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Entries in interviews (3)


Interview with a TV Producer ~ Part II

I will be interviewing Al Walentis, author of The Secret World of Jon and Kate: The Stupidest Story in the History of the Universe and the People Who Covered It.   If you haven't read it, Al worked as a reporter covering the story of the Gosselins for US Weekly.  His book, which is the only book about the Gosselins other than those "written" by Kate, chronicles the story during the crazy summer of 2009.  I contributed a chapter to the book which covers psychological aspects of the impact of reality TV on the family.  The book can be purchased by clicking on the amazon link to the right (look for the little green book.)

What would you like to ask Al Walentis?  Now is your chance.  Leave your questions in the comments here, or email them to me directly at 

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This is part II of my interview with an anonymous television producer.  The producer works for a network other than TLC and s/he has worked on reality TV shows as well as other forms of programming.  This segment of our conversation goes more into how ratings work and how realistically reality TV participants are portrayed on their shows.   I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to our discussion.

TVP: The ratings are an interesting thing. I noticed there's a question about how far the ratings have to drop before a show is canceled. It doesn't matter. Ratings don't have to drop for a show to be canceled. It can be canceled for any reason or it can be kept on if they see a viable interest in it.


WG: Even if the ratings aren't good?


TVP: Absolutely. They don't have to have a show go into the black to keep it on the air.


WG: How is interest in a show expressed, if not in ratings?


TVP: DVD sales, among other things, cross-over promotional types of things.


WG: So in other words, if the TV commercial revenue is only a small part of the revenue generated from a show, as long as the overall revenue is good...


TVP: Yes, the show doesn't have to generate any revenue to keep it on the air. Is it as good investment? No. But the rules set by the shareholders and set by the heads of development determine whether they'll keep it on the air or not. So, there's no set rules that if it drops below this rating, we have to take it off the air.


WG: But don't low ratings encourage them to move on to shows that will rate higher ratings?


TVP: Absolutely.


WG: It's just not as black and white as most people think it is.


TVP: It doesn't have to make sense, that’s the thing. To you and I, if something doesn't make money, we try something else. Ultimately you have to decide to stop doing it. [In this case] TLC has to make that decision. Do we keep the show, as far as the ratings are concerned? In the cable market a 1.4 is actually a decent rating going across the board. You can make money off that. Now if you're comparing that to what their high was, like a 10.6 or so, that's a dramatic drop. But 10.6 was a dramatic high, too, when you're averaging a 3 or 4 before that.


WG: Speaking of the 10.6 ratings high, that was what the viewership was on the Hawaiian episode when Jon and Kate went to Hawaii to renew their wedding vows, and later on when looking at the time line it was apparent the marriage had already dissolved before that, but they kept producing shows.


TVP: Right.


WG: What do you think about that?


TVP: As a person or as a producer?


WG: Both.


TVP: As a producer you have a responsibility to deliver a product for your network.


WG: Even if you have to blatantly lie to do it?


TVP: I'm not defending the ethics of everybody out there, but for me, that's not something I abide by. But there are people who will fight you that the truth is relative, and nowhere is there an actual affidavit at the top of the show saying “everything in this show we promise to be true and nothing but the truth.” It's not there. So it can be completely fabricated because they're not telling you that this is a testimonial. There's a lot of loopholes. As a producer, you have say as far as your content goes, but you always answer to a higher power, an executive producer, or to a head of development, or to the shareholders. There's always somebody above you who makes those decisions.


WG: So as a producer, you can excuse it, more or less.


TVP: You can fight it, but ultimately you'll lose the battle. The network gets what the network wants, and if you're not going to do it they'll find someone who will. So it's black or white in that way: Either you do it or you don't.

As a person, I'd feel morally pretty bad about putting stuff out there and showing it as the truth and knowing full well that it isn't. But, I don't work for TLC, so I really don't know what their motivation was or even what the nature of the relationship was that morning. It may have been what the tabloids said, who knows.


WG: I think one of the differences between this and other shows is that the viewers have really been emotionally invested in this show. They feel like they've seen the kids grow up, they've come to love the children, they've been through the marriage, they've been through the divorce, they've been through all kinds of important life things, so they're more invested than they might be for other shows. So when they find out that something like that, and it's part of such a big production, in an hour long episode of a show that's normally just a half hour, that the whole thing was fabricated, that the kids were taken to Hawaii to be a part of it, that they bought those pretty outfits, that they stood on that beach and did the whole shebang, viewers feel manipulated.


