Reality Check: Behind the Scenes of Atlanta's Reality TV
“She caught on right away that reality is not reality,” says Piers Bath, a Georgia-based DP and camera operator. Bath has seen a lot over the years shooting reality TV shows, many of them focused on troubled youths like the girl he’s talking about now. An unnamed “unscripted” series was having her do things that weren’t naturally a part of this girl’s everyday life, and one day she snapped, jumping out of a van as the cast and crew were returning from lunch, and leaping into a nearby pool. “Film this, jerks!” she shouted from the water.
Reality TV production is filled with tales of the unexpected, and while that may seem desirable for the genre, the truly surprising moments often wind up undocumented. Bath and his crew could not “film this,” as the teenager requested, because they weren’t ready for it. But the bigger point Bath and others come away with is you can’t force or manipulate too much with these kinds of programs. “I don’t know any reality shows that don’t have some level of pre-planning,” he says, “but the better ones are those that allow things to play out.”
That is the goal of any reality TV production, if you ask the producers, but it’s not as easy as it sounds to just grab a camera and a sound person and follow a subject everywhere she goes. There are legal concerns, of course, as well as a growing devotion to quality in the look of nonfiction television. Better equipment is helpful in that aim, as are resourceful crew members with skills and efficiency, but you can bet most producers like to be as prepared as possible at the start of each day of shooting. And then from there, whatever happens, happens.
“I like keeping it real,” says Bath, who knows firsthand the problems associated with orchestrating other people’s lives. “I always try to tell new producers that if they let me breathe, they might be surprised with the result. You can have preproduction and say, ‘let’s see what happens,’ but then they start manipulating and creating characters who may not actually exist—well, you might be surprised with who they actually are. And then you’re following something for a reason.”
A series can go the other way, too. “Sometimes after the shows go to air and they have a loyal audience, then you can start scripting a little bit,” says Cathy Durant, an Atlanta-based producer and director of both unscripted and scripted projects. “Once the shows have been on long enough, you can tell what the audiences like most. If they like shopping scenes, then you’ll show more shopping scenes.”
Getting to that point isn’t often a certainty, however. Like most producers of reality programming, Durant has seen many pitches and pilots rejected before they get out of the gate. She also had a series begin and then collapse because it went too far off the rails. “The girls went nuts,” she says of its cast members, who fought too much (indeed, too much for reality television!) with each other and then with producers. “It was like some tribal situation. You have to be careful who you’re mixing together.”
That would be a lesson in casting, which is a huge step in the advance planning of any reality TV show. Finding the right subjects can be a kind of writing process; producers can cast in order to create an expectation of what certain people will say or do in any given situation. Otherwise, as Durant explains, “You can theme it, in terms of what a segment is going to be about, but when you have personalities that are not trained, they’re just all over the place.”
Bath speaks from a crew member’s perspective. “You have to have a cast of characters who are going to be good on camera,” he says. “God forbid you go out and just find people. They have to work on camera. And [the shows] that succeed, that go places, are the ones that really understand their talent.”
On a cool morning in June, a small group of women stand on a walkway leading up to the House of Hope Church in Decatur. “Hey!” shouts their friend, known as Ms. Juicy, as she joins them, all in their Sunday best. But the scene isn’t right. The new arrival is asked to walk back and come again. This time the ladies enter into conversation, small talk about the service they’re attending. An airplane is heard overhead, and they must stop their dialogue yet again and wait for it to pass. When it does, they restart the discussion, repeating themselves.
All is common for an outdoor location shoot, but this isn’t for a scripted film. It’s for the reality TV series Little Women: Atlanta. The ladies, all little people and members of the show’s cast, are surrounded on one side by a production crew. Three cameras are focused on the group, with producers off screen guiding the scene along. The goal is to avoid doing too many takes, partly because this is “reality” but mostly because the church proceedings are about to begin inside, and won’t wait for the group to go in and take their seats. The team needs to work fast.
Like a lot of reality television, this show involves a mix of genuine observation and some level of staging. Today’s shoot is particularly controlled because they’re in a highly populated location for an event that is time sensitive and in need of the utmost respect. There will be no drama here, just a chance for Ms. Juicy and the rest to meet the sister of another cast member, and enjoy the sermon. Maybe dance a bit as the church’s house band plays. Even the crew members are dressed up more than usual to better fit in as they film the ladies in the front row.
“It can be challenging at times to get people to allow a TV crew into their place of worship or restaurant or whatever,” Little Women: Atlanta showrunner Eric Detwiler tells me by phone later from Los Angeles. “I think we do a really good job of never trying to stop the normal course of business at a restaurant or a store or a church. We weren’t interrupting or directing the minister to repeat a line or do some other course of action. We were just documenting at that point.”
