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Archive for August, 2011


Posted by >>>>> on August 14, 2011

Q & A with TROY DEVOLLD, author of


Q. Tell us about your background. How did you get in to Reality TV? What shows have you worked on? What attracted you to this genre?

I found my way into Reality TV by accident in the fall of 2000 after moving to Los Angeles to chase a career writing for movies and television.  On arrival, I immediately fell into a job as a logger/transcriber processing source footage for the MTV series Fear and rose to the rank of Story Producer in the show’s second season.  From there, I went on to work on shows like The Osbournes (as a dailies coordinator for the story department), The Surreal Life, Dancing With the Stars, Flipping Out, Black Gold and many more en route to my current gig as Supervising Producer of Basketball Wives.  What began for me as a gig to bide my time until movies and sitcoms came calling became a challenging decade-long experiment in applying my story skills to the Bizarro-world of reality storytelling.

Q. The first chapter of your new book, REALITY TV: A INSIDER’S GUIDE TO TV’S HOTTEST MARKET, is on writing for Reality TV, which you call an “invisible job.” Can you explain what Reality TV writers do and why they are needed?

In the book, I say that “story is story, and story is written, sort of.” Reality TV writers and producers (laboring under titles like Story Producer, Story Editor, and Segment Producer) work their magic in less readily identifiable, more nuanced ways than their traditionally scripted television counterparts.  If we’ve done our job of compressing time, moving scenes and ideas along, nudging interview content and shepherding story from the shadows, you shouldn’t know we were ever involved.   About the only time you know we’ve been there is when something doesn’t work.  Gotta watch those seams

Q. You also have a chapter on the history of Reality TV. Can you give us an overview of it? What were some of the earliest Reality TV shows?

Most people agree that Candid Camera is the first real reality show, adapted from Allen Funt’s successful Candid Microphone radio program.  You could debate, however, that Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour holds the title if you choose to go by today’s definition of reality programming, which has engulfed what we used to call variety or talent shows.  The history written in the book begins in 1948 and continues through the current wave of Reality TV hits, many of which are adaptations of early successes in the genre.

Q. You say that many critics have a double standard when it comes to appraising Reality TV against scripted TV. What do you mean by this?

Plenty of reality shows deserve the lumps they take from critics, but there seems to me to be a real bias against the genre going into reviews: “Just what we need, another reality show with so-and-so doing such and so.”  Well, here’s an idea, watch the show with an eye toward its own merits and shortcomings before deriding it as another meaningless droplet in the current wave of reality programming.  I’d pit Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or An Idiot Abroad against my favorite traditionally scripted content of the past year for entertainment value and pure craft.

Q. In REALITY TV: AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO TV’S HOTTEST MARKET you talk about some of the behind-the-scenes techniques that are used to create drama and shape a story. What are a few of these techniques and when do you think it is appropriate to use them?

At the risk of sounding like Batman giving his best utility belt items away, there are a number of techniques that a reality story producer should master.  The book shares how stories are actually outlined prior to edit (if not shooting, in some cases) to maximize story flow and dramatic effect, how interview content can be used to completely repurpose a scene, and how minor trims in interview content help keep your cast sounding on-point.  There are cheats like ticking clocks and false stakes that can be employed, but they’re last-ditch tools for the desperate and I avoid them like the plague.  As for when it’s appropriate to dip into the bag of tricks, one of the major recurrent themes in the book is how important it is to compose story from source material ethically, using the tools outlined within in a responsible way that results in emotionally engaging content without sacrificing the dignity of the show’s participants.

Q. What is the “Reality Effect?”

Reality TV has forced traditionally scripted television to work harder to keep up the illusion of authenticity.  A great police procedural from the 70’s or 80’s, no matter how well written, can’t match The First 48 for gritty realism because the scripted version isn’t real.  I blame reality television for the decline in whimsical fantasy programming, as suspension of disbelief becomes harder in a world where so much entertainment is rooted in reality.

Q. You advise producers and writers who work in Reality TV never to become chummy with the cast. Why?

Cast members are curious as to how they’ll be “portrayed” on the show and may also behave less like themselves if they’re feeling judged by the people who are recording their interactions or processing them into a final product.  From the perspective of someone who often works in post and seldom visits the field, it’s helpful to be able to make decisions based on who you’re watching in source footage versus who the person you got to know in the field is.