TVP: Absolutely.


WG: Because that feels to them like a lie because of their emotional investment.


TVP: Right. And that's completely understandable to feel that way, it makes sense. But at the same time, there's no affidavit saying “this is the truth.” So it's kind of shady, that's the best word I can use, but there's nothing against what they're doing, and you can't sue somebody for putting a show on TV and then lying to you in it, unless they're trying to demonstrate this as the truth.


WG: But don't you think that part of the appeal of it is that they call it “reality TV.” I mean, why not then instead have a sit-com about this Asian-looking dad and Pennsylvania Dutch looking mom, and then have the mom have all kinds of gizmos done to herself to become a barbie, and then take the kids to the farmer’s house and get chickens, or whatever. Why not just have a sit-com like that? But we call it realty TV and the implication is “this is real.”


TVP: It's based in reality. You could do a sit-com like that and nobody would watch it. To a lot of people, reality TV is escapism, it gives you the ability to be a voyeur, to see how other people live, that's why these shows with the “real housewives” and the celebrities are so enticing. Because they're showing you another side of society, the “what-if.” You're fantasizing about a life that you don't have. If you put them into a sit-com you'd know right away, here are the lines, this is an actor who's playing a character. The lines are a little bit more gray for a reality show. You've probably heard of the show The Hills. It's constantly being put down for being scripted and heavily produced, and there's no apologies for that because there's no guarantee or promise about what happens.

I think the best thing viewers can do is educate themselves about reality TV, what is and isn't real life vs. reality television. To know that reality TV is a snapshot of somebody at their very worst or very best. In essence, they're playing an archetype of who they really are.


WG: When someone comes across as a villain, like Spencer Pratt or Danielle Staub, do they allow themselves to be portrayed that way just for the money? Because in essence what you're saying is that the Spencer Pratt we all know and hate isn't really Spencer Pratt.


TVP: I'm saying that what you see on the show is a heightened version of who this person really is. Now you're talking about individual choice. Some people can decide they're going to play a full-blown character for a show, and you have others who are just going with the flow. You just don't know, it's very individual, so you can't make one judgment about them all.


WG: But why would someone continue on a show when they're portrayed poorly? Why do a Spencer Pratt or a Danielle continue on for further seasons when they appear so unattractive and unlikeable?


TVP: Because a key part of infamy is fame. I think that to be a household name and be hated is almost as good as to be a household name and be loved.


WG: If you want fame that badly. So basically you're saying they’re' fame whores. [WG and TVP both laugh.] I said that, you didn't.


TVP: And you can't make a statement like that about someone specifically, because you don't know. I don't know these people, I can't say this is why they do it, but there was a recent study done of high school students and what they wanted to do later in life and what was most important to them after they graduate, and overwhelmingly the answer was to be famous. That tells you a lot about the society we live in right now, and it's as important to be noticed and validated as it is to be successful and autonomous. So in some ways reality shows are a reflection of who we are as a society as much as the reverse.


WG: I personally think it would be wonderful to be incredibly rich and have nobody know who I am, because then you could really enjoy it. But fame changes your life.


TVP: It doesn't have to. If you look at Los Angeles as a city, there are places there where people go where they know they'll be photographed and they know there’s going to be paparazzi there, and they know that if they frequent this club, they're going to be in the magazines. That will keep them relevant, their names will be in the tabloids. And then you have the others, who are successful actors and musicians and entertainers who decide they're going to live outside of that area. They still go about their regular lives. We go to the grocery store here and there [around L.A.] and we see celebrities on a regular basis. Why? Because they're not [promoting anything and they're just living their normal lives.]


WG: Yeah, but we're talking reality TV. You can't be a Housewife of Atlanta and not have people know who you are. It's the nature of reality TV that causes people to associate you with your character. You can't get away from it.


TVP: And that's where reality TV is a very different medium from traditional scripted television, or films for that matter. Because that line isn't drawn in the sand, you don't have that privacy, because I'm inviting you into my house every week, to see my bedroom, to see my husband, to see my family, to see us in our intimate moments, in our emotional strife. You're giving that up by letting the cameras in? Why do people do it? They want to get a point across, or they want to sell a product, or they want to get money, who knows what the reasons are and they vary from one side to the other. But that's one of the issues of reality TV in general: You're inviting speculation about your life, and inviting infamy, by doing it.



p.s.  don't forget to submit your questions for Al.