Kinetic Content, the company behind Little Women: Atlanta, is based out West but recently expanded their production to Georgia, first with last year’s third season of A&E’s Married at First Sight, followed by My Diet is Better Than Yours for ABC and this new Atlanta version of Little Women, the hit Lifetime franchise which also includes shows based in Los Angeles and New York. For Little Women: Atlanta, which is shooting its second season for broadcast this summer, the franchise works almost completely with local crew members and takes advantage of Georgia’s tax incentives.
But the perks are just an added bonus that allows the show to be filmed here, according to Detwiler. “We’d want to do the show in Georgia regardless,” he says. “When it comes to creative storytelling, the girls who live there who are featured on our show, that’s most important. Being able to have the facilities and tax benefits, that’s great. We’re appreciative of that. But Atlanta is such a diverse, vibrant city, that it gives us a great backdrop to tell the stories of these women."
Detwiler is not alone in his love for the city. “There’s just something about Atlanta that really delivers on that front for reality,” says Peabody Award-winning producer Matt Anderson. “I went down there for the first time in 2009 when I was showrunning The Real Housewives of Atlanta and immediately knew it was going to be a special show and breakthrough. It was such a unique look into the life of the elite, wealthy African-Americans of that city, and there just wasn’t a show like that on TV at the time.”
While working on Real Housewives, Anderson and his partner, Nate Green, decided to start their own production company, Purveyors of Pop. Although they are based in L.A., one of their first goals was to find a show to produce in Georgia. And that they did, with the Bravo hit Married to Medicine, which recently wrapped on shooting its fourth season. “There’s so much opportunity down there for different reality characters,” Anderson says. He and Detwiler are surprised and happy with how the industry has blossomed in Georgia. “There are so many experienced locals now because there are so many shows there,” adds Anderson. “Great producers, great camera operators, audio people. That’s not the same for every state that you go to. People really struggle with other states. It’s been great over the years to see how the employment pool has become really sophisticated.”
Bath is one of those crew members who joined the local employment pool later in his career, having moved to Georgia for personal reasons with the expectation that he’d have to do a lot of traveling to keep working. “As it turned out there was tons of work coming in,” he says. “And they value locals. Back in the day, you wouldn’t leave L.A. and anticipate you’d get a good local crew. Now Atlanta has a core group of solid professionals. It shows in the level of production.”
After casting and hiring a crew, another major component needed for reality TV is a place to shoot. While many shows focus the majority of filming at a character’s home, most people need to go to work and out to eat and, for some, attend church. The logistics often require asking permission to shoot at a spot the characters already know and frequent, but when that’s not possible, a production needs to scout and select a location willing to cooperate that also works on camera, as if it’s a new addition to the cast.
For Little Women: Atlanta, the House of Hope was sought out as a good fit for the show, but it also quite fortunately happened to be the church Ms. Juicy already attended. The service is already regularly recorded, and the multiple cameras in the room, including tripods and a small camera crane, definitely took away from the production required to shoot the ladies. All in all, it was a smooth and surprisingly casual morning. The afternoon could be different, though, as the team would be moving to a spot set up only a day earlier, one unfamiliar to everyone in the cast and crew.
A number of reality TV series depend on locations completely. Suzan Satterfield is a Georgia-based producer whose resume is primarily filled with lifestyle and home renovation shows. For these types of programs, when you find your human characters, the locations tend to come with them. But sometimes the subject’s home isn’t the simple base of operations or a spot for safe, controlled shoots you’d find elsewhere.
“We tended to have more drama because of the renovation,” Satterfield says. “When we were doing Ground Breakers, which is a landscaping show, the schedule was incredibly unpredictable. We were outside all the time, so weather was a big deal. Scheduling was a real nightmare because we’d have multiple renovations going at once and had several crews out at once and if it rained or if something didn’t get delivered—which happened a lot, whether a load of bricks or a pizza oven from Italy or plants from Australia, whatever—suddenly you’ve got a crew there with nothing to shoot.”
Drama is inherent to a show where so many plates are spinning at once. There’s the production, the contractors, the deliveries, and the construction, all of which needs to be done right. But also, somehow, quickly and cheaply, without compromising any integrity. And sometimes you tear down a wall and find black mold or leaky plumbing and the production has to shut down for safety. “There are all kinds of surprises and layers in a renovation,” adds Satterfield. “You just can’t know until you peek behind something, and a problem can cost you a whole day.”
Occasionally, the people on the show come with their own surprises, like the time a woman forged her husband’s signature in their deal to appear and provide their home, only to have him return from a trip, unaware of the plans, while the renovation and shoot were already underway. Satterfield says that while the surprise was certainly an issue for the production off-screen, it wasn’t the sort of thing that winds up on camera with this subgenre of reality. “He put a good face on,” she laughs. “Whatever fights they had, they had somewhere else.”
