Hacking On TV: What You Need To Know

It seems to be a perennial feature of our wider community of hackers and makers, that television production companies come up with new ideas for shows featuring us and our skills. Whether it is a reality maker show, a knockout competition, a scavenger hunt, or any other format, it seems that there is always a researcher from one TV company or another touting around the scene for participants in some new show.

These shows are entertaining and engaging to watch, and we’ve all probably wondered how we might do were we to have a go ourselves. Fame and fortune awaits, even if only during one or two episodes, and sometimes participants even find themselves launched into TV careers. Americans may be familiar with [Joe Grand], for instance, and Brits will recognise [Dick Strawbridge].

It looks as if it might be a win-win situation to be a TV contestant on a series filmed in exotic foreign climes, but it’s worth taking a look at the experience from another angle. What you see on the screen is the show as its producer wants you to see it, fast-paced and entertaining. What you see as a competitor can be entirely different, and before you fill in that form you need to know about both sides.

A few years ago I was one member of a large team of makers that entered the UK version of a very popular TV franchise. The experience left me with an interest in how TV producers craft the public’s impression of an event, and also with a profound distrust of much of what I see on my screen. This prompted me to share experiences with those people I’ve met over the years who have been contestants in other similar shows, to gain a picture of the industry from more than just my personal angle. Those people know who they are and I thank them for their input, but because some of them may still be bound by contract I will keep both their identities and those of the shows they participated in a secret. It’s thus worth sharing some of the insights gleaned from their experiences, so that should you be interested in having a go yourself, you are forewarned.

All TV competitions are a fix

It has been a universal experience of the competitors I have encountered, that all the competitions in the shows they appeared on had something of the fix about them. This is not to say that the outcome of the show is decreed in advance and all competitors are merely actors, but that the producers will identify favoured candidates and tilt the odds in their favour. If you think about it, this makes sense from the point of view of the producers, because they are not in the business of running a competition but of making good TV. If a particular team or competitor makes a better prospect for ratings then of course they will lend them a helping hand. This is a private competition for the benefit of the TV company rather than an open and fair sport run by a governing body, and you need to be aware of that before you enter it.

Events on-screen don’t happen quite the way they did for real

Another universal experience when discussing shows has been the on-screen portrayal of an event being entirely different from what really happened. Usually this involves technical assistance being required to make something happen, but which would fall outside the on-screen “rules” of the show. If you need an unobtanium screw to complete your build and the producer will not get the episode in the can without one, then the cameras will stop rolling while one is found at all costs, and the viewers will be none the wiser. Sometimes this will favour a single competitor or team over others, as you might gather from the previous paragraph.

Prepare to be the bad guy

TV producers like heroes and villains. Personal conflict makes good TV. So they will do anything to create such a narrative, even if that means completely fabricating it. One contestant I encountered found himself cast as the bad guy and given trash talk lines to deliver. He did so, but in his most wooden acting, and constantly breaking the fourth wall. There is an upside to being the bad guy though, it’s a good strategy if you want to appear in more than one episode. Ideally for the producer, the final episode will be an epic battle between you and whoever they picked to be the good guy, with of course the good guy prevailing. See the earlier paragraph about competitions on TV being a fix.

Prepare to be set up to be laughed at

If the viewer can be persuaded to see themselves as better in some way than someone on their screens, from the producer’s point of view it makes good TV. An easy way to do this is to have the viewer seem more sophisticated and socially able than the competitor, so on shows drawing from our community you should expect to find competitors portrayed as socially inept and unstylish geeks. If you think of Big Bang Theory‘s [Sheldon Cooper], you can instantly see a fictional example of this kind of character, so you should try to avoid the stereotypes that might give yourself the same fate.

Your property is their property

TV producers like free stuff. Hell, everyone likes free stuff! To a TV producer, everything that comes in front of his camera is a prop, and props can be abused and destroyed at will, because that makes good TV. If you own something – like, say, a fighting robot, just to name one example cited by many former contestants – and bring it on TV, make sure that there is a black-and-white signed contract stating that the TV company is responsible for any damage. Because they will damage it, of that you can be certain. If it’s yours, and they don’t have to pay for it, your precious may be worth more dead than alive.

Don’t trust them when it comes to money

While a short appearance on a TV panel show or similar might be something you could view in the same light as a day’s outing for pleasure, the type of shows we are often asked to participate in will usually require a significant commitment. You will have to give up days or even weeks of your time, and often you will have to travel a significant distance to the filming location. Make sure that anything that puts you significantly out-of-pocket is adequately compensated in a black-and-white contract, and not on some vague promise of future payment. If there is any question of your having a budget within the show to buy parts, make sure that you hold them to the sums they promise, and make sure that you are compensated for any personal expenditure. And finally, if you do win, ensure that the prize money promised does eventually come your way. Several of the former contestants whose stories went towards this piece related experiences of TV companies attempting to short-change them. Given the amount of cash that floats around that industry, it is simply not acceptable to be shorted.

You might read the above paragraphs and conclude that I’m trying to tell you to never go near a TV show in your life. But that’s not exactly the case, it was a fairly universal reaction from the former contestants that they’d enjoyed the experience and might even do it again. In truth, at least one of them had done just that, and appeared on more than one show. However forewarned is forearmed, and you will need to be aware of the pitfalls, such as they are, before you fill in those forms.

There is one final warning. TV nowadays is a thousand-channel medium, so at any given time in the next ten years or so that episode with you in it is going to be on repeat somewhere in the high-numbered satellite or cable channels. Make sure it’s not going to have something you’re embarrassed about in it, because everyone you know is going to be constantly seeing it.

56 thoughts on “Hacking On TV: What You Need To Know

  1. “It seems to be a perennial feature of our wider community of hackers and makers, that television production companies come up with new ideas for shows featuring us and our skills.”

    I blame it on MacGyver. But really a lot one does could be considered mundane, for example watching the 3D printer churn out a part, or someone CNCing a widget.

  2. I’ve always been curious to know exactly what was left out of the Mythbusters’ builds and how the events got mangled by the producers. The hosts frequently allude or outright say that they producers were going to mangle something…

  3. Tell me something about the CelebertainmenTV and funny-handshake-clubs I don’t already know:

    That includes anything ranging from factual through the tin-foil-hat stage, down the halls of religion-oriented opinion and finally stopping around the nut-house level stuff I’ve heard about “The Industry” AKA “The Game”, occults (Hidden cultures), blah etc.

  4. so in short its a good thing I ignored the many attempts from Intel’s producers to recruit me for their bullshit marketing TV show for the utter shit they are trying to sell the maker community. That’s right Edison and Galileo compared to established competing platforms are utter shit and its a complete embarrassment a company like Intel with its resources can fail so hard at making these products. They say some companies are too big to fail, intel is too big to innovate.

    1. Intel could really push fpga’s to makers, i am waiting for some of their altera cyclone II boards (chinese boards, but their chips) and the homework I’ve been doing while waiting has got me wondering why these are hidden