I'm constantly being contacted by people who have read some of my blogs about participating in reality television and have questions about jumping into the game themselves. I get it! I know the feeling. Believe me, if there had been a "Doing Reality TV for Dummies" book available when I signed up to make Wedding Island for TLC, you can believe I would have bought it. And read it cover to cover. Taking notes. Twice.
But there is no guide like that, and that's not by accident. Production companies and networks are perfectly comfortable with the idea that new reality talent have absolutely no idea what they're doing. Seriously. It makes their jobs easier.
Reality television programming has grown dramatically because it is CHEAP to make. They don't pay the stars diddly-squat in the first couple of seasons -- the goal for the "talent" is to have a successful show so that you have some leverage when you go back to renegotiate your contract after you've had a couple of seasons of solid ratings.
Two of the most business-savvy reality television women I've seen in recent years are JWoww and Snookie from Jersey Shore. They took a drunken summer at a beach house and turned it into more television shows and entire product lines! They are the extreme example of reality television business success -- but that's not what it's like for everybody.
We joke that there is an underground "Reality TV Survivors Club," but that's not really a joke. A lot of us have become connected, even though we've done different shows with different networks and all had different experiences. However, there's a common thread in all of our histories -- we all wish we'd known more before we signed up to make a show.
That doesn't mean that any of us wouldn't have gone ahead and made a reality show, it just means that everyone I've ever talked to went into the process somewhat blind. I asked six zillion questions but still had no idea what I was in for when the actual process began. And I had good attorneys and an agent.
Although it's not a Dummies book, I'm hopeful this blog will be helpful to other future "talent" out there who are considering taking the plunge. Here are the 10 most common questions I'm asked -- and the answers to them!
1. Do I NEED an agent before I sign a contract to do a reality show?
You don't need an agent. You just need a good entertainment attorney. This is not a job for your family attorney. Entertainment law is a specialty -- and those who are good at it have a lot of experience working with the networks to get the best deals for their clients. They know how to protect their clients. Getting a good entertainment attorney might require a referral, but if you already have a contract offer on the table, you can simply do your research and cold-call one, and explain that you need assistance. Some will refer you to a colleague if they don't have time to help you. Spend your time getting a GOOD entertainment attorney and don't worry about having an agent until you've survived your first season. Most agents won't touch you before you've been picked up by a network anyway, unless you're already famous for something else or have a connection. A good entertainment attorney will be able to advise you on the basics, and in the beginning, all you really need help with is negotiating your development deal and then, hopefully, your network contract.
2. What will having an agent do for me?
If you do have an agent, you have one more person playing in your court. And unlike your attorney, this one doesn't bill by the hour. A good agent wants you to succeed because when you make money, your agent makes money! It's not hard to get an agent if you already have a network offer (that's how I got mine), most agents are happy to help a client who already has a mostly-done deal on the table. But if you are first-season reality television talent, you may not get the red-carpet treatment you were expecting from having an "agent." It depends how many clients they have and where you rank on the priority list. Before you "sign" with an agent (and most of them don't have you sign anything because they don't want you tied to their agency if they switch companies - which they do as frequently as Congressional staffers switch offices), you need to have a very clear and open conversation and ask EXACTLY what they're going to do for you. If you're shooting on location somewhere and all hell breaks loose between you and the production company, are they going to get on an airplane and come help you get things sorted out? If you can't get a clear "yes" on a question like that, then what's the point in hiring them?
3. How much should I have to pay for the development deal?
Say what? Making a sizzle reel or participating in development of a show with a legitimate production company should not cost you money. No, you don't get paid for the development aspect of the project even if you have to put in a ton of time. This is when the production company is creating a pitch about your show to sell to the networks. That's their job, and your job is to make yourself available for filming and provide any background and pictures that they need to complete their pitch. We shot my first demo with two cameras in three days on a week's notice. It was low budget, but the production company did a good job and the show got several offers from different networks. Any company that wants you to commit money to developing the pitch is somebody to be avoided. That's not how it's supposed to work. Chances are the episodic rate you'll be paid to make a first season of a reality show will just about cover your legal fees, if you're lucky. Don't put any other money into it.