Daniel Hedges, an AC and camera operator based in the South who works a lot in Georgia, testifies to the craziness of outdoor shooting and dangers to both the crew and their equipment. “I’ve seen cameras get fully submerged in rivers and fall off cliffs,” he says. “It’s just part of the deal. Stuff’s going to get broken. You have to minimize as much as you can. I’ve been attacked by bees. Caught in rainstorms. You always have to be self-aware, with one eye on what you’re shooting and one eye on where you’re going and what’s behind you and next to you.”
For Married to Medicine, Anderson and his production company created another show totally tied to a certain type of location—the hospital—with its own specific set of uncontrollable factors and tension. “We are introducing this very high stakes element of life and death, and that turns up the heat on the concept of the show,” he says. “But when you think of these reality shows, they’re the soap operas of our generation, and the tried and true setting for any good soap opera is definitely a hospital.”
The crew of Little Women: Atlanta arrives at Urban Foodie Feed Store in College Park on Sunday afternoon, immediately concerned that it’s basically across the street from the airport. Fortunately, the sound of the planes isn’t too audible inside, where they’re met by the owner, Michele Tompkins. The show is new to this establishment, but Tompkins is no stranger to reality TV. In the past, she’s hosted a few other productions, including Preachers of Atlanta, and hopes that the onscreen exposure will benefit the business, which aims to increase local clientele.
It’s unclear but somewhat implied that the restaurant is getting paid for its participation in the show. That said, production companies don’t usually have the budgets of big movie productions and aren’t out to spend money where they don’t need to. There have been whispers that the increase in Georgia’s film and television production is raising the cost of locations, but that’s said to occur more with private residences and public spaces, such as parks, which lack other incentives for providing locations at discounted rates. At Urban Foodie, Tompkins sets the crew up in a couple of empty rooms off to the side of the main dining room; one of them for stationed crew and the other for filming. The setup seems perfect, as there’s potential for complete control, and the crew begins moving tables and chairs around, screening off skylights, setting up artificial lights, and figuring out where the cameras will go. But it’s not ideal, they decide. It’s too fabricated, to the point that they might as well be on a studio soundstage. The front dining room would have more authenticity and a better atmosphere. They’ll want the restaurant to eventually seat some regular customers in the room with the cast.
Before shooting begins, the crew breaks for lunch. Then the stars of the show enter and eat off-screen before partially pretending to dine for the scene. Once the cameras are rolling, drama ensues, and what happens here winds up changing the course of the next week’s shoot. (Sorry, no spoilers here!)
Any pre-planned ideas may go out the window when real life dictates where the story goes; the production and crew must adjust accordingly. “New information we weren’t expecting was revealed,“ Detwiler confirms over email. “The producing team immediately began shifting plans for the next week to track these developments in order to follow up on that new storyline.”
Working in reality TV production can be very exciting, but it can also be quite stressful, and there are those who burn out on the genre and its level of unpredictability. Crews work long hours, and the job is not conducive for people with spouses, families, or even pets. “If you’re a producer in reality, you will not have a life. You will never be home,” Bath admits. “Even for the crew, it will consume your life if you let it. But most people I meet who are deep into reality, they live and breathe and thrive on it. It becomes their world.”
Durant adds that there’s a thrill to reality television that seems dangerous but also exciting at the same time. “It’s unscripted, so it’s like a car without a driver,” she says, noting that although she’s currently getting ready to direct a feature, she’s not leaving her bread and butter behind. “Reality I love because it’s television, but producers/directors, we direct everything. I just happen to be doing a film. But I’m not leaving reality. By no means.”
Satterfield also recently began veering more into scripted programming. “In every kind of production you’re managing problems and challenges,” she says. “That’s what we do. It’s an adrenaline rush to a certain extent. We’re by nature problem solvers. But there’s such a different road map with reality. For the kinds of shows where you’re creating a scenario and seeing what happens, that is more exhausting.”
And it takes a certain kind of person for these run and gun shoots. Crew members must be quick to see what needs to get done and take care of it. “There’s a difference in the dynamic of the crew compared to fiction,” Hedges explains. “It’s not so separate, where, like, the lighting guys and the camera guys and the audio guys won’t step in and touch each other’s stuff. We all step in and there’s a little bit of crossover between job descriptions. I enjoy that a lot. There’s no sitting around and waiting. There’s more action.”
Of course, there are also moral considerations when it comes to the manipulation and control exerted over people’s lives, and crew members and producers alike say the job can get to your head if you’re not careful. Bath’s advice? “Keep your moral compass. Keep some sort of level of what you will and will not do for the sake of television. Once you establish your own guidelines for what you deem acceptable, you’re okay.”