The Secrets of Filming Reality TV Shows

Filming a reality show can be a tricky business. In 2019, only 25% of the shows on basic cable were scripted, which means 75% were unscripted (sort of) reality shows. Survivor, which first aired in 2000, was the first reality TV show as we know them today. Networks love reality shows because the costs are much lower, thanks to not having to pay big-name actors and writers. Viewers also love reality TV shows, even though they understand that there is very little reality in them. There are, however, things that the average person doesn’t know about reality TV. Here are some of the lesser-known secrets, just in case you’re thinking of trying out for one. 


WATCH THOSE CONTRACTS: Reality shows make contestants sign enormous contracts that allow the show to falsely portray them and potentially expose them to embarrassment and ridicule. Don’t bother trying to sue after you’ve seen the hatchet job, because most contracts have a clause about speaking negatively about the show or disclosing anything about your experience, even after it’s over. Contestants of Survivor face a $5 million fine every time they break the show’s confidentiality agreement. 


PREPARE FOR SEQUESTRATION: If you’re selected to participate in a reality TV show, you’ll need to fly to either New York or Los Angeles, where most shows are filmed. You may be confined to a hotel room for most of the time, unable to make phone calls or use the Internet. 


YOU WON’T HAVE MUCH CONTACT WITH YOUR FAMILY: Reality shows want to keep the outcomes a secret, and if half the cast was running around back home, it would be obvious who had already been eliminated. That’s why most programs whisk off the week’s loser to a secret, secure location. Just like sequestration, there will be no phone calls and no Internet. 


DRAMA IS INDUCED: There’s plenty of drama to be had on most reality TV shows, with much of prompted by producers. The more drama the show has, the more viewers will watch, which, in turn, means more revenue for the network. With alcohol freely flowing on some reality TV shows, people become more talkative and less inhibited, and before you know it, arguments are sparked. 


THE PAY IS OFTEN PITIFUL: If you think you’re going to rake in the bucks if you’re lucky enough to land on a reality show, think again. While winners do get big bucks, everybody else takes home anywhere from $15,000 to $35,000. When you’re talking cable television, the figures plummet. If you’re a bit player, you could earn $1,500 to $3,000 per episode. You could even earn absolutely nothing, with only your expenses being covered. Just in case you do manage to parlay your TV time into some real cash with side projects — like Bethenny Frankel from Real Housewives of New York, who created Skinnygirl Cocktails and sold it for $100 million — you may find that your contract requires you to share your profits with the production company or network. 


EVERYTHING MIGHT BE A LIE: Clearly, reality TV shows may not be what they seem, but what if their entire premise is a lie? For example, one couple who signed on to an HGTV show about choosing a new home visited three potential properties before selecting one. The thing was, the couple had already purchased one of the homes before the show even began. They emptied their entire house, let the grass overgrow, and walked into it pretending they had never seen it before. They visited the other two homes as scripted, but wound up choosing the third home, which was already theirs. Cooking shows like Iron Chef America are also fake, since the chefs already know what the secret ingredients are ahead of time. That allows them to plan their dishes well in advance of the “on-the-spot” filming. 


If you thought that everything you saw in reality TV shows was real, now you know. Although they aren’t 100% reality-based, they aren’t completely fake either. Some examples of more-scripted-than-spontaneous reality TV shows are The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Big Brother and House Hunters. As the saying goes, “Reality bites.”