How to Create a Television Show
And make it a success...
While no one can ever know for sure how to create a television show that's a guaranteed hit (otherwise we'd all be millionaires!), a glance at the current line-up of top-rated reality shows can be instructive.
Successful reality shows come in different shapes and sizes. Here is a partial breakdown of the reality TV genres that have worked and five suggestions for how to start a reality show of your own.
Click on the show links to visit The Reality Shop, where you can download examples of shows that have hit it big in the ratings.
1) "Schadenfreude" Shows. Schadenfreude is the term for finding pleasure in others' misfortunes. This element is a key part of many hit shows, from the crooning, cringing wash-outs on American Idol to the train wreck addicts of Intervention to dysfunctional family dramas like Keeping up with the Kardashians. But the highest rated TV shows don't deal in misery and failure alone. Implicit in the "Schadenfreude" genre is the concept of triumph through adversity: the introverted long shot singer who comes out of nowhere to reach the finals of American Idol; the alcoholic on Intervention who hits bottom, then claws his way back to the light.
Suggestion: Create a show around some general human failing, e.g. sex addiction, compulsive eating, shyness or obsessive social networking. For better or worse, you may have a hit on your hands.
2) Problem/Solution Shows: Though we relate (and often revel) in the problems of others, we often like to see things work out in the end. This gives us the vicarious thrill of accomplishment and the belief that we could do it ourselves. Problem/solution shows are among the most popular reality programs on TV -- The Dog Whisperer, Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover and Kitchen Nightmares are a few examples. In each of these shows, a clearly defined goal is set and the main characters – with the help of an accomplished, charismatic master – overcome external and internal obstacles to achieve it.
Suggestion: Create a show that has a clear cut, achievable goal and a compelling expert/leader who guides and cajoles each episode's participants towards it. If you can ensure that your participants are their own worst enemies, make the barriers to success fun and formidable, and your master is a larger-than-life, live-wire character, the audience will forgive the occasional lackluster climax.
3) Competition: The original Reality TV no-brainer idea. A built-in ticking clock, backstabbing rivalries, naked human emotions, double-dealing drama. Early breakout reality hits that scored big in the television ratings such as Survivor, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and Big Brother understood this perfectly. With American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, The Biggest Loser and Project Runway continuing to post big ratings numbers, it's clear that the hunger for these shows has not waned .
Suggestion: Find an area that is either unrepresented in the competition show lineup or not usually thought of in terms of a competition. Some areas to explore: car repair, computer hacking, campaigning for elected office, competitive eating, or construction (just to name a few). Like the Iron Chef, people have an appetite (so to speak) for every day activities pumped up to the high drama of a high stakes competition.
4) Every Day Hero Shows: Real world living can be a powerless proposition. We do what the boss says, apologize for things we didn't do, and keep our dreams and fantasies neatly hidden away from our significant others so we won't be laughed at or ridiculed. Well, not the "every day hero." Shows like Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs, Scrappers, and the various reality cop shows allow us to feel like the "average joe" matters. We're along for the ride, but at the same time we feel like we're in the driver's seat. As always, the key is getting the audience to identify with your lead characters.
Suggestion: Center a show around an every day pursuit that the average person could take up or learn. Season it with high drama and, where possible, life and death stakes. Danger and conflict can be found in the most unexpected places. Believe it or not, farming is the fourth most dangerous career in America. So focus on a family farm in trouble, as the "little guys" struggle to keep their business alive while fending off giant agri-business companies and foreign competition.
5) People Behaving Badly: The ugly stepchild of the Schadenfreude Show. Instead of secretly deriving pleasure from "the car accident," we openly root for the "reckless driver" to smash into everything in his or her path. Arrogance, vanity, materialism, obnoxiousness, and even immorality are all character assets in this topsy-turvy world, and we eat it up. Think Jersey Shore, The Apprentice, The Real Housewives and The Bachelor. The more they connive, boast, womanize and backstab, the higher the ratings go.
Suggestion: Think of an endeavor, social activity, job or lifestyle where the worst in human nature is not only expected but celebrated and then kick it up a notch. Think Wall Street, K Street, paparazzi, or used car salesmen. Just make sure to choose a cast of characters that are particularly talented at behaving badly in their chosen field, and the rest of America might soon be cheering them on.
Remember, no matter which of the popular reality TV genres you choose...
You don't need film school to learn how to create a television show. You just need your own reality.
There are many sides to reality. Choose the one that's best for you. Eugene Ionesco