Part of the appeal of unscripted reality television is the anticipation – what will the stars do next? The personalities on-screen aren’t professional actors following a predetermined TV formula, and viewers enjoy that unpredictability.
But, for producers of reality formats to sleep well at night, they need assurances that although the people on their productions may behave erratically, they aren’t likely to do something extreme – like begin screaming incoherently or strangle the guy standing next to them.
To stack the odds in favor of a smooth and safe reality show, producers bring in psychologists. Especially for programs that involve isolation or extreme physical and mental challenges, mental-health practitioners are as essential as camera operators to getting the show on the air. Indeed, many producers recommend employing psychologists for all three phases of a typical reality show: cast selection, production and post post-production.
Psychological profiling is as central to cast selection as a medical test and criminal background check. Wall To Wall executive producer Caroline Ross Pirie says she performs extensive interviews with potential cast members and sends them for a psychological evaluation. The question of mental stability – and fortitude to stay the course of a production that can run as long as three months – is paramount. Sometimes the psychological profile brings surprises, she says.
Having spotted red flags, the psychologist may say, ”I don’t think you should take that person; she’ll give you great tape, but she won’t last,” notes Ross Pirie. She has headed up the London, U.K.-based prodco’s living-history hits Edwardian Country House and 1940s House, made for U.K. broadcaster Channel 4.
Chief among the red flags are problems with stress, or background family issues, says Jonas Linnander-Manfred of Stockholm, Sweden-based prodco Strix. He says the psychologist who works on Strix’s challenge formats (such as The Farm and The Bar) probes how much prior experience an applicant has had with stressful situations and tries to determine how the person dealt with it.
Linnander-Manfred elaborates: ‘The psychologist looks at their home situation, what kind of network they have, and in general what they have to return to when they are done with production.’ The psychologist then tries to map out the basic behavior patterns of a potential contestant. ‘If there is any kind of [preexisting] crisis, we choose not to take that person,’ he adds.
Strix knows perhaps better than any other prodco the possible emotional problems that can arise. In 1997, a contestant on its endurance format Expedition Robinson killed himself after the show wrapped. Linnander-Manfred says the man didn’t show signs of undue stress in his psychological profile or during taping. Apparently, ‘things just got worse when he got back to his personal life,’ Linnander-Manfred says. Needless to say, Strix now pays even more attention to psychological issues.
Many companies ask potential program participants to undergo mental- health tests, notes Eugene Young, VP of programming at Endemol USA in Hollywood, which produces CBS’s Big Brother, NBC’s Fear Factor and Exhausted for Fox.
He holds up Big Brother as an example. ‘If you’re going to take a real person whom you don’t know and ask them to be in a house for three months with 10 strangers, you want to make damn sure that they’re going to be able to deal with the strain and emotional stress of that situation.’
Once the cast is picked and production gets under way, producers need to keep a close eye on their characters’ mental health. ‘There is always a pattern,’ says Ross Pirie, who has worked on four reality-based programs. ‘When they first go in it’s euphoric – they go into a kind of wonderland, all fascinating and different.’
Then, the grueling side of working in reality TV comes to the surface. ‘Two weeks in, you get the huge slump, when they all sort of collapse and hate it and wonder why they ever got involved. It’s rather ghastly,’ she says, referring to behavior on the living-history shows on which she has worked. It is at this moment of crisis that participants begin to go through the ‘culture shock’ associated with assimilating to life in a different era. ‘What happens, fortunately for me, is that when they come out of it, it’s like they’ve become Edwardian or they’ve become a wartime [era] family,’ she explains. ‘Then you start getting really interesting insights into the period.’
The metamorphosis has a side effect, however. Ross Pirie continues, ‘My psychologist said they were manifesting symptoms of hostages [such as paranoia], because effectively that’s what they were. You’ve taken their freedom away, they don’t have telephones, they don’t have access to their bank accounts. The thing is to be very aware and make sure you don’t get to that point,’ she advises.
Even producers that allow subjects to remain grounded in the here-and-now notice an evolution in behavior. As Young puts it, ‘These are ‘normal Joes’ who are on TV, seen by millions of people. I don’t care what you say – when cameras are on, people change.’
If, as Young says, working on television is like working at any other company, Strix’s use of holidays as incentives for the cast is one logical course of action. Linnander-Manfred adds that while The Bar is a format centered on a pub that plays out with only brief tape-delays and live segments, contestants are not isolated from the outside world and can even take a mental-health day at home. He says that option, rarely used, helps the show’s cast remain sane.
THAT’S A WRAP
Like soldiers returning home after a war, rejoining everyday life is often the most difficult part of the journey in reality TV. Reentry, as Ross Pirie calls it, is also the least expected challenge the participants face. Part of the problem lies in the fact that Joe Average has been the center of attention for the duration of a production, and in some cases stepped onto the ladder of mainstream celebrity, adored by the press. The withdrawal of constant oversight and observation can be difficult on some. ‘That is when they all crack up,’ says Ross Pirie.
Producers with all three companies take care to relay any warning signs to the resident psychologist and encourage participants to seek help if they are having problems readjusting (Ross Pirie has had former contestants calling her in tears in the middle of the night). Linnander- Manfred notes only a few cast members have sought counseling after the show is over.
Cast debriefings and follow-ups with psychologists are common at Endemol USA, ‘to make sure there is no possible fallout from actually being on the TV program,’ says Young. And, of course, the last thing a prodco wants during the pre-broadcast publicity tour is their reality-talent baring emotional scars. As Ross Pirie puts it, ‘What you don’t want on press day is to produce people who are psychological casualties.’ But, all the prodcos admit there is little they can do once the show has wrapped, reinforcing the need to cast adaptable, well-balanced subjects.