Ever since we wrapped filming for TLC's Wedding Island reality show last year, I've been joking that I wanted to write the "Idiot's Guide to Doing Reality Television" or "RealityTV for Dummies." Unfortunately, I'm a full-time wedding planner, part-time blogger, and I run several real businesses so that little fantasy has to wait.
However, there are a few things that would seem obvious about jumping into this business but absolutely are not, and I'm going to take a minute to share them now. Before anybody else gets hurt (literally or figuratively speaking). As a reality television "survivor," I have an obligation to the other rookies out there.
What I'm hearing from reality "talent" newbies shocks and horrifies me regularly because, even though I was clueless, there are other folks out there who are less informed than Bill and I were when we signed on with a major network like Discovery. And we have really, REALLY good representation. So I worry about these other people doing something stupid that will ruin the rest of their lives.
Okay, I'll admit I've made it sound ominous to take the jump into the reality television. It is, and it isn't. Stop and get excited. You have a chance at a TV show! Did you know the odds of getting chosen to star in a reality show are about the same as getting picked in the first round of the NFL draft? You have an opportunity to be a STAR. But not unlike those NFL rookies who seemed so hot when they got drafted, if you don't play the reality TV game well, you will find your ass sitting on the bench.
I am not an expert on this, so take my advice below for what it is -- the experience I gained while working with one of the biggest, baddest production companies out there to make a show for a very big network. 495 Productions is the 800-pound gorilla of the reality world and owner SallyAnn Salsano, creator of Jersey Shore, is often referred to as the most influential woman in the industry. TLC is owned by Discovery Channel. No doubt about it, I jumped into the BIG fishpond with Wedding Island and I had no clue. As I tell my brides all the time: Learn from my mistakes, don't repeat them.
1) Accept that you have given up your privacy, except to the extent that you have protected certain things in your contract (which you haven't if this is your first rodeo). With the exception of one or two little meltdowns in the beginning, production won't tolerate stopping filming for you because you don't like what's going on. When that happens too much, the network gets involved because, after all, the filming is on their dime. If the situation is that bad, call your agent, manager, or attorney and have them come to wherever you are to sort out the problem.
2) Get an ENTERTAINMENT ATTORNEY to review everything before you sign anything. Do not use your family attorney or your business attorney. Do not use a friend who is a lawyer and will do it for free. It will cost you more later to unf*ck it. Entertainment law is a specialty. Reality television law is a subspecialty. Find good representation out of the gate. It can take some time and you will need a referral, but it is worth the wait and doing it right the first time. If they really want you, they will wait until the lawyers get it all sorted out. Then expect them to hit the ground running once you've signed. The tech crew for Wedding Island descended on us less than a week after the ink dried on the network contract.
3) Remember, they're ALWAYS listening. Even when they're not filming you (that you're aware of), they're taping every word that comes out of your mouth. There is a group of producers and assistants sitting in a control booth or a van taking notes on every word you mutter, every phone call you make, and what time you sneezed. The things you say when you think nobody is listening often make the best voiceovers in edit.
4) You don't have to do anything that producers tell you to do if it's something you wouldn't normally do. This doesn't apply to contest shows or boot camp-types of shows where you've signed up to play the game. But if you are filming an "unscripted" reality show, you can say "no." You do not have to make an ass of yourself because production thinks it will look good on television. However, keep in mind that if you're saying "no" too often, you may have signed up to do the wrong show. And it's already too late unless they fire you. You cannot quit once the network has invested a million or more dollars in your show.
5) Research your production company carefully. You're entering into a short-term marriage of sorts, and if your show is successful, it could be a long happy relationship or it could be the marriage from hell. Even if your show is successful, the network won't renew your show if you couldn't get along with your production company. It doesn't matter whose fault it was or if the show was good enough, networks have more shows pitched than they know what to do with so they aren't going to renew your show if you and your production company cause a pain in their ass. On the flip side, if you hate your production company and the show is a wild success, you're probably locked in for a long, long time.