4. Will they have fixed cameras in my house/office? Can I make phone calls that aren't filmed?
Every production company is different. Depending on what kind of show you're making, you may or may not be filming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you've signed up for a Real World-type of show, they make the rules. The talent (that's you) has to follow them. And there's little room for negotiation. But if you are making a show about your own life or your own business, you have more bargaining power. The trick is to make these concerns known to your attorney during the contract negotiation process. The lawyer knows what goes into the contract and what gets worked out on site with production when filming starts. If you never want cameras in your bedroom, you have to say so. If you want to make sure that cameras stop rolling in the case of a personal medical emergency, you have to cover your butt on the front end. If there's something that's off-limits for your show, you have to make that clear up front to your attorney. And if it's not something that goes in the contract, your agent or attorney should be able to help you handle it if it comes up later.
5. Do I have to worry about them being sneaky when they're filming us? Can't I just take off my microphone?
Production companies really do use tricks to spice things up. Things like extreme sleep deprivation will make you a little crazy during filming. That's how they get the best footage, right? And the microphones are always on, even when the cameras are on the other side of a door. But being aware of the potential for this, and knowing up front what kind of production company you're working with, will go a long way towards helping you be prepared for what's to come. Some companies are known for their guerilla-style tactics and won't hesitate to sneak around or try to film things they shouldn't. Others are far more respectful of the talent. It just depends on the corporate culture of the company and the style of show you are filming. If you sign up to do a show where they're trying to catch you doing stupid things, expect that. But if you're signing up for a show about your business and you don't want to risk ruining a professional reputation that you've spent years to build, you have to lay down some limits from the beginning.
6. Should I quit my regular job? How much time will I have to take off from work to do a show?
Remember, you have no guarantee that your show is actually going to air until the filming and editing is done and you get the word from the network. Many, many shows are produced but never actually shown on television, for any number of reasons. And even if your show does air, you don't have any guarantee of a second season until they tell you that you've got it. It may be a one-shot deal and the last thing you need to do is have your business implode because of the cameras, or not have a job when they're done filming. No matter what, don't count on making money off your first reality show. You'll be lucky if they pay you enough to make up for the income your losing when you're filming.
7. The contract says I have to be there for 30 days? What happens after that?
Most reality television "talent" have to go back to real life as soon as they finish filming. For me, real life never stopped because they were filming my company executing weddings for real clients, and that's what we continued to do after the cameras were gone. But for "talent" with real jobs in real offices and other sorts of business, it's a vicious reality check back into real life. With that said, you're not finished with production when the cameras leave or you return home.
8. What do they mean by post-production obligations? What happens after they finish filming the show?
There will be post-production follow up work when they're editing your show, and you may have to travel to film pick-ups and record voiceovers. You won't always have much notice and your employer will have to be a little bit understanding. Your network contract obligates you to do these things. You may think you're signing up for a 30-day commitment, but be sure to read the fine print. Television shows don't make themselves and if you're one of the stars, you have to help finish what you started.
9. Who handles my social media and interviews with reporters about the show?
You will be expected to put A LOT of time into promoting your show YOURSELF when it finally airs. Depending on your network, you may have some support in this, but most reality television talent in my underground network report they got zero media training or social media coaching. Heck, I was a Twitter virgin til the third episode of Wedding Island when my interns and staff literally forced me to live-tweet. Most network contracts will require you to drop everything and be wherever they tell you to be to do media, if the show promotion requires it. That's fine if your job lets you just roll out at the drop of a hat, but for a lot of reality "talent" who go back to real life after filming their first season, being available when the network whistles can be hard and you have to be prepared for it. In a best case scenario, there's a lot of media interest in your show and you have to do a lot of appearances. That's what you want, for sure. But since you're not likely to know when your show will actually air until within 60 days of its launch date, you have to make sure your professional obligations at home are met before the shit hits the fan.
10. What do I need to watch out for as far as my existing business and life are concerned?
If the goal of participating in a reality show is to grow your business or become famous, you have to protect yourself before you start. By "protect yourself," I mean you need to get your social media stuff organized, buy the domain with your name if it's available, and finishing setting up any new businesses that are in the works. Once you belong to a network, they get a piece of anything that comes your way as a result of the success of the show. BravoTV is making a fortune on its celebrity's books and other spin-off business -- they set the gold standard for staking a claim on future earnings resulting from reality television fame. If you've already got the concept and the ability to do so, register your new business legally and set up a real website for it to establish the fact that it existed before the television show. You should also have your entertainment attorney protect your intellectual property if you're a published writer or have created something else unique and different. What was yours before the show should remain entirely yours after the show, but it won't if you don't protect your assets.
Reality television can be a lot of fun, but when strangers call me for advice about whether or not they should take a deal, my first question is always "do you have an entertainment attorney?" If you don't, you need to get one before you do or sign anything. Starting your career in reality television off on the right foot is the first step towards building a successful entertainment career.
Best wishes and good luck!