Scripting Unscripted Television


LOOK FOR EVERYDAY PROCESSES that require unique skills or create drama and conflict. From “Flip That House” to “Bridezillas,” many reality shows exploit the drama found in universal situations. Find an area of your life that lets you peek into unique human conflicts. If you’re a tennis coach, develop a series examining how the training regimen affects athletes’ relationships. If you’re a plumber, concoct a game show in which handymen compete in a series of home-repair challenges.

FIND A COMIC. Or become one. Because much of reality TV is driven by personalities, producers often turn to the world of stand-up comedy to find new hosts. Partner with a talented stand-up and learn to write for her. Or become a stand-up yourself. Being a potential host not only increases your project’s value, but you’ll also learn to deliver information quickly and comedically…an essential skill for any reality writer.

BRACE YOURSELF FOR REJECTION. Selling a show is always a long shot, even if you have TV’s most innovative concept. Networks often turn away ideas for reasons completely unrelated to their quality. Perhaps they’re trying to change their brand or expand their audience. Perhaps they already have a similar idea in development. Perhaps they’re looking for cheaper shows. Also, no matter how original and ground-breaking you believe your idea to be, someone has probably already thought of it (or some version of it).

KEEP IT SIMPLE. While television boasts a handful of large-scale reality shows like “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race,” most networks appreciate reality because it’s cheap and easy to produce. So while massive stunts, elaborate sets and exotic locations are exciting and glamorous, they’re also expensive. Try to imagine shows that shoot with small crews in easily accessible locations and don’t use stunts or activities requiring expensive insurance.

COMPILE A SIZZLE REEL. Like sitcoms and dramas, docu-series such as “Newlyweds” and “Rollergirls” depend on compelling characters and relationships. Because docu-series are based on real people (not cast), many producers sell shows with the help of “sizzle reels,” three- to five-minute teaser films introducing the core characters and showing how they interact. This gives a sense of the show’s tone, perspective, style and potential stories.

ATTACH A HIGHER-LEVEL PRODUCER. When buying a show, networks aren’t simply investing in an idea, they’re investing in a producer. In other words, you may have the world’s greatest TV idea, but if you haven’t proven yourself as a capable showrunner, networks have little interest in your product. So unless you already have several series under your belt, it often helps to attach a seasoned producer who has enough trust and respect from the networks to convince them to buy a new series.

It’s no secret that reality television ain’t exactly, well, reality. Sure, it’s unscripted. Sure, it uses real people. And yes, it’s completely unrehearsed. (OK, maybe not completely unrehearsed.) But reality programming also has the same basic goals as scripted television—to move people.

Whether it’s VH1’s outrageous “Hogan Knows Best” or ABC’s tear-jerking “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” reality TV—like sitcoms and dramas—is designed to elicit emotion. Which means, like on scripted shows, there are writers structuring, designing, honing and tweaking stories.

They may not function quite the same as the staff on “Grey’s Anatomy” or “The Office,” but their job is essentially the same: create stories that make us crack up. Or cry. Or want to try a new soufflé recipe.

If you want to make the cut in the booming, lucrative world of reality TV, the first thing to understand is there are many different types of “reality shows.” Today, the term “reality” covers almost any show that’s not traditionally scripted. This includes competitions like “Project Runway,” docu-series like “Dr. 90210” or social experiments like “30 Days.” Each of these shows has writers; and each uses its writers in a unique way.

Here’s how writers function in reality TV.


Docu-dramas, docu-soaps and docu-comedies are reality versions of scripted shows. MTV’s “The Osbournes,” for instance, was an unscripted sitcom. While it didn’t use an actual script, it’s designed to maximize comic moments and look and feel like a conventional comedy. MTV’s “Laguna Beach” and BRAVO’s “Real Housewives of Orange County” are reality soaps; VH1’s “Breaking Bonaduce” was a heartbreaking drama.

While unscripted, these shows share the same key elements as their scripted counterparts: relationships and relatability. Although he’s a legendary rock star, audiences related to Ozzy’s attempts to be a good father and husband. And though we’ve all grown up in different towns or cities, we’ve all felt the adolescent angst Lo, Morgan and Christina experience on “Laguna Beach.”

Writers on these shows, therefore, are charged with telling stories that illuminate characters and relationships. This means working with producers and talent to craft stories in pre-production. When producers on E!’s “The Anna Nicole Show” learned Anna couldn’t drive, they concocted an episode in which she went to driving school with a teacher who didn’t speak English. Although the adventure wasn’t something Anna may have done on her own, and she certainly didn’t memorize her lines, the plot points and story beats were all laid out before shooting began.

