Reality schooled

Do reality TV-savvy people make the best TV characters or is knowing too much about the genre the downfall of reality hopefuls?
May 1, 2010

Producer Jeanette Loakman is currently working on a documentary about individuals who are happy to expose themselves in numerous ways on TV and online. Here’s how she sums up the appeal of reality TV to audiences and its participants: ‘It’s the new way to become famous.’

It’s a view held by more and more applicants for reality casting calls. Many diehard fans of the genre believe the quickest path to stardom is down the reality TV road. After years of seeing virtual nobodies become household names, those who aspire to become instant celebrities have come to believe that anyone can gain fame and notoriety just by ‘being themselves’ and getting cast in the right reality show. Maybe if someone tries hard enough, and applies for enough shows, he or she will be the next Omarosa or Adam Lambert.

While this has clearly happened for some people, it’s not quite the norm when it comes to reality casting. Only a small selection of the hundreds of thousands of people who apply to appear on reality TV programming actually makes it. Unlike actors, who can work to get better at their craft and thus get more roles, reality stars gain notoriety for various, and at times very random reasons, so it’s a hard career path to plot out.

That may explain some of the initial responses to the 2008 opening of Robert Galinsky’s New York Reality TV School (NYRTVS). Assorted pundits questioned whether or not one could (or should) be taught how to get cast on reality TV. If the best reality stars are ‘naturals’ – ones without nefarious motives or the burning ambition to be on – will ‘prepared’ candidates be useful to casting directors?

‘If you just want to be a star, chances are there’s not much behind that,’ says Deena Katz, president of Los Angeles-based Talent Central (who casts Dancing with the Stars). Casting agents are looking for authenticity when they seek out characters for their shows, she says, and they try their best to weed out applicants who have an agenda. If a potential character seems to be scheming when they come in for an audition, a casting agent will see right through them.

Galinsky himself agrees that being reality-savvy doesn’t necessarily make someone the best character for a show. ‘People who want to be on TV sometimes want to be on for the wrong reasons,’ he says. ‘When you work with me I ask, ‘Why [do you want to be famous], what’s underneath that?” For those harboring delusions of fame and fortune, Galinsky says there are faster ways to get rich than appearing on a reality show.

The other issue in casting individuals who know too much about the genre is that through watching a lot of programs many will have developed a fixed image of what characters should be like. If a person who is plotting a path to stardom tries to construct a character that will strike a chord with an audience, he or she loses any authenticity and instead creates a caricature of what might connect with viewers. ‘[When] you’re just doing what you think we want to see, that’s not what we want to see,’ says Katz.

While some casting agents and producers express concerns over people being encouraged to create these caricatures and to act their way onto shows, Galinsky says that’s not what NYRTVS is about. Rather, he works with students to understand who they are and what they inherently have to bring to the reality genre. Before he started the school, Galinsky was an acting coach who also worked in conflict resolution. He was approached by dog groomer Jorge Bendersky who asked if he could adjust his coaching to prepare him to get his own reality show. When Bendersky landed the show Groomer Has It on Animal Planet, Galinsky decided to open a school, which will also hold classes through the School of Visual Arts in New York starting this summer.

The three main concepts Galinsky teaches at NYRTVS are authenticity, confidence and knowing one’s story. He maintains the goal is to get students to know themselves better, preparing them for a reality TV production environment so they will be more comfortable in an audition and on camera, and will therefore ‘perform’ better under pressure. Cast members of shows such as Project Runway, The Bachelor and Hell’s Kitchen come into the classes to act as mentors and give students a look at the process behind the scenes of a reality production. Galinsky has even begun holding a special overnight course in Los Angeles which mimics a reality show by putting students in a group situation, where they have to live with other characters as they would on Big Brother or America’s Next Top Model. Film crews are also taping (including one from Merv Griffin Television which is working on a program about the school) so the students can get used to having cameras in their midst, rolling on them at all times.

Despite the training that’s available to reality hopefuls, Galinsky says it’s still not easy to get on TV. He estimates roughly a dozen of the approximately 400 students that have come through his school have been cast on a show, while many more have made it to different levels of the casting process. ‘It’s not easy; the odds are stacked against people,’ he says.

But the question remains: are the types of people who pay good money for reality TV classes ($995 for the L.A. weekend course) the kinds of people that audiences want to watch?

Loakman believes that, in some ways, they are the best candidates. Her company, Toronto-based Chocolate Box Entertainment, is working on a documentary entitled Peep Me, which follows writer Hal Niedzviecki – author of the book The Peep Diaries – as he tries to understand what draws people to expose the intimate details of their lives online and on TV. While working on the documentary, Niedzviecki and the Chocolate Box team visited many former reality contestants (as well as Galinsky’s 2009 L.A. weekend). Through meeting them, Loakman says she learned that experienced reality characters know how to live an ‘unfiltered life.’ This quality makes them easier for producers to work with because they already know what to expect about working in the genre. ‘It’s very interesting when you talk to anybody who’s been on reality TV,’ she says. ‘They know they’ve got to pump up the drama.’

Despite casting agents’ best efforts, honest, agenda-free characters are not always the ones who break through with audiences. Take Jon Dalton. Better known to TV viewers as Survivor: Pearl Island‘s most loathed character Jonny Fairplay, Dalton made it to the final three in his Survivor run and became notorious for tricking his opponents through an elaborate lie about a dying grandmother. Since his first appearance on Survivor, Dalton has also appeared on Survivor: Micronesia; The Celebrity Newlywed Game; Camp Reality and Celebrity Fear Factor, among other programs. Even though Dalton constructed a ‘bad guy’ persona for Survivor, he gained fans who loved to hate him and rode that character through many more reality TV appearances, and a wrestling career.

Still, unless someone is one of the fortunate few that gets discovered by casting agents on the street or in the mall, learning the ropes of the reality business can’t hurt one’s chances of being cast. ‘I see the same error occur 90% of the time with applicants,’ says Mark Yawitz, co-founder of Reality Wanted, a website that connects reality hopefuls with casting calls for programs in development. ‘It’s not that they’re not good for TV, [it's that] they don’t understand how to describe who they are.’

Whether a potential contestant or character wants to be famous or not, all polled agree that the main quality needed is the ability to be yourself and open up in front of a camera. ‘It’s the ones that [tell you] this is what they are whether you like it or not,’ says Katz. ‘That’s what the audience is going to lock into and that’s what’s going to propel them over the ones that have their 15 minutes and go away.’

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.