It’s a rarely-discussed fact of reality television: Before every Kardashian, Honey Boo Boo or Robertson, there was a casting director who thought they might be the perfect wacky character for TV.
At the RealScreen Summit reality TV conference in Washington this week, a panel of casting experts, producers and network executives discussed what goes on behind-the-scenes of the casting world, a topic that doesn’t usually get much attention. Turns out, it’s not an easy gig.
Sheila Conlin, who owns casting and production office The Conlin Company, talked about one particularly difficult couple she found for Fox’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” “They were stubborn and a lot to handle, which for me, is a dream,” she gushed. Translation: When someone’s that difficult off-screen, it’s likely they’ll be crazy on-screen. That means buzz, which means ratings, which can translate to a hit.
Here are some fun facts we learned from professionals that, after hearing some of their stories, we’re now calling the unsung heroes of the reality TV world.
Crazy is good, but too crazy is risky.
The panel agreed: Everyone wants reality stars who “pop” on camera. Casting directors hone these instincts to spot future reality stars, and are usually able to tell almost instantly whether someone will connect with an audience or become a Twitter sensation.
While “larger than life” personalities are a plus, experts warn about recognizing signs that a person might not be ready for the spotlight. Someone with lots of drama can seem ripe for stardom — but it won’t help if they storm off the show on day two of a five-day shoot.
For example, take the case of the Arizona couple who owned Amy’s Baking Company, a highly dysfunctional eatery featured on “Kitchen Nightmares.” That was the first episode where Gordon Ramsay ever just walked out and quit. While the out-of-control, bickering owners got spin-off offers at first, the excitement quickly died down when it became clear the couple couldn’t work with anyone.
Even if the casting is perfect, some people get panicked when the cameras start rolling.
Eli Lehrer, Lifetime’s senior vice president of non-fiction programming, discussed a problem he faced at Bravo with “Tabatha Takes Over,” about the woman who helped failing salons. Eccentric people excited to be on camera during the casting process tended to clam up when the actual cameras started rolling. The trick, Lehrer suggested, is to tell the people the cameras are there for casting – but really, it’s the first day of filming.
These days, reality show participants can be too savvy for their own good.
Kristi Russell, president of Metal Flowers Media, faced an unexpected challenge while helping the casting process for Discovery’s new series “Naked and Afraid.” (Two strangers must survive for three weeks in the wild without food — or clothes.) You’d think with a title like that, people would know the drill. Instead, some participants showed up for filming and demanded to know the location of the Craft Service table. They weren’t too pleased to find out that no, it wasn’t a glamorous TV shoot, and no, they really wouldn’t have any amenities. Thirteen people wound up dropping out. Didn’t they understand the concept of the show? “I don’t know what they thought they were auditioning for,” Russell said.
Sometimes, someone unexpectedly shines on screen.
Years ago, Authentic Entertainment’s Lauren Lexton tried to pitch a show about wannabe actors in Hollywood – one hopeful featured in the series was the assistant to a then-unknown house flipper named Jeff Lewis. Network executives passed on the series, but were intrigued by Lewis’s brash personality when he appeared on screen. A reworking of the show, and fast forward to 2014: Lewis has his own reality empire on Bravo, as “Flipping Out” marks its seventh season this spring.
Reality competition shows are getting increasingly ambitious with online casting calls.
These days, some popular competition series (“American Idol,” “X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent”) accept online auditions. Those open calls can get around 20,000 submissions, said Diahnna Baxter, general manager of eTribez, an entertainment technology company that compiles such videos and organizes a database of prospective contestants for producers. Then, they sift through the thousands of videos to look for compelling storylines. It can be tough – but a lot cheaper than going to dozens of audition cities.
It might sound dry, but casting is all about research.
What do the network and producers want? After answering that question, casting directors scour the land for anyone who might make a good fit: They cold call, they find people on social media, they comb through dating sites, they hire private investigators. Russell estimates calling 1,000 bars in various cities to find ones that might work for Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue.” After that, there’s still lots of information to find out, including pre-interviews, interviews and screenings — and most importantly, establishing enough trust that the person will sign all the paperwork and actually agree to be on the show.
(This post has been updated.)