Low Concept

Virtual Dictionary

A guide to the language of reality TV.

In what was later determined to be a network clerical error, I was hired this summer as a writer and producer on a political reality series. A writer on a reality show must, as a means of professional survival, have a healthy sense of self-irony—writing for reality is sort of like being a fluffer on The Sorrow and the Pity.

As the only member of a 50 person crew who had never worked on a reality show, I had to learn the language of reality TV, which, like most professional worlds, has a nomenclature all its own. For the layman watching The Amazing Race or Big Brother at home each week, here’s a list of terms that may help you better understand the reality behind the reality on your television:

Frankenbite (n): An edited reality show snippet, most often found in contestant testimonials, that splices together several disparate strands of an interview, or even multiple interviews, into a single clip. A frankenbite allows editors to manufacture “story” (see definition below) efficiently and dramatically by extracting the salient elements of a lengthy, nuanced interview or exchange into a seemingly blunt, revealing confession or argument. While the frankenbite’s origins certainly don’t reside in reality TV, this is a reality show editor’s most potent tool for manipulating viewer perception of a contestant. Usage: “Man, they amped up that catfight with that vicious frankenbite of Margo.”

Challenge Producer (n): A tactician brought in by a reality show to produce a game within the larger framework of the program, say a reward challenge in Survivor involving an intricate obstacle course or a gross-out buffet. The challenge producer’s responsibilities include creating said game, testing the game, explaining the game to the contestants, and overseeing the running of the game. Many of the first challenge producers came from the game show world. Today, many are coming into the industry as segment producers from previous reality shows.

Date Producer (n): A specialist—similar, in this sense, to a challenge producer—who excels in the creative orchestration of rendezvous for reality dating shows. The responsibilities of a date producer often include coaxing confessions from the participants, cultivating jealousies, and ensuring that the participants becomes sufficiently wasted so that they will make all the miscues essential to a dating show—hooking up, revealing intimate details about their sexual histories, and otherwise behaving sordidly. A persistent reality-TV-world myth is that attractive people are passed over for positions as date producers because production companies fear that a contestant may fall for the date producer instead of his or her intended date.

OTF (n) [“On the Fly”]: A quick, impromptu interview of a reality show contestant intended to convey the contestant’s emotions and actions in the moment, as opposed to the more reflective sit-down interview. An OTF is always shot with a handheld camera, sometimes even in motion—while walking and talking—and often in a moving vehicle. Usage: “Brian, make sure the field crews get some OTFs of the candidates back at the hotel after the debate.” If an OTF spirals out of control and lasts really, really long, it becomes a hybrid—something between an OTF and a formal interview. This really pisses off the camera operator because he’s holding about 15 or 20 pounds of equipment on his shoulder.

Money Shot (n.): The pivotal footage from a reality show shoot that will provide a dramatic climax for an episode’s key segment. Money shots often consist of a clip showing a reality show contestant breaking down and crying during his or her post-elimination OTF or, say, visibly failing in the face of adversity in a physical or mental challenge—i.e., tripping and falling on an obstacle course, or cursing out a fellow housemate in an impromptu argument. Usage: “Gary, did you get the money shot of Sarah tearing up after she was voted off?”

Pelco (n): A camera mounted inside a room—especially popular on “house shows“—and controlled by a joystick from a behind-the-scenes control room. The Pelco’s main function is surveillance, but it records as well. And since the Pelco is impossible for contestants to hide from, it provides invaluable broadcast-quality footage for producers. As if this weren’t creepy and Orwellian enough, the Pelco also has night-vision capacity, which allows producers to peek in on contestants after dark. Usage: “If that segment isn’t working as is, then see if we can work in some of the Pelco stuff to jazz it up.”

Pre-Cap (n): An interview of a reality show contestant before (often en route to) a major event—say, a press conference—that captures the anticipatory giddiness of the contestant. If the crew is able to get some film on the contestant in the course of the event, that’s called a mid-cap. A snippet from a mid-cap might be, “It’s going really well here! I’m really surprised at how well people are responding to what I have to say!” A reflective interview after the fact is called, quite sensibly, a recap.

Reality (n)[also Vérité]: Footage of reality show contestants going about their business, generally in their natural habitat—the tribal camp, the common space of “the house,” the war room, etc. The purpose of “reality” is to capture spontaneous interactions, conversations, machinations, and expressions of the contestants. For this reason, producers sometimes orchestrate reality shots in various other casual settings, such as restaurants, bars, or parties where contestants are encouraged to unwind (occasionally through the use of alcohol). Usage: “After we take care of the scripted beats, let’s make sure we shoot some reality—and see if we can catch Simon dishing on the other contestants.” Note: Some more highbrow reality companies, whose principals’ origins are rooted in legitimate documentary work, use the terms “vérité” and “reality” interchangeably.

Sequester (v): To quarantine reality show contestants in their hotel rooms/campgrounds/house without access to telephone or the Internet. A producer’s decision to sequester contestants is often driven by crew schedules; crews, charged with the responsibility of chaperoning contestants virtually around the clock, require some downtime—even on a non-union reality production. But sequestering is seldom used, because most producers worry that, were contestants to roam freely, unmiked and unfilmed, substantial plot could materialize and be lost. Being sequestered also infuriates reality show contestants who will invariably bitch that sequestering violates the very spirit of “reality” TV. Because, after all, shouldn’t they be able to behave as they would in, you know, reality? Usage: “Field crews A, B, D, and F have been on the clock since 7 this morning. What are we gonna do with their contestants tonight? Sequester them, I guess.”

Story (n): What drives a reality show narrative, including but not limited to: conflict, character, gamesmanship, and “heart.” “Story” is the small percentage of stuff that can be shaped into a narrative from the hundreds of hours of tape collected by field crews. The term, as used by reality show producers, often refers to an attribute or skill, much like gravitas or charisma—i.e., a producer who has the ability to anticipate what that material will be while still in the field “knows story.” Senior editors and executive producers are forever on the lookout for resourceful young field producers who “really understand story”—in other words, who get which images and sound bites will make a narrative work. Usage: “If we’re talking about which field producers to hang onto, we gotta consider Omar; that dude really gets story.”