Writers also work with editors, honing story in post-production. Writers often begin by doing a “paper cut,” a script based on transcriptions of the footage. This paper cut guides editors as they whittle countless hours of footage into an hour or half-hour episode. Reality shows follow the same storytelling rules as scripted material, but while scripted writers create plot points and characters from their imaginations, reality writers produce them by manipulating footage. This frequently means moving moments around chronologically or combining bits from different scenes to create a coherent story. While calling these shows pure documentaries may be a stretch, they use many of the same storytelling techniques as larger documentaries, from Fahrenheit 9/11 to March of the Penguins.


While traditional game shows like “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price Is Right” are still with us, today’s game shows have much higher stakes and more interactivity. NBC’s “Fear Factor” challenges contestants to do daredevil stunts. “Deal or No Deal” is a guessing game that allows contestants to consult their friends and family.

The first job of a game’s creators is to define the rules of the game. Most shows have simple rules, which force contestants into high-pressure decision-making situations. Good games have a few sparse, easily understandable rules, and these must be articulated quickly and simply to contestants and audiences. Writers then brainstorm challenges—anything from “Jeopardy!” ‘s trivia questions to “Fear Factor” ‘s gross-out eating contests. Writers also write jokes and patter for the host. The host’s job is to convey vital game information and keep the show moving, and the writers’ job is to make this material fun, concise and humorous.


“American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” are hybrids of docu-soaps and game shows. While they’re based in competition, they also explore relationships, incorporating participants’ lives into the stories. “Rock Star,” for instance, pits contestants against one another and also forces them to live in the same house. “Survivor” puts contestants on an island and makes them compete to stay there.

Writers on these shows juggle several jobs. Like with traditional game shows, they design the games and contests, but these games and contests are designed to illuminate or challenge participants’ relationships. Perhaps they force two enemies to work together. Or play to the strengths of some participants and the weaknesses of others. Writers also invent noncompetitive situations that compel participants to interact in new and unique ways. Activities such as dates and group outings spark relationship dynamics that heighten competition later on.


Some of the most popular and prevalent shows on television follow a central participant as she undergoes a transformation. On Style’s “How Do I Look?” the participant undergoes a personal and physical transformation; on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” a family gets a new house. These shows work on three components:

1. The transformation must be visible and incredible. HGTV’s “Curb Appeal,” for instance, transforms ho-hum front yards into landscaping wonderlands.

2. Each subject has a strong personal, emotional story. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” finds families whose personal lives have been shattered by death, disease and misfortune, and then gives them a gorgeous dream house. Even shows like MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” and TLC’s “What Not to Wear” delve into participants’ backstories to establish why they deserve their physical—and, ultimately, emotional—makeover.

3. The charisma of the hosts and experts. Because each episode features a different participant, it’s essential that these shows have relatable, charismatic hosts and experts who keep audiences coming back. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” boasts the energetic and compassionate Ty Pennington. Style’s “Foody Call” featured the sexy, flirty Rossi and Michele.

Writers must service each of these components. They help producers search for participants with interesting, emotional stories. They then work with experts and designers to decide what kind of makeover will be the most dramatic—both visually and emotionally. And lastly, they provide the hosts and experts with story information, jokes and banter to keep the show moving.


While traditional formats have changed little over the past few decades, talk shows have undergone major tonal shifts. We still have conventional talkers like “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show,” but we also have pointed, agendized programs likes Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Talk-show writers spend much of their time writing jokes for their hosts. Because many talk shows are strips (daily shows), writers must have encyclopedic knowledge of current events and pop culture. Writers also research and create the questions hosts ask their guests, as well as special “bits” and sketches such as Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking,” David Letterman’s “Top Ten Lists,” and the mock feature reports of the “The Daily Show.” Many times, writers stand in the wings scribbling jokes, notes and questions to slip to the hosts as the show is shooting.


The basic how-to shows are often the bread and butter of niche cable networks. The Food Network, for example, thrives on hits such as “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Good Eats.” Yet while these shows indeed offer valuable how-to information, they’re actually driven by the personalities of their hosts. Few people tune into “30 Minute Meals” to write down a recipe; they just enjoy spending a half-hour with the spunky Rachael Ray. Thus, writers must convey how-to information in quick, digestible chunks, but—like talk-show writers—they must also write in the voice of the show’s host.


Because they require very little shooting, clip shows are some of the cheapest, easiest shows to produce. Programs like VH1’s “Best Week Ever” and E!’s “The 101” rely primarily on snippets of other shows and commentary from comics and pundits, so writers mostly write jokes and voice-over. As with talk shows, this means staying on top of breaking news and pop culture, as timeliness is a major ingredient in these shows’ success. Writers must also be able to write in many specific voices so jokes and comments sound natural coming from different hosts, guests or comics.

Indeed, writers’ jobs are as diverse as the types of shows. But whether it’s a talk-show pilot on cable or a long-running network series, unscripted television is designed to affect us emotionally—which takes talented writers who understand the medium. And that’s reality.

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