Interview with a TV Producer

This is the first 18 minutes of the 2.25 hour interview.  The television producer is TVP below, and I am WG.  We can refer to the TVP as male for the purposes of this discussion.  He does not work for TLC but he has worked on reality shows on another network, which you would recognize the name of.  


For those of you who are not cuckoo for reality show cocoapuffs the way I am, Spencer Pratt was Heidi Montag's boyfriend on The Hills (they're married now and Heidi has had dramatic physical changes due to multiple plastic surgeries) and Scott Disick is the "bad boy" boyfriend of one of the Kardashian sisters.  Kris Jenner is the Kardashians' mom, married to Bruce Jenner.


Believe it or not, this segment only covers the first question.  I hope you enjoy it and as usual, I look forward to your comments.

Werny Gal

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TVP: So I guess the first question here is from GKWay. “How 'real' are reality shows and how much of it is actually 'scripted' with a story line?” The big thing to understand is that reality shows really are hyperbolized. A reality show really is a heightened sense of who somebody is and their dynamics with somebody, and when you have it edited together, you can consider it the highlight reel of this conversation for the day, put into an interesting way, coupled with music and narration into a seemingly plausible plot. The way that it usually goes is you sit down with your talent, who are involved in the show, ask them what are we doing here, what are we doing there, and as producers you get ideas on how you're going to sculpt them.


WG: You're saying that happens when you're actually taping, like the day of the taping?


TVP: Generally there's a meeting beforehand and there are decisions made before you do it. A lot of it is heavily produced. To call it scripted is kind of a misnomer, because you're not really writing down dialogue. What you're doing is you're setting up a situation, knowing who your characters are, knowing their dynamics, knowing how they'll interact with each other, and just letting it play out.


WG: For example, you might take one Housewife of New Jersey, who dislikes another Housewife of New Jersey, and get them together at the same restaurant at the same time.


TVP: Yes, setting them up there and knowing one of them is not going to be happy about something.


WG: And might you incite discord between them by egging them on privately beforehand?


TVP: Well, that's more of a Jerry Springer type of approach to it, and some people have gone that way and some people have not. If you take reality TV as a genre, [the approaches are] very widespread. Not every rule applies to every production. It really depends on what your goals are going to be with your viewers. Do you want them to laugh, do you want them to cry, do you want them to feel whatever it may be, that's how you're going to go about it. You always have a goal in mind.


WG: So that's primary: Having an emotional goal in mind.


TVP: Correct. Because even when writing a script for TV or a script for screen, you have a character arc. You have to have something that you love and something that you hate. Look at a show like the Kardashians, one of the biggest reality shows right now. Scott Disick, for example. Everybody hates him. He is really an exaggeration of the actual person, simply because you need a villain. Same thing with Spencer Pratt. They play a role. They create a character for themselves they portray for that. Knowing that in advance, the producers then can put things together and massage a story out of it. But again, we're talking about the entire genre. Reality TV encompasses the talent shows, it encompasses the family drama type of things, the game show types of things, so we have this wide dichotomy of what is and isn't reality.


WG: We're talking here, for our purposes, about "Jon and Kate Plus Eight,' all the Housewives shows on Bravo, "The Kardashians," now there's David Hasslehoff, "Little People, Big World," all those kinds of things. They actually show people, and it appears to the viewers that this is how those people really are.


TVP: No. Not even close. You have two different worlds here. When you're talking about the Kardashians and the Hasslehoffs, there's creative control because that celebrity's involved as a producer. When you look at the credits for the Kardashians, you'll notice that Kris Jenner is one of the executive producers of the show, so she makes executive decisions about what goes into the show, while they're shooting, while they're putting stuff together, and also in post and the editing. Something like "Little People, Big World" or "J&K+8" or now "kate Plus Eight," [the people in it don't] have that type of creative control. Shows like the Kardashians, the Hasslehoffs, "The TO Show," whatever it may be, they have an idea, and they pitch it to a network, and they get included as a producer as part of the creative process.


WG: So if Kate Gosselin was a producer, would she have more control?


TVP: Absolutely. As a producer, she could have final say here and there or have some word as to what they will or won't do. A lot of times what changes one show from another is the contract you sign with the network. How much control you have, what you are willing to do and not to do, and so forth. If you sign a contract saying you're going to adhere to whatever the standards are right there, then you're going to do that. But if you say “I have to have input on where we shoot,when we shoot, how long we shoot, and [things like that] then obviously you're going to take it into your own hands and make it a different experience.