Q. In REALITY TV: AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO TV’S HOTTEST MARKET you offer a lot of advice for the aspiring producer or writer of Reality TV, including some guidance on developing a workable concept and successfully pitching it to studio execs. First, what makes a concept “workable,” and second, can you give us a few pitching tips?

I recently added an entry to my blog at http://www.realitytvbook.com about the misnomer that a mere idea or logline is a product.  A workable concept is executable, contains a plan for how interaction will be structured, has casting in mind or locked down (if it’s central to the concept) and an end buyer in mind.  You can be wildly creative within the confines of developing something for an established audience.  As for pitching, know what you’re selling.  Don’t pitch a show about a celebrity you have no existing access to or some nutty concept so outrageous that it would take tens of millions of dollars to pull off.  Be passionate about the show and don’t go out with anything you wouldn’t want to watch yourself.

Q. Where do you think Reality TV is headed? What trends are you seeing?

I’m amazed by the quality of some of the shows I’ve seen in these early days of The Oprah Winfrey Network and the increasing quality of many food, science and travel programs.  As for other types of reality shows, cheap celebrity casting gimmicks aren’t yielding the draws they used to and are giving way to real stories about real people.  Viewers are getting savvier every day thanks to media literacy initiatives, and I feel that we’re entering an age where it’s finally more about quality than spectacle.

Q. Historically Reality TV has made the private public with real-life medical dramas, real-life family dramas, etc. Do you think there are certain situations or topics that Reality TV should not cover?

I’m so proud of Thom Beers and the folks at Original for the way that they handled Captain Phil Harris’s passing on Deadliest Catch.  For a long time I thought that death was one of the last real taboos, but I’m seeing more and more of it on emergency room shows in the past year, and it’s usually handled quite sensitively.  As for things that shouldn’t be covered, I always go back to mean-spirited prank shows.  There’s funny and there’s mean, and I don’t dig mean.  The laughs are too cheap, and the notion of potentially traumatizing someone who never signed up for it is repulsive to me.                                                                          


Troy DeVolld survived careers as an executive assistant and comic book artist before finding his way into Reality Television, where he currently works as a Supervising Producer. Since relocating to Los Angeles from Tampa, Florida, in late 2000, Troy has worked on many top Reality shows including The Osbournes, The Surreal Life, Dancing with the Stars, Flipping Out, and Basketball Wives. He shared a Daytime Emmy® nomination in 2009 as a Producer on Style Network’s Split Ends.  Troy has had the pleasure of lecturing on the topic of Reality Television production to students and alumni of schools as diverse as Northwestern University, The University of South Carolina, and his own alma mater, Full Sail University, which honored him with induction into their Hall of Fame in June of 2010. He is also a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, The Writers Guild of America West’s Nonfiction Writers Caucus, and the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors. Troy lives in North Hollywood, California.

Visit him at: www.realitytvbook.com.


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From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta

Posted by >>>>> on August 9, 2011

Author of From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta: How West African Standards of Aesthetics Shaped the Music of the Delta Blues

Q. In From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta you offer a comprehensive account of how the Blues and Jazz were shaped by West African musical traditions. Why did you feel the need to write this history?

A. I saw the need to write this section of our American history because I had long felt that academia was suffering from a bout of amnesia when it came to educating our nation about the contributions of people of African descent and how they shaped our cultural identity, especially our music. This can be seen in the way we clap, our sense of swing, our sense of harmony and melody through the Blues, the banjo we play, Gospel, Jazz, Country, Rock’n Roll, Bebop etc.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. You have a shared Senegalese and French heritage and your childhood was split between Africa and Europe. How did this affect you as a musician and scholar?

A. This shared heritage gave me a unique window into racial issues in academia and how this, in turn, shapes society. It also allowed me to act as an observer and deepened my understanding of the impact of racial colonial oppression on academic knowledge and its dissemination, as well as the impact of colonialism on how we teach and think about music. In the United Sates today, we have more conservatories of European music than schools of America’s own art form, Jazz. Are Mozart and Beethoven more important to the fabric of America’s education quilt than Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington?