6) Don't sign up to make a reality show if you have a lot of freaky skeletons in the closet that TMZ can find. No, seriously. The networks do background checks (theoretically) but they're mostly checking criminal history and bad credit. But IF your show is successful and you've been living a lie, you WILL get busted and it won't be pretty. If it's embarrassing for the network, you can be sued for non-disclosure. If it's juicy, they'll play it up and you'll wish you'd never heard of reality television. By then, of course, it's wayyy too late.
7) Protect your existing businesses and intellectual property. Refer to number 2 above for instructions on how to do that. It's not a joke. Especially if you make a show like mine about your business. If, like me, you have thousands of things published out there that pre-date the show, you need to protect all of those things too. It's okay to let them use that stuff to promote you, but it needs to be spelled out exactly how it's used and when you will be compensated for the usage.
8) NEVER believe anyone who tells you they won't use something they're filming. The producer who is telling you that is not the same producer/director/editor that is putting together the show in the edit suite. The best way to avoid getting in trouble with this is to be yourself and don't say stupid shit that you wouldn't normally say to anyone in public. Don't be an ass if you're usually a sweetheart just to cause drama and get more screen time. It will backfire.
9) Be suspicious of production setups. They happen ALL THE TIME. That camera crew that happened to be on my front porch an hour earlier than call time when the bride called me hysterical about missing luggage was there early because they knew something was about to happen and they weren't going to miss it. On that note, always wear decent pajamas.
10) Do not self-edit. I actually got that advice from the producer who made my original demo reel and he was right. That means (if you're not familiar with the term), don't go on a show and try to be somebody that you're not, or to talk differently or act differently than you normally would. Producers (and viewers) aren't stupid. If you hide the real you, they will see through it. There's a reason that nobody from production ever told me to watch my potty mouth -- I have a potty mouth. It's a fact.
11) Be as dramatic as you want to be when it's called for during filming -- as in, scream at your co-worker if you would normally do that. Yell at your husband for being late if that's how you interact. Get frustrated with clients if you're ready to scream when you hang up the phone. But contain your drama to the context of the show you are filming. Don't cause production drama.
12) Do not physically attack the production crew, ever. I don't care how annoyed you are that they're still following you with cameras when you said stop, that camera man and sound guy are not the ones calling the shots. There's a voice in their ears saying "keep filming -- don't stop filming!" when the shit hits the fan. That is their job. If the problem is so egregious that you cannot continue filming, you need a meeting with your reps and production to sort things out. But the minute you start grabbing cameras, tearing off expensive microphone equipment, and physically attacking producers, you have lost the war. And violated your contract. Oh, you might not get kicked off the show because face it, that's DRAMA baby. But you've made yourself look really bad and they're going to use that footage over and over again. And don't expect ANY mercy in the editing booth.
13) Recognize the real life consequences of committing to having your life filmed. For the time you're in production, you won't have normal time with your friends, you won't have your regular daily phone conversations, and the only alone time you will have is in the bathroom. If you're super lucky like me, they'll set up a control van under your bathroom window and even potty time becomes something you're suspicious about. If your show is about your business, you may have to push off clients who aren't being filmed. If you are on a contest show, you may be sequestered and have little outside world contact. Be prepared. Warn your family and your friends.
14) They will film everything and use one percent of it. That's what I decided after seeing my own show. You cannot worry about what's going to be edited in or out because there's no way of knowing. 495 Productions filmed every single time I blew my hair dry and applied makeup before every single wedding event. Standing about 18 inches away from my head in the bathroom doorway with a huge camera. Not one single minute of that footage actually appeared in ANY of the six episodes of the season that aired, but I was miserable every time they filmed it. Not blaming production for this at all -- they didn't know what they would be using and what they wouldn't and the cameraman was ALWAYS as courteous as possible -- but it was a new show and they wanted EVERYTHING. If I knew then what I know now, we would have shot about half as much footage of me getting ready for weddings.
15) Be prepared to give up your music. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO KNOW ABOUT and nobody warned me. It makes perfect sense because the network cannot use commercial music without paying for it and if you're a baby reality show, nobody is paying royalties to Pink or Rihanna so that you can jam out to "Perfect" or "Umbrella" to get psyched up in the car on the way to a wedding. I think this is actually one of the hardest things to deal with if you're somebody like me who uses music to improve her mood before dealing with clients or large groups of wedding guests. Instead of singing "Girl on Fire" at full volume on the way to an event that has me scared witless (something I do on a regular basis), you'll be filming and answering questions in the car as you drive. If you have a good relationship with your producers (as I eventually did), you might get a one song break -- but my island is only five miles wide so my ass was usually doing interview pretty much the whole time I was driving. Forget jamming at your desk too.