     There's a lot of talk out there about who really called the shots in the Gosselin household. Was it Kate? Was it Jon? Is it TLC? And I think when you look at the term exploitation, which is thrown out there a lot, who's doing it, who isn't doing it, it's relative, and I think, in my personal opinion, not as a producer, not as a member of their staff, not as any of that, it's just my personal opinion as a viewer, is that there's multiple responsibility here. TLC sees something that's great for ratings, something that appeals to people. Kate had this appeal to people with a moral center, back when things started going. She was very pro-life, and that was attractive to the religious community. You supported her, you wanted to be there for her, because now she had this incredible plight on her hands. And what is she going to do? Nowadays that's changed a lot. So the show was more, in the beginning, about looking at cute kids and watching home movies, because everybody likes home movies. Now, they're getting older and it's not the same type of thing, so you have to amp up the drama. You have to put something else in there that will attract the viewers, and if it's not the show-and-tell of cuteness, there's got to be something else out there. When you have competition out there, like "Jersey Shore" or "The Bad Girls Club," people want that, they want the drama. I mean, look at Kate's latest on the Sarah Palin show. There's a reason why TLC put her crying in their promos. Because people like drama. As long as there's drama, there will be viewers.


     So, I kind of deviated from the question here, how much of it is actually scripted? Scripted isn't the term I'd use. “Heavily produced.” There are procedural ways of doing things. If you're writing a screenplay or writing a script for TV, you have characters, you have personalities, all you have to do now is put them in situations and create conflict or a catalyst. So, if you know Kate's going to be a hothead and you know Jon's going to be kind of frumpy, and you have him do something that's going to piss her off, well, there you go. Instant drama. It's a recipe.


WG: What I'm getting out of this is that there's no reality TV that's actually real. So don't you feel that's manipulative to viewers? And how can viewers discern what to actually believe and what not to believe?


TVP: I don't think that's completely true. Every reality show has a portion of it that's real. But look at your normal life. If you watch something like Kate Gosselin 24 hours a day, you're going to be bored. She's going to be sitting for eight hours, she's going to be cooking. There has to be something real there. These are real people, they have real lives, they have real emotions, and there are real circumstances. What isn't real necessarily is these extraneous circumstances you put them in.


WG: Yes, like taking the kids to the corn maze. If you look at the film, it looks like they had this wonderful day of going on the hayride, and going to the corn maze, and getting costumes at the store, and picking out pumpkins, when actually, it was several days, it actually took place over a couple of weeks, and they were only at the corn maze for 20 minutes, and they weren't really playing, they were working. But what you see is this happy production of loving family time, and that's not what really happened.


TVP: And maybe to a certain extent, when you look at everything [the eight kids] go through, for them that might be happy family time.

     I think the big thing to keep in mind here is that you have to fill 22 minutes with content that's interesting and thought-provoking and makes you feel something. And if you had a true reality show with a camera on somebody 24 hours a day, it'd be boring. You only put in the highlights, so these little trip out there to the corn maze, or to the zoo, or to Alaska, they become the basis for an entire episode because it's interesting. You're not going to put the stuff that's boring on there. So reality, yes. It is real, what they do is real, but the circumstances are provoked or they're helped or they're produced.


WG: Contrived.


TVP: I wouldn't go so far as to say they're contrived, because again, when you have people involved in the creative process, it doesn't have to be. I think with Jon and Kate it's a very different type of show. There aren't very many things out there where children are the focus and the basis for it.


     Now as far as the adults involved in these things, you're playing off of the highlights. Really, a reality show is a highlight reel of somebody during a certain amount of time that involves provoked experiences. If you know Kate’s going to be the villain of the show, you're going to patch together a series of events that make her look bad. With anyone you could easily do the same thing. One of your readers asked how much footage it takes to do a 30 minute show. It's relative. It's depends on what you're trying to get across what happened there, and if you can complete a story. So a 30 minute show could be shot in one day or it could be shot over a year, it just depends on what point you're trying to make. You always overshoot. You always have several angles. You always have the cutaway, that reaction shot. It's interesting to see what other people think, and the angle of the shot can bring you into the experience.


WG: So since you said something about the kids, as a producer vs. as a person, what do you think about having kids on TV in these so-called reality shows who aren't capable of consent due to their young age or immaturity or lack of education or experience?


