Family affairs

Sometimes it's the people who would make the most interesting television subjects that really don't want the cameras on them. So how do you find the next Jon & Kate Plus 8 or Real Housewives? It takes research, hard work and, above all, luck.
March 1, 2009

Finding the next popular docusoap star is tough work. It’s one thing to cast for series like Big Brother and Temptation Island, where contestants apply to be on the show, are then weeded through by staff members – and then later through the competitions. But on docusoaps such as Little People, Big World, if the Roloffs aren’t interesting, no one’s tuning in. Since the stars of these reality programs must sustain audience interest for 30 minutes to an hour all on their own, it’s more of an effort to find the right people.

According to Tayte Simpson, head of factual at RDF Television, putting out ads or getting editorial coverage in local papers only does so much to put the word out, and increasingly researchers are hitting the field (and the phones) looking for subjects. ‘I think people were more excited about being on a television program five years ago,’ says Simpson regarding what he calls a dwindling response rate to casting ads in newspapers. ‘It’s less exciting now, so the response to doing that kind of advertising is a lot lower than it was.’

Bill Hayes, president of Figure 8 Films (Jon & Kate Plus 8 and 18 Kids and Counting for TLC) says his company has many different techniques for finding people with interesting lives whose stories would translate to television. Word of mouth, scouring the Internet and voracious reading are a few of them. Another part of their strategy is keeping the door open to ideas. ‘We run what we call a horizontal company in that respect,’ says Hayes. ‘Anybody’s welcome to come up with the next great idea.’

Indeed, it was the financial adviser at Figure 8 who uncovered the story of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children. As for the Duggars, featured in 18 Kids…, Eileen O’Neill, current president and GM of TLC, found the family and brought them to Figure 8′s attention. ‘They both took a little convincing,’ says Hayes about the Gosselins and the Duggars. ‘Both [couples] are smart enough to be wary of media and how somebody can take your story and twist it.’ For Figure 8 it took four specials on the Duggars before they went to series and only two with Jon and Kate.

When Bravo called in Evolution Media to take over production on The Real Housewives of Orange County for its second season, it was surprisingly difficult to find O.C. females that wanted to take part. The show wasn’t just looking for intriguing and entertaining people; the subjects also needed to have family and friends that were willing to play ball and allow cameras and a crew into their lives.

‘It’s a lot of legwork,’ says Doug Ross, founder and president of Evolution. ‘It’s a lot of knocking on doors, making phone calls, going out to the places where you think these people might be and talking to the people who work there to help you identify their customers that might be good cast members.’

Ross is currently working on a new docusoap for TV Land called Boomerangers about the growing trend of young adults that have completed college and are moving back in with their parents. In order to get started on a series like this, says Ross, the prodco had to determine from the network where the action was to be set and then what qualities they should be looking for in contributors. These could include the kinds of family relationships they have, the relationships they have with their jobs, and social strata.

Once those elements were determined, Evolution was ready to hit the streets. TV Land wanted to set the show in Long Island, so Evolution went to country clubs, spas, high-end restaurants and caterers in the region asking if anyone could recommend a customer that would fit their criteria and that might be interested in starring in a reality show.

Likewise, when RDF’s team is getting ready to start casting for shows such as Wife Swap, it will map out a list of the sorts of families and lifestyles to include in the stories and then work backwards to figure out how to find the right people. ‘The thing that keeps it fresh is not changing and tweaking the format,’ says Simpson. ‘It’s about bringing new families and lifestyles you’ve not seen before.’

RDF tries to be as diverse and representative as possible in its casting, so on a number of occasions the team behind Wife Swap has gone into new communities looking for possible contributors for the show. For instance, a couple of years back RDF wanted Muslim subjects, and went to clerics in Muslim communities to explain the show and what it was looking for. ‘They thought it was a really important thing for breaking down boundaries and seeing those lifestyles represented,’ says Simpson. Once RDF got the trust of respected members of the Muslim community it was easier to approach potential contributors for the program.

Once the footwork is done, building trust is a huge component in sealing the deal. For Ross, part of that process means hiring people for the casting department that handle themselves well and look respectable.

‘We want to make sure we’re hiring people who are clean-cut, well-spoken, polite and that look like decent people,’ he says. ‘When they approach people or they cold call them, they present it in a way that, right off the bat, the potential participant thinks, ‘These people have their act together; they know what they’re doing,” says Ross. ‘It could be [seen as] kind of creepy if you’re not careful.’

Once you’ve gained the subjects’ trust, you need to reassure yourself that these people are really as interesting as you think they are. That usually means spending a couple of days with them, filming their interactions and some of their activities and cutting together a teaser to prove to yourself (and the network) that you were right in chasing these folks.

It’s also crucial to screen your potential subjects well. Ross says all of their participants go through very stringent background tests where they make sure they aren’t putting any convicted felons on TV. ‘We tell all of the potential participants that it’s not only to protect us but it’s to protect them too,’ he explains. ‘They don’t want to be on a show where there are questionable people.’

Simpson also takes care to make sure that the subjects’ experience of having their lives filmed will not be traumatic. ‘On most of our shows we will normally have our contributors meet with psychologists and we’ll do psych checks to make sure the experience isn’t going to be damaging for them or for other people that they will be interacting with,’ he says.

For Hayes, working in this kind of programming since 1992 has made it easier to check the boxes, follow hunches and gain the trust of his potential subjects. Saying Figure 8′s shows tend to ‘lead by positive example,’ he feels its catalog of work shows that as producers, they are caretakers of peoples’ stories that don’t exploit their subjects. ‘It’s their story, not our story,’ he emphasizes. ‘It’s our moral obligation to take great care with their story and include them in terms of the storytelling process.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.