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Q & A with TROY DEVOLLD

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

Q & A with TROY DEVOLLD, author of

REALITY TV: AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO TV’S HOTTEST MARKET

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.                                                                          

ABOUT TROY DEVOLLD

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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