16) Prepare to be blinded by the light, and to learn to walk around with a circle of people around you. We got very little blocking guidance at first -- meaning I was never standing where they needed me to stand. Once we learned what they wanted, we stood in semi-circles and learned to keep walking forward even when we couldn't see where the hell we were going in the pitch dark with a big-ass camera light in our faces. The guy with the camera is walking backwards in the dark too with somebody in his ear that's spotting him from behind. So you gotta trust that your production crew is doing their jobs and they're not going to let you fall in a hole or break your neck. Really. 495 took care of me. And you learn to drive with a blinding light in your face too because if you're filming in the car after dark, they have to light you up to see you. I think that would be hard to do anywhere, but I had a special challenge in that my island has narrow roads and thousands of wild horses roaming everywhere. My cop husband took serious issue with this but even I had to agree with production that sometimes it was necessary. Regardless, it was dangerous. Especially while racing to the emergency room with a bridesmaid puking blood.
17) Assuming you survive the filming of your show, get ready for the crazy of when it actually airs. Nobody prepared me, except a friendly producer who warned me to get my client stuff done ahead of time for when the show launched. But what they really need to tell you is that you have to learn, in advance, how to manage your social media. And if you're a business like me, you have to prepare your website. Fifty hits every 30 seconds crashed my site in the first 10 minutes of the first episode. Took us a few weeks to get everything under control. Businesses have to be prepared to be slammed with tons of inquiries, most of which are junk. And if you have your phone numbers out there all over like I did, you gotta switch that up as soon as possible. Or get a new number.
18) If you are a Droid person, suck it up now and buy yourself a nice new iPhone. I was a Droid girl but even I can't deny that the audio sucks compared to the iPhone and production NEEDS to be able to have you use the speakerphone all of the time. Learn from my mistake on this and do not try to learn a new phone operating system while you're in your initial weeks of production. It's additional stress you don't need. Nobody warned me. I'm warning you.
19) Have at least two complete sets of all of the cosmetics and accoutrements that you need for everyday life. Production sucks up time. If it usually takes you 10 minutes to get somewhere, during filming it will take you 30 to 45 minutes once they load up the caravan of all the production vehicles that have to go ahead of you, right in front of you, and trailing you. If you used to run home to freshen up before events, that time is gone. You have to be prepared, at all time, with whatever clothing or cosmetics you need to have for the next thing you're doing. After the first two weeks of filming, I kept a complete set of hair and makeup stuff at home and the office, as well as a hairbrush and other emergency supplies in my purse. And I am no diva. I just live in a really hot tropical climate and have to repair the damage before seeing clients and wedding guests a couple of times every day.
20) Think before you drink on camera. I know that shows like The Real World and Jersey Shore became raging successes mostly because we got to see how ridiculous people can behave when given unlimited access to alcohol and virtually no responsibilities. If that's the kind of show you're doing, go for it. Drink and be merry and explain it to your parents later. BUT, if you are a business owner or somebody with a GOOD pre-existing professional reputation, getting sloppy on camera can't benefit you in any way. Look at the Real Housewives -- who do you think of as successful, and how often have you seen them sh*tfaced on television? Lisa Vanderpump is an excellent example. So is Caroline Manzo. Countess LuAnn has been fairly well behaved too but even she learned the hard way on their Caribbean vacation when she got busted bringing that guy home from the bar hammered last season.
21) If you have a business and a production company is arriving with a tech crew for pre-production, this means they are coming to tear up your office. You likely agreed to this in your contract without realizing it because if you've never made a television show before you have no idea what they need to do to make it a working set. I'm not saying that to scare you, I'm telling you because nobody told me and I FREAKED OUT. First they decided to blast a hole in the wall to install a huge air conditioning unit to keep the cameras cool (these are concrete buildings and it was not a small deal). They took out all of our ceiling fans and replaced them with light boxes that make it feel like high noon all of the time. To this day, we have one ceiling fan light fixture that cannot be turned off (unless you get on a ladder) because of the way they rewired things to accommodate production's needs. It's an office joke. Seriously. Nobody knows how to turn the damned thing off. And it used to be connected to the same switch as everything else. 'Splain that one.
