The Reality TV Casting Producer: ‘there are some people who really are just motivated by the abstract idea of winning'

Jen* used to work as a casting producer for reality TV, finding and selecting the talent for several high-rating prime-time cooking and renovating TV shows. She spoke with Sophie Quick about soundbites, authenticity and picking winners.

An illustrated hand reaches forth from a TV screen, holding a rose

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

How did you get into reality TV casting?

I was studying theatre at uni and I got a job running around on a TV show as a production assistant, helping out talent and famous people. I was promoted really quickly in my early 20s and offered a big paycheque to cast contestants for a national game show. It was an offer too good to refuse. I worked there until I graduated, then I did a bit of drama before I finally settled on reality TV as being my favourite kind of thing to cast.

What makes a good reality TV casting producer?

You have to be genuinely interested in people. You’re auditioning lots and lots and lots of people – depending on the show, it could be thousands – and listening to a lot of people’s stories. People know if you're engaged by them or not. You need to create rapport really quickly, to find out someone’s story and to hear and feel whether their story is going to translate to a broader audience, whether it's a communicable narrative that has some sort of universal quality.

Every show has a different casting brief but there are, across the board, certain qualities that work well on TV. People who are emotive, who are expressive, people who – when they're feeling or thinking something – you can just tell because they give some kind of physical signal that shows how they’re really feeling.

And this sounds romantic, but there's also a genuineness that is a wonderful quality on TV. If someone comes across as genuine and authentic, then they can go from being a hero to an arsehole in one episode and the audience will just go with them. You can see that they're just riding out their own kind of narrative in a true way.

'People know if you're engaged by them or not.'

I'm not sure if it's any special quality in being able to cast people. When you’re casting it’s just – the person who you meet at a party who you just like for some reason. Even when you're casting the baddie, you tend to cast a baddie that you like.

What kind of people try to be on reality TV shows and how seriously do they want to win?

The answer to that has changed dramatically in the trajectory of my career. At the start, in the early 2000s, around the time of Big Brother, people didn’t really know what to expect from reality TV. It was people who were attracted to the idea of TV and maybe an abstract idea of fame and a prize.

But [after a few years] we had to start doing more target casting, which means actively finding people rather than them finding us. The ads on TV and on Facebook [weren’t] going to get you your whole cast. We’d have to go out and cast shows by hitting the streets, hitting the phone, going to community centres, ringing the Country Women’s Association. To find those big, authentic characters, you had to go looking for them.

So the cattle call is now just for the people who want to be famous and casting producers have to fill out the rest of the cast by going to the real world?

It used to be like that, but now it's even weirder, in some ways! The boundaries are blurred now and [reality TV] has become the new normal, especially with some millennials who seem to go, 'I like renovating and cooking, I'll just do it on TV!' It's so weird.

It was interesting casting several series of the same show. The difference between the first iteration of the show, compared with the third of fourth series, was just striking. People talked in soundbites, as though they were already on set. The audition process had to change, in a way, because you had to find ways to make sure people weren't just delivering what they thought you wanted to hear.

What kinds of places would you go, apart from the Country Women’s Association, to do target casting?

So, the way they cast The Bachelor, for example, is pretty intense. They’re going out to nightclubs, calling fire stations, going to surfing competitions – going wherever they think their person is going to be. You've written down what you want and then you go and find them.

I would try anything – depending on the brief. Sometimes you'd have incredibly specific briefs like: ‘We want a middle-aged mother of three grown-up children whose husband has left her and who loves cooking Chinese food in her spare time.’ You might not be able to deliver exactly on that brief, but the brief itself is telling you what they think is missing from the cast. I had quite a few gigs where I’d come in just to help fill out the rest of the cast after the cattle call.

'People talked in soundbites, as though they were already on set.'

Illustration of a hand holding a pen, choosing 'hero' or 'villain' on a checklist; villain is checked

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

To what extent are reality TV winners either predetermined or heavily manipulated?

In my experience, neither of those things happen. It’s certainly not predetermined, although people in production and at the network will have a strong idea of who is going to win. The competitions aren’t really set up to be rigged.

The manipulation is more focused on the story. So the [production team] might say, ‘These people, who are not audience favourites, are probably going to win the competition because they're the best renovators, cooks or whatever. Let's figure out a storyline to make them sympathetic.’

So there's no pressures from advertisers for a particular winner?

No, no. And also if the advertisers really like the leggy blonde who came in third, they'll just use her [for their campaigns]. She's still famous, so it’s fine. In that instance. If you look at a lot of the winners and finalists, brand sponsorship and career longevity aren't necessarily contingent on who got number one and everyone knows that now.

So what makes a contestant a likely winner?

There's no conspiracy. Unfortunately, sometimes the person who is not the best, most engaging [on-screen] talent, just really knows how to match a cushion and a curtain!

It's a combination of that and of having some sort of capacity to stay in the game and put up with what it means to be shooting a reality TV show every day of your life for months. It's gruelling and they’re constantly being pitted against each other. It’s an intense and explicitly time-pressured environment. And some shows are really strict about contact with family and friends and [contestants] are almost totally in lockdown.

Resilience is really important. You do try to communicate to talent, before they get anywhere near the show, that it’s entirely possible that if the show is even vaguely successful and if they are even vaguely successful on the show – they'll have a hate page made about them on Facebook pretty quickly. If not a hate page then potentially hundreds of awful comments.

Everyone says they'll be fine – they say, ‘I don’t care about haters’ – but it's shocking when it happens. Nobody really thinks it will happen to them and everyone is shocked when it does.

What has your work taught you about people and their attitudes towards winning?

It was interesting to me to realise that there are some people who really are just motivated by the abstract idea of winning: being the winner, being Number One, being the best, as opposed to getting money or prizes. Sometimes [this kind of person] would be fantastic talent and you could make it work, but often, it was a harder sell than a person with a proper narrative and an interesting backstory – who wanted to win for a reason they could locate in some sort of emotion.

Did you watch Unreal? What did you think?

Yes, I loved it. I wasn’t so keen on the storyline in the last season but all my friends laugh because I was Rachel in my twenties. There was a part of me that thought about representation on TV really seriously and I politicised my job and I felt like I was saving the world one reality tv contestant at a time. I've become more reflective since then! … But I have friends who’ve worked in reality tv and we often do a thing with Unreal – where we’ll go through [an episode] and go, 'Oh yeah, I'd do that', 'Yep, definitely seen that', 'Oh I know a person who used to do that', 'Oh God no, you'd never do that'.

 

* Not her real name

 

Discussion

All messages as part of this discussion and any opinions, advice, statements, or other information contained in any messages or transmitted by any third party are the responsibility of the author of that message and not the Wheeler Centre.