I am extremely grateful to be one of the original pioneers of competition reality TV. I have executive produced 100's of hours of TV including Eco-Challenge (Discovery Channel and USA Network), Rock Star Season (CBS), Contender (NBC and ESPN), Expedition Impossible (ABC), Great American Road Trip (NBC) and Biggest Loser (NBC) so I know hands on how it all works. To get a network series on air is a massive team effort and a tremendous amount of work but for most people who are lucky enough to work in TV making a show is truly a dream job.
Should you wish to know how it works…below is the step by step breakdown of how most competition TV series are made:
Step 1. DEVELOPMENT
Ideas are usually brainstormed within the development department of a production company. Concepts are flushed out in a pitch deck and usually a sizzle tape is produced and edited to visually show proof of the concept.
Step 2. PITCHING
The concept is then pitched to the networks. The TV executives get up to 10 pitches a day so you better be excellent in the room. The art of the pitch is invaluable when selling a show.
Step 3. NEGOTIATIONS
If the network likes the idea then the lawyers and agents start negotiating the deal. This can take up to 6 months.
Step 4. THE GREEN-LIGHT
Getting a network to green-light a show is extremely difficult BUT when they do that's when the fun begins.
Step 5. CASTING
The key to any reality show is the CAST. The casting director has a team of casting associates who head out across America to search for the best cast. Contestants send in a casting tape that is reviewed by the team; it's important to see if they pop on camera. Of the 1000's that apply usually 50 are brought to LA for in person interviews. After lots of interviews, background checks and testing, the finalists are chosen to take part in the series.
Step 6. PRE-PRODUCTION
Once the show is green lit, the Executive Producer then starts hiring the core team to turn the CONCEPT into a reality. Each department is run by a Department Head which often times consists of a Production Designer, Casting Director, Line Producer, Challenge Producer, Supervising Producer, Director and Post Producer Supervisor. The production designer starts building the set if there is one. The Supervising Producer starts brainstorming challenge ideas with the challenge producers. The line producer starts hiring the team. Story Producers are hired, The Camera crew is booked, etc.
During the pre-production stage, the crew is usually on location for up to 6-8 weeks building sets, testing challenges, etc.
Step 7. THE SHOOT
For a standard network competition reality show, the shoot is usually around 26-36 days. For every episode the crew usually shoot for 2-3 days. Competition Reality shows are usually 12-13 episodes. On a big competition show like Biggest Loser or Survivor - the crew can be up to 75 people. To keep everyone on schedule the AD (Assistant Director) sends out a call sheet the night before each shoot day. The call sheet is a breakdown of the daily schedule telling the crew where to go and at what time.
Step 8. POST PRODUCTION
Post production is where the TV series is truly made. In post, the editors and producers work together to craft each episode of TV. Hundreds of hours of tape come down to only 42 minutes per episode. Interviews with the contestants help narrate the story. Producers listen to hours of transcripts to find the perfect sound bite. Music is chosen. Once the picture is locked, the episode is then audio mixed, onlined and color corrected. It is then delivered to the network to air.
Step 9. SCHEDULING, PROMOTION AND PR
The network then needs to schedule the series. Does it make sense on a Monday night at 8 or Wednesday at 9? Once the date and time is locked the networks promo and PR teams go to town getting the word out about the series.
Step 10. AIRING
The show then premieres. If the show does well in the ratings, you get to push repeat and do a season 2!
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