use, and then I create a story arc along with the show’s editors. It’s a team effort, and it takes time to mold it and figure out the strongest storylines for each episode, so what we start with and end with can be two completely different things. A typical reality show season is shot over 4 to 6 weeks and edited over about 3 months with each episode taking about 3 days to shoot.
Reality shows give us people to root for, but they’re even better at giving us people we love to hate. Does it all come down to editing, as some cast members claim? Do story producers “create” a cast member’s personality?
No, we can’t make someone do something in a scene. If someone fights, hooks up, or acts in a certain way, that’s real. We don’t, and can’t, create that, although we can certainly enhance it. However, if producers try to manipulate the situation too much, it becomes clear to the cast members, and they’ll stop cooperating. A reality show where the storyline is too manipulated ultimately won’t succeed. Audiences can tell.
We can’t imagine wanting to be so exposed. Not only are you letting everyone in on your personal life on television, but the action lives on in repeats. Who wants this to be their 15 minutes of fame?
Think about all of the people who go to L.A. to become actors. Now, they can go to be reality stars.
How do you put together the sound bites for your episodes? We’ve heard them called Frankenbites?
Yes, they’re called Frankenbites. On some shows, everything we shoot is logged and transcribed, so we can review what each person has said throughout our shoot. Sometimes, to support a scene or a storyline, we need more concise commentary from a cast member about what happened, so we’ll piece together sound bites to get a point across or support the action. To be clear, I wouldn’t change the context of what someone said or make them say something that’s not true, but this is a useful tool for storytelling purposes.
How hard is it to pull information out of cast members when you interview them?
These days you have to do less to pull things out of the cast. People want to get on these shows, and they’re sophisticated about it. They come to the party with their characters in place. New York, one of the women on Flavor of Love, came “in character” and never broke character throughout the show, on or off camera.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Interviewing the subjects. It’s a big part of what I do. The interviews are what hold the storylines together and provide the narrative. Fortunately, I happen to have a knack for it. During a typical shooting schedule, a reality show producer will do interviews with cast members twice a week for 8 to 10 hours, so you’ve got to like that part of the job.
How do you balance your relationships with cast members and keep your objectivity. Do you get personally involved?
It’s an important part of the job to have personal relationships with your subjects, especially since you’ll be spending a lot of time interviewing them. You have to balance the needs of the cast with the needs of the show. Ultimately, cast members are driven by their desire for fame, so they’re there for the good, the bad and the ugly, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t mini breakdowns along the way. Producers on reality sets are forced into the role of part-time therapists and psychologists, but the only relationship I have with the cast members is on the set.
I try not to work with celebrities because I hate how high maintenance they are.
However, Brigitte Nielsen, from Strange Love with Flavor Flav, was one of my favorites. She was really fun, and I enjoyed the challenge of keeping her on track in interviews as she often veered off into song or got out of her chair to wrestle someone or refill her wine glass while we were talking.
So, this was before Brigitte went on Celebrity Rehab? Any crazy Brigitte Nielsen/Flavor Flav stories you can share?
Nothing on the record.
What if we order another bottle of wine?
Go ahead, but still no comment.
What show did you least like working on.
I won’t mention any names, but I will say that it was a show where I was asked to manipulate the action and the storylines a great deal. I didn’t like their approach, and I chose not to work on the show’s second season. Ultimately, the show failed because, again, audiences can tell if you manipulate the action too much, and they’ll stop watching.
How “real” is reality television?
Even though we are documenting what happens, we shoot hundreds of hours of footage and then show you 40 minutes. You tell me how real that is.
Have you developed any shows yourself? What about a show about two bloggers who trade one-liners on the couch Sunday nights in their loungewear while they drink wine?
I worked strictly in development for a couple years and have helped get shows on the air, the last of which was Private Chefs of Beverly Hills. When you work in this business, everyone has a show idea they want to share when you’re at lunch, in an edit room, grabbing coffee . . . it’s around us all the time as TV producers. I really enjoy that part of the process and have started to pitch to networks directly myself. Last year, I pitched a show to HGTV and Sundance called Show and Tell, which takes home design blogs and brings them to live with segments on designers, new products and profiles on artists. With Show and Tell, I was making the Internet component as important as the show itself as that’s the direction things are going in now. Often when people watch TV, they are on the Internet at the same time, and I think the opportunities that offers is really challenging but exciting for producers and executives.
Sounds great. Did they pick it up?
Not yet. Networks don’t want profiles these days, they want reality shows. We’ll see what happens in the future, but I am starting my own design blog in the spring. It’s called Sweet Peach, and you’ll be able to find it at sweetpeachblog.com.
Is reality television here to stay? How much further will the envelope get pushed?
It’s up to the viewers. In the end, audiences will decide.