Thursday, January 24, 2013

How To: Make A Successful Reality Show

I thought I'd do something a bit different with this entry, and go over a few of the finer points of how to make a successful reality show. Despite the vast number of shows and the vast discrepancies in formats and general quality, there are a few basic things which every show needs to keep in mind. Obviously my focus is still on challenge design, but this isn't going to simply be restricted to it. Shall we begin?


Challenges determine the success of your show more than the players, more than the host, and more than the little bits of foreshadowing you stick in to make the winner seem obvious in hindsight. Good challenges tend to save seasons with bad casting, but bad challenges tend to ruin those with good casts. Seems simple enough to understand, right? You'd be shocked. How many reality TV seasons with decent reputations have terrible challenges? And how many seasons with bad reputations have good task design? Exactly. You definitely want both, but challenges need to take precedence over casting.


The easier it is to explain a challenge within a single sentence, the more likely it is to be remembered as a good challenge. It doesn't matter what show you're on. Go ahead, think back to the challenges that really made you go "Fuuuuuuck, that's awesome." Are there any that can't be described in one sentence, once you cut out all the extra variables and get down to the basic concept? Probably not. Whether it's "starting in separate locked hotel rooms, work together to escape using mobile phones and a series of hidden clues" or "search the streets of Zurich on foot for three numbers which can be combined to form the combination for a safe" or "Ignore all the gatecrashers passing through the Big Brother house", every single task that is memorable - for the right reasons, at least - can be explained succinctly.

On the other hand, the most recent US Survivor season (Survivor: Philippines) had a challenge that involved a three-round elimination format, with each round featuring both a trivia question (with cumulative penalties for wrong answers) and a race across a physical obstacle, plus the final obstacle was markedly different than the first two, PLUS it was basically the same challenge as one seen in the previous episode, PLUS as a consequence of the previous challenge one player qualified directly for the final round, avoiding both the exhaustion of the obstacles and the penalties. Unlike much of the online community, I don't believe the challenge was rigged to favour the advantaged player. I do, however, believe it was a ridiculously poor effort on the part of the show's challenge designers, even in a season that basically didn't have a single good challenge from about episode three onwards (and even given those three episodes were a godsend after pretty much eight or nine entire seasons of mediocrity). Would anybody have called it rigged if the challenge was at least mildly adequate? I doubt it.


In precisely what circumstance is reusing a challenge from an earlier season (or even another version of the show) a good idea? There's no valid answer to this simple question. The challenge was great the first time? It won't live up to the lofty expectations set for it. The challenge wasn't great the first time, and you think it deserves a second chance? History has shown it doesn't work. Doing it for random nostalgia? It just serves to remind fans your show used to be much better. Doing it in an All-Star season, or a season with a similar gimmick? Your goal shouldn't be to compound the lack of originality in casting, it should be to compensate for it with even better challenges than usual. Just give us something new.


It's great to have twists to throw the contestants for a loop. Really, it is. But make sure the twists you use are organic and don't feel like you're doing them for the sake of ratings. The Amazing Race having a Road Block before a Detour for the first time in its fourth season worked because it was just something that happened, it wasn't as if the producers were going "LOOK TWIZT ZOMG!!1!1!!1!" Survivor's Redemption Island twist, on the other hand? Yeeeeeeah.


Challenges are the closest thing you have to an actual plot on a reality show. Scripted television works because the storylines matter on two levels - both on the surface ("Homer buys Lisa a pony and has to work at the Kwik-E-Mart to pay for it") and at a deeper level ("How far will parents go to make their kids happy?"). Out of necessity the metaphors are more superficial on reality shows, with challenges based more on locations and cultures and sponsors rather than humanity's greatest questions, but you still do need them.

It's the same issue with pacing. On a scripted television show, you don't build a story up for six episodes and then have a filler episode directly before the finale, you put the filler episode first before the story arc begins. On a reality show, you need the same frame of mind. The challenges (and prizes, if there are any) need to get more and more awe-inspiring as the season goes, rather than petering out towards the end, but at the same time the challenges can't be too easy or too hard at any given point. The biggest issue with challenge design and pacing, it needs to be said, are the half-assed warm-up episodes at the beginning of many seasons. No. Just... no. They don't work, and they just piss people off. (The most notable example is Survivor, and while I'm going to do a proper "It's broken, here's how to fix it" post for it after seeing how the upcoming season pans out, for now: Stop using 'but we need to show everybody!' as your reason for doing it when you just spend the time gained from combining an episode's challenges showing the same people you were focusing on anyway. You got problems? Stop trying to cast more people than there are minutes in your show.)

Similarly, you also have to design a challenge so different types of strategy can be used to solve it, much like how a story on a scripted show won't work if there's only one way for the writers to handle it. That doesn't necessarily mean to combine different types of challenge in a single event - in fact, it just makes it more likely the same people are going to win challenge after challenge after challenge when the show is essentially replacing "Who is best at obstacle courses?" and "Who is best at jigsaws?" with "Who is best at jigsaws after finishing an obstacle course?" - but having multiple ways of approaching a challenge curtails the biggest problem many challenges have, that we as viewers are simply watching people do the same thing the same way, over and over again. (A corollary to this is the power of deception which, assuming the challenge is still reasonably difficult even with the added wrinkle, is a challenge designer's best friend.)


  1. Hi David, I've been waiting for you to post another season in "The Great Big Challenge Guide: Survivor" for a while now and I was wondering if you have anymore done that you would like to share. Anyway, I disagree with what you said above: "even in a season that basically didn't have a single good challenge from about episode three onwards (and even given those three episodes were a godsend after pretty much eight or nine entire seasons of mediocrity)." I would say that the challenge in episode 4 of phillipines was probably the best of the season. It wasn't over the top, but it was more than just obstacles then a puzzle. I would also say that the water wheels challenge from Nicaragua was also worthy and was a rehash of a challenge from one of the European survivor's. I like that they use other versions for inspiration but I will concede that rehashing the challenge in Redemption Island was rediculous. Toacntins had great challenges too. And finally, reusing challenges in Heroes v.s. Villains was a brilliant idea and made the season one of the best.

    PS. Keep up the good work and I'm Goobie on Sucks. Message me if you want some help tracking down challenges again.

  2. That's true - episode 4's was the last good one. For some reason I'd completely forgotten the folding-puzzle-pieces challenge.

    I just finished and uploaded the second version of the guide a few days ago.

    1. Thank you sooooo much. Can't wait to use it. But I would like to point out to you that in Tarantula (Tocantins final 4 immunity) the section of the puzzle at the front does contain three pieces. The white line that appears vertical during the shot in question is actually on two pieces that are split right along that line.