Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Lisa Vanderpump and RHOBH producer, Dave Rupel
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and the other Bravo Housewives franchises, ARE described and labeled “REALITY” TV. BUT… how much of reality TV is actual “reality” and what is planned, scripted and written by the show’s producers?
Mr. Dave Rupel, has provided excellent insight into how much of what viewers see on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is actually real.
“RuPaul” has answered some questions that I’ve had about how “reality” TV really works…
HOW DID YOU START?
I started in the scripted world, writing cop shows like, In the Heat of the Night and Homicide: Life on the Street. When I was between writing jobs, a friend offered me a job on The Real World: Los Angeles. That’s before the category “reality” even existed. I go way back in the genre.
The way I look at it, in my career, I’ve written for magazines, prime-time cop shows, daytime dramas and produced reality. It all comes down to good storytelling. Whether you are telling a tale of a cheating spouse, a kid at summer camp, a murderer, or a ballot initiative, you have to grab the audience’s attention – and you have to make them remember it. That’s what I’ve done.
DESCRIBE WRITING/WORKING IN “REALITY TV”…
“In reality TV you can work 42 days in a row, 18 hours a day, and you will just get your regular paycheck. And with network competition, what normally would be done in six months, they expect you do to it in three months.”
“It’s not so much independent production companies that have the biggest burden to shoulder; it’s the broadcast or cable networks or syndicators that give us money to make shows. They’re the ones that really need to recognize that to get really top-drawer writing, you have to pay for it.”
“We have to take all the little bits and give it a clear story arc, give it structure, out of what in reality might be a big mess. That, to me, is writing.”
DO YOU USE “FRANKEN-BYTING” on RHBH? (Franken-byting is editing together individual words to make up an invented sentence.)
HOW DOES REALITY TV WORK?
“The first thing to realize is that the term “unscripted” is a fallacy. No, we don’t write pages of dialogue, but we do create formats, cast people based on character traits and edit scenes to tell a powerful, intriguing tale. In short, we are storytellers. We just get there a little differently.
People tune into a reality show and expect a beginning, middle, and end, just as if they were watching an episode of CSI. When I worked on scripted shows, there was no problem. You simply write all the relevant beats to that week’s tale.
With reality, things are different. Real people don’t live their lives in carefully packaged scenes. Nobody wakes up, announces a topic for the day, has meaningful discussions throughout the day about that topic, and then has a tidy wrap-up talk before they go to bed.”
HOW YOU YOU TIE THINGS TOGETHER ON RHOBH?
Producers must find creative ways to fill in the missing gaps of stories:
• Searching for footage that may have happened days or weeks apart that are about the same topic.
• Make sure you interview the participants thoroughly, so that you can “create” a missing scene with interview bites and appropriate b-roll footage.
• Find a scene that has many of the same emotional beats as the missing one, and use interview bites to shape it to be about the other topic. Example: an argument about an ex-boyfriend and an argument about paying the check have many similarities – looks of frustration, angry body language and similar verbal sentiments (“Why are you being so stubborn?”). If you remove all references to paying the check and add interview bites about the “ex-boyfriend,” you’ll be able to approximate the missing scene.
Ethics Note: We don’t “create” scenes to trick people. With the exception of Big Brother, there is no show that I am aware of that shoots 24/7, which means we are going to miss certain moments. Those gaps in the plot have to be filled to make the story complete.
HOW IS “PRODUCING” DIFFERENT/SIMILAR TO “WRITING?”
Just like scripted television, writing and producing go hand in hand. The majority of my reality credits are for producing, not writing, but I’m always using my skills as a storyteller.
For example, when Monica and Chandler slept together on Friends, it was referred to as a “plot twist.” When tribes don’t merge as expected on Survivor, it’s simply known as a “twist.” The subtle language difference implies that somehow the twists in reality magically “happen on their own.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There is every bit as much thought, debate, and imagination behind every twist you see on reality – both big and small. Just like making Joey and Chandler roommates was a deliberate choice the writers made on Friends; when I produced Temptation Island, I chose room assignments based on how I thought people would affect each other.
Similarly, every time I select a location, develop a game, find a cast, look for appropriate music, it’s always based on story. How will this affect the cast? Is it setting the right mood? Will it help the audience understand what’s going on? All the same questions I ask myself when I write a script.
The only difference is that the “characters” in reality TV aren’t being played by actors. (Well, a lot of wannabe actors…)