I was a young, starving filmmaker in Seattle (though no longer young today, I am still a starving filmmaker, now in Los Angeles) when I eagerly accepted the opportunity to work as a production assistant (PA) on ElimiDATE. My experience with this reality television show, although it was a number of years ago, still reflects what is true for most of the reality shows that are broadcast today.
Though they call it “reality,” nothing you see on the screen is actually real. They may call it “unscripted,” but it is as close to a scripted show as you can get without the persons who appear on screen having sides (pages of a script) or a teleplay to hold in their hands. The dialogue and plot are planned by the production team in detail. The shows are carefully edited and re-shot to appear spontaneous.
ElimiDATE (which last aired original episodes in 2006) travelled from city to city each week, shooting in the dating hangouts of the 20-something crowd in each locale. One single man started out what was supposedly a week of dating adventures with four young women (or conversely, one woman with several men, a format that was not as popular.) On the first fictional evening, the gang of five would go on a group date, each woman vying for the man’s interest. At the end of the evening, he would eliminate one woman, till, near the end of the broadcast hour, he was down to one date. Those two would go on a super glamorous evening and come back the next day to report to the audience how it went.
A very small core production crew based in L.A. stayed with the show throughout the season. There was an overall field producer with two other producers; there were three camera people who did their own lights and their own sound. That was it. No makeup, no wardrobe, no location managers, none of the other professionals who normally work on a quality television production; thus the show (and, in general, any reality show) was relatively inexpensive to produce, even with travel costs.
The show picked up minor crew members in each city where they shot. In Seattle they picked up four PAs and one runabout. The show’s producers were pretty good about locating film professionals who wanted to work on a nationally broadcast television show, or perhaps those local film professionals who just needed the job for a week. Normally a crew traveling to a remote location would contact the film office; in this case, the production company also contacted Women in Film, which I was a member, to recruit crew.
Though a number of my peer filmmakers turned down the job (perhaps knowing better), I and four of my colleagues signed up. Two of us were independent filmmakers, one a corporate video producer, one was a graphic designer and set designer, and one of us had worked as a production assistant on a number of independent films.
When I interviewed for the position the producer said to me, “You’re a film producer. Don’t you think this job would be beneath you and you’d be bored?”
My response was, “I love your show and am excited to work in television!” Of course, the truth was simply that I needed the money; I had never seen the show.
Before the show shoots, and even while they’re recruiting contestants, the producers assign a character type to each woman. They recruit a couple of slim women and a couple of full-busted women. They’ll make sure to recruit varying hair colors. They’ll direct one of the contestants to behave like the sexy looking tramp; they’ll direct a second one to be the flirtatious girl next door; they’ll direct the third to be the vindictive bitch; and perhaps the fourth will be the crybaby or the peacemaker.
Before the first “date,” the producers will take each contestant aside and — not explicitly telling them the role they are to play, but skillfully and emotionally manipulating them — will mold them into their pre-assigned roles.
An example of this would be the producer speaking to one contestant — let’s call her Julie: “I overheard Billie saying that you are too trashy.” The producer goes on to coach Julie, “How do you want to respond to that?”
If Julie says something like, “I’ll just ignore that,” the producer will go on to nudge Julie.
“Don’t you think you want to flaunt it in her face? Why don’t you just walk by, hike up your skirt to show her how great your legs are, and give her a dirty look?”
And so it goes. During the cut scenes — where they interview contestants after they’ve been eliminated from the show — a contestant called Lisa said, “I think Genevieve is really a nice chick. I’d like to party with her after the show is over.”
The producer indicated for the camera to stop rolling and asked Lisa, “Don’t you think she was actually a bit old?” The camera began rolling again.
Lisa said, “No, she wasn’t any older than me.”
This time without stopping the camera, the producer asked Lisa, “Do you mean Genevieve was very old and very haggard? Come on, darling, we want to see a reaction shot of your beautiful face saying that. We want more of your face on camera. The more you trash Genevieve, the longer screen time you have.”
Lisa, wanting more of her face on camera, complied and — with the cameras rolling — said vehemently, “Genevieve was an old hag!” And this was the take that made it into the show. Not reality, not unscripted; but very scripted and plotted by the producer.
Just before another scene was shot, the (male) producers would go to each woman and elicit snide remarks from her about each other woman’s clothing choices. One contestant was asked to wear a wig. The producers then told the bachelor that the woman was wearing a wig and prodded him to proclaim his disgust for phoniness.
Later, when this particular contestant was eliminated, they shot her cut scene. She was sobbing. They broadcast — let’s say they added it into the broadcast — the sobbing, but they entirely cut her harangue against the producers who had encouraged her to wear the wig in the first place.
We all recognize that these shows are escapist, time wasting and full of false thrills. Some can tolerate the phoniness. I, on the other hand, am still not a fan of the UNreality show.