Q. You call the Niger River the “West African cultural highway of central significance.” Why?

A. It is along the rivers that the process of cross-cultural fertilization takes place. In West Africa, the Niger River was the vehicle. In the United States it was the Mississippi-Missouri. These mighty rivers connect people economically therefore culturally, thus musically.

Q. You were raised in Mail, Senegal and France, but you’ve made your home in the U.S. for almost three decades. You say that you were surprised to find that African-Americans clapped on the second and fourth beat when keeping time with the pulse of the music, and that people often find themselves clapping on the “wrong beat.” Why is that?

A. I have spent 27 years in the U.S. as a Jazz musician and that’s a long time. I was always surprised that African Americans and the nation as a whole clapped on beats 2 and 4. I noticed early that European American communities were having a harder time with that concept. The reason has to do with centuries of West African musical traditions.

Q. In From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta you discuss the oral tradition of West African communities and how it served as a primary vehicle to transmit history and other knowledge. How has this practice informed Jazz and the Blues?

A. Musicians are the teachers in African societies and the concepts of oral tradition and memorization simply transferred over when Africans came to the new world. The importance of memorization in the African American community is paramount. Africans and people of African descent deeply believe that you only know what you have learned by heart, thus the piece of paper becomes an obstacle to human internal concentration and freedom of expression. When I was with Dizzy Gillespie he would say “ It’s good to know how to read but I don’t want you getting on stage with that piece of paper because if you need to read this that means that you don’t know what you are doing up there and if you don’t know what you are doing up there you’ve got no business being on stage” –pure implementation of the oral tradition.

Q. Can you describe some of the African stringed instruments you discuss in the book and explain their significance to the guitar, banjo, and other instruments that Americans are more familiar with?

A. The most important instrument which defines the textural identity of early American music is the banjo. The banjo comes from the people of West Africa, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Niger etc. It is called Ngoni (Mali), Xaalam (Senegal), Akounting (Gambia) etc. Same instrument, same concept, pretty much same tuning, same songs although there is variety in the similarities. These instruments and their songs provided the foundation for the colors of the music that will evolve from blue notes to be named Blues, the call and response mechanisms, the syncopation patterns, the sense of “swing,” the harmonic landscape of the magical sharp nine concept that you find all over West African music and will give America’s music its unique identity.

Q. The Atlantic Slave Trade resulted in millions of Africans being forcibly brought to the Americas. Tell us about how this experience changed their musical traditions and how they re-conceptualized the music that they found in the U.S.

A. Africans are the genetic parents of humanity as a whole. Africans were the first on the planet therefore Africans have an incredible ability to survive, which is why they were able to survive the Atlantic Slave Trade and re-create a cultural community that would give this nation its only indigenous art form: Jazz. People of African descent simply apply their standards of aesthetics to every form that comes their way. That’s why we see such a strong African identity in the music of America.

What is mind-boggling is that an entire aesthetic philosophy survived the Middle Passage and its legacy endures regardless of the economic deprivation in which the community finds itself in North America today. The rhythmic, oral delivery concepts of West Africa existed well before anyone ever imagined a the Blues, Jazz, or—most recently—Hip-Hop. It also can be found in the sermon delivery of the pastors of the African American Baptist Church in the South.

Q. If you had to choose some specific songs Jazz and Blues songs that you think best illustrate the West African influence what would they be?

A. You can find sonic and rhythmic similarities in the early Blues, I am thinking conceptually about the music of Son House or Bukka White, and you can hear the roots of these early American musics in the traditional songs of West Africa when you listen to the music of Ali Farka Toure or Bassekou Kouyate. Bassekou playing Ngoni Fola or Segu Blue are perfect examples. John Lee Hooker playing Boom Boom or Hobo Blues, or Ali Farka Toure playing Heygana (the River) or Ai Du.

Pascal Bokar Thiam is a scholar, musician and writer of mixed Senegalese and French heritage who grew up in Mali, Senegal and France. He is on the faculty of the University of San Francisco and the French American International School, where he teaches Jazz and world music courses. His CD, Savanna Jazz Club, (named after a nightclub he owns in San Francisco’s Mission District) which combines the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with Senegalese
rhythms was a national best seller.

Author Web site: www.pascalbokarthiam.com
Hear Thiam’s Music: www.myspace.com/pascalbokar/albums/savanna-jazz-club-394071

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