A couple of summers ago, I found myself living out a high school fantasy. I was running across the hot white sands of a Mexican beach in Playa del Carmen, chasing after stunning Playboy playmate Angie Everhart. As her bright orange bikini disappeared into the Caribbean surf, I closed my eyes and smiled -- then quickly snapped back to reality. I was there as a writer for ABC's "Celebrity Mole: Yucatan," and my job was to find out what Everhart was saying about the show's other beauty, former MTV VJ Ananda Lewis. Would they be dueling divas, headed for a catfight by day's end? I needed to find out. So I sighed, put on the earpiece that picked up the two women's microphones, and began taking notes.
Reality TV writers like me are at the heart of a lawsuit filed by the Writers Guild of America, West about two weeks ago. On behalf of 12 such scribes, the union is charging four reality production companies and four networks with unfair labor practices, including providing pay and benefits far below those earned by writers of traditional dramas and sitcoms. The suit says a lot about the rise of reality TV, a formerly disreputable format that last year contributed half of the 20 top-rated shows on TV. But in hearing about it, I imagine that people across America were asking the same question members of my own family have voiced ever since I started down this career path: "How exactly do you write reality? Isn't it already real?"
Yes, Grandma, it is -- in all its undigested, contextless, boring glory. What I do is shape that mass into something that'll make viewers want to tune in week after week. Like a journalist, I sniff out what I think the story will be, then craft the interviews or situations that'll draw it out. Like a paperback writer, I'm all about highlighting character and plot. Simply put, drama is the pursuit of a goal, with obstacles. Both by developing promising story lines and by pulling out the zingy moments buried in hours upon hours of ho-hum footage, reality TV writers like me -- who go under various titles, including story editor and story producer -- create it. As I tell my family, having a reality TV show without writers would be like having a countertop of cake ingredients but no idea how to put them together. So, yes, I consider myself a writer.
My voyage into reality TV began by accident. Seven years ago, I was new to Hollywood, and sure that I was destined to direct the next film version of "Superman." But by the time I finished my first fresh-out-of-film-school internship with DreamWorks' Mark Gordon Productions, I was both slightly peeved about not meeting Steven Spielberg and badly in need of a paying job. Luckily, a friend of a friend was looking for production assistants to work on "World's Most Amazing Videos." Hired for roughly $400 a week (and on top of the world about it), I was quickly promoted to logger -- basically the guy who looks through all the footage and makes notes on what happens and when. That led to a job at a new company, Actual Reality Pictures, which would end up completely redirecting my career.
Actual Reality is the production company of Academy Award nominee R.J. Cutler, whose documentary "The War Room" followed Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. The building was an intellectual hothouse, packed with scores of Ivy League grads who loved nothing more than to ruminate over the most minuscule story points. As we worked on Cutler's latest project, a docudrama about suburban Chicago teens called "American High," staff meetings were virtual master classes in narrative structure. Whole walls of multicolored index cards were dedicated to the deconstruction of an episode, inviting constant rearranging until the optimal narrative was found. And through it all, Cutler, the faintly aloof, greatly admired genius among us, wandered the office hallways yelling, "What's the story?!" My job was to rummage through film footage looking to answer that question. Apparently, our process worked: "American High" went on to win an Emmy.
After I left Actual Reality, I would never again encounter that type of intense, academic scrutiny of story structure. I had risen through the ranks, though, from logger to story assistant to story producer, overseeing other writers. So I ended up going to work on a whole slew of reality TV shows, both Nielsen-topping and not, including "The Bachelor," "The Mole," "The Surreal Life," "The Benefactor" and "The Biggest Loser." On every one of them, whether I was dealing with desperately weeping single gals or former parachute pant wearer MC Hammer, the main question was always the same: "What is the story?"
Some of the crafting of these shows took place on set, as on "Celebrity Mole: Yucatan." While filming is taking place, writers keep track of all the issues that may arise and anticipate which will yield the strongest narrative. Teams of us are on location, assigned to different characters. The uniform: a good pen, steno notepads, an audio monitoring device (to overhear comments and conversations), a digital watch, walkie-talkies and a comfortable pair of shoes -- in case anyone takes off running. We typically stand within earshot of what's being filmed, noting mumbled quips, telling looks and memorable exchanges. At the end of the day, we all regroup, compare notes and decide which stories have evolved or are evolving. These are the situations to which we'll pay particular attention, and in the days following, we'll make sure the right interview questions are asked to round out what appear to be the prominent stories. Like nonfiction writers, we do not script lines -- but if we have a hunch, we ask the right questions to follow it up.
Preparation of this kind is, of course, half the battle, but the magic really happens after the filming is done, in post-production. In its one- to four-week scripting phase, the story producers pinpoint scenes, moments and interviews from a mountain of VHS tapes, then structure them to tell the strongest story. After it's approved by the executive producer, this script is given to an editor, who cuts it together. Six-day workweeks and long hours are expected -- and get longer midway through editing, when a decision is invariably made to change the direction of the show. As story producers, the responsibility for that reshaping falls to us. Sometimes it's for the better, but sometimes it's for worse. "The Benefactor," for example, began as an exciting, conceptually strong show led by billionaire Mark Cuban and dubbed the Anti-"Apprentice," to contrast with the Donald Trump hit. It was quickly mired by second guessing on all our parts, and we ended up giving in to some Trumpian gimmicks. In the end, the show floundered, suffering dismal ratings and was widely perceived as the very thing it was striving not to be . . . another "Apprentice."
The current lawsuit isn't the Writer's Guild's first attempt to reach out to reality TV crew members. Since this spring, they've been on a major campaign to unionize, gathering up union authorization cards from over 1,000 writers, editors and producers. Despite the many logistics associated with unionizing, at the core, I believe the WGA's gesture to be quite complimentary: By their actions, they are recognizing us as legitimate creative contributors. I like that. It's also a sign that they expect reality TV to be more than just a passing fad. Reality is evolving, and I look forward to its next chapter.
Derrick Speight is a freelance reality television writer based in Los Angeles. He is still lobbying to direct "Superman."