22) Do not talk about your television show in a bad way when it starts airing if you do not like the way you are seeing yourself portrayed. First off, it might get better (I cringed through my first three episodes and it actually did improve, a little). Second, that's YOU! You did it. You said it. Now own it. It may be taken out of context because, no, they don't show everything they film and television shows (even unscripted reality ones) have to be edited into 40 minute episodes. But trashing your show, your castmates, your production company, or your network is verboten and terribly unprofessional. Claiming publicly that your production company or network is lying and screwing with the footage is bad juju. If you're that pissed, sick your attorneys on the network PDQ. But keep your own mouth shut and smile for the cameras, if you're lucky enough to get to do interviews in the first place.
23) Social media etiquette for reality "talent" could be its own blog (and may be) so I'll keep this brief and to the point. Do not fight with random viewers on Twitter or Facebook or any other form of social media. THESE PEOPLE ARE WATCHING YOUR SHOW. So what if they say mean things about you while they're live-tweeting with other fans during the show, at least they're watching you. And that's the whole freaking point. Theoretically, some of those viewers have Nielsen boxes and you NEED them to watch your show. This new-fangled era that allows viewers to communicate directly with the stars of their fave reality shows is driving more people to watch the shows they've never heard about (and don't kid yourself -- major network dramas are starting to have the actors live-tweet too so this is important marketing). It's all about the retweet, guys. If you are rude to people who care enough to watch your show on a public forum such as Twitter, EVERYONE will hate you. Being the villain on the show may be fine, but being a villain to fans is never okay. Somebody very famous (don't remember who but it stuck with me) once said they ALWAYS give autographs and pose for fan pics because they know it takes a lot of nerve for a fan to approach a "star." Without the fans, you are nothing. Keep that in mind.
24) No matter how unkind or unflattering the reviews are that you get, NEVER attack the media. This goes for all media -- from television to magazines to bloggers. Especially the legitimate bloggers. The blogosphere is the biggest free marketing tool that cable reality television has and they have just started realizing and capitalizing on it. Blogs about new reality shows -- especially on the bigger sites like Monsters & Critics, the Examiner, and The Huffington Post -- are some of the best FREE marketing publicity the network can get and they want it. What they do not want is for a one-season "talent" with an attitude problem to start a twitter war with somebody who could do some really serious damage. And by damage, I mean they could stop blogging about the show altogether. We get to choose what shows we blog about. All publicity is good publicity as far as the production company and the network are concerned. Do everything possible to generate more blogging about your show. If you hate what somebody writes, ignore it. If most of your press is bad, don't read it. Whatever you do, don't lose your temper on social media. It will get captured before common sense has you go back and delete it.
25) When you go into this and decide for certain to make a reality show, do not put all your eggs in one basket. Your show could be great or it could bomb. It might never air. Do not spend money you don't have and don't quit your day job. I'm not kidding. Snookie and JWoww are the exceptions to the rule -- they are very shrewd businesswomen who have created entire empires off of a few drunken summers at a beach house. Do not be fooled into thinking that you are going to do the same thing when you sign up for a stint of Naked and Afraid or The Bachelor. Reality television doesn't pay squat to the "talent" in early seasons and you don't make real money in reality TV until you've got a successful show and endorsements chasing you. Buy the new car when you're making pistachio commercials. Anything before that is premature.
As I said in the very beginning of this column, I'm not an expert on reality television. I'm just a wedding planner who signed up to make a TV show about her company and learned a lot of these lessons the hard way. If somebody had told me all of these things before I made Wedding Island on TLC, I still would have made the show, I just would have been an easier talent and would have had more fun with it.
I'm proud of my hard work (and that of my team here) and the fact that all of the weddings turned out pretty much perfect even though I was pulling all-nighters twice a week during the entire filming. It demonstrates that I can do anything when the chips are down. My name is Sandy Malone, and I'm a reality television survivor. And I might just do it again.