TVP: I think it depends on the situation. When you have a reality show when the family is the center, and the family is in it together, an they all agree, “this is what we want to do,” and there's an open dialogue, with ways out of a contract, and ways to walk away and have that privacy, then you have the opportunity to have that exposure, and your privacy, and still have your boundaries set. When the show The Osbournes was on, a lot of people don't know this, but Ozzy has an older daughter who lived in the house who said “I don't want to be a part of this,” and that was respected. It didn't hurt her, it didn't hurt her reputation, it didn't hurt the family, and it definitely didn't hurt the show.


WG: I've always had the impression that with the Roloffs of "Little People, Big World" that this was very much something they wanted to do together as a family.  {TVP nods in agreement.]   So what do you think about the Gosselins in relation to that? Those kids have literally grown up on camera. And they've said several times they don’t want to film.


TVP: I think it's hard to trust the words that are out there unless they're spoken directly from the mouths of the people, and I think the Gosselins are a very specific, unique situation. You're talking about kids who don't know anything in their comprehensive lives outside of camera exposure. So you're really establishing a new precedent for other shows. Child actors have the opportunity to go on set for how many hours, and then go home, and get that break. There aren’t cameras set up in their bedrooms, in their bathrooms, in their living rooms, following them around constantly [like the G kids have been subjected to.]  They have that ability to still be a child, and are free to make mistakes, are free to strip, are free to have tantrums, without having the world document this. That's what's so different about the Gosselins, and I think that's why there are people on both sides of the spectrum.


      For me personally, I would not subject my children to that type of exposure. They're now old enough where they can't make adult decisions for themselves, but if they're telling you they don't want to be a part of something, as a person with a bleeding heart, I would say, “Okay, I'm going to take your thoughts into consideration and you don't have to do this.” I understand that you need to provide for your family, which is one thing Kate says time and time again. But just recently she was marked as the number five grossing reality star. I mean, she made 3.5 million dollars this year [according to an official trade report.] I mean, you can say, “That's enough.” A lot of people don't make that much money their entire lives.


WG: You know, a lot of people thought she made like $70-80K an episode, until TV Guide published that said she makes $250K.


TVP: Which sounds like a lot, because it is, but from what I'm reading that $250,000 is for the entire family, which is split eight ways.


WG: No, it's not.


TVP: No?


WG: The children split 15% eight ways, which means they each get 1.87%. She gets 85%.


TVP: What I'm saying though, is that $250K is for them, but because they're minors, they're only entitled to 15% set aside into their Coogan account.


PK: Except the Coogan Law doesn't apply in Pennsylvanian.  That's a California law.


TVP: Oh, really?


WG: Yeah. That's one of the reasons that we're looking at laws here in PA, because we don't have those laws to protect kids in entertainment here.


TVP: That's pretty shady.


WG: Yes, and according to Paul Petersen, the eight kids do split 15%, which is the minimum required that the kids get, so they actually are splitting the minimum.


TVP: And that reflects a lot on TLC's practices.


WG: Does it? Or does it reflect on the parents?


TVP: The parent is the one who has to sign on behalf of the children, but the fact that the network is putting that out there in that term, instead of dividing it by each person? If they set it up that way, then I don't want to say they're enabling the parent to exploit them, but they're not helping it either. And that's something that, you know, we're in the business of making money, and you're going to do whatever's most profitable for you, and I'm sure the amount of money they make on the show vs. what they make between DVD sales, appearances, ratings overall, is all a lot more lucrative for them than their investment right now.


     I think the big question is going to be, what's going to happen when the show gets canceled?


WG: She has a contract until I think the end of February 2012 so although the ratings have steeply declined, does that mean that TLC will continue to try to find something for her to do, to utilize her because she has this contract?


TVP: It depends on what's in the contract, and a contract can be defined in so many different ways. There's speculation that when the show ends you're out of your contract, and if that's in the contract, it is. But if that's not in the contract, then for this many years? Then it doesn't matter. The only ones who know the right answer to that would be the lawyers at TLC, and Kate’s attorneys and herself, and they're not talking.




What Would You Ask a Television Producer?

Tonight I have the opportunity to interview a TV producer who will remain anonymous.  This producer works for a network which has a variety of programming ~ reality TV, news, etc., but does not work for TLC or Discovery.  I am compiling a list of questions related to reality TV and the Gosselins to ask him/her.  Anything you'd like to ask?  I'll post the interview, including the answers to some of your questions, here soon (probably Friday if my schedule pans out.)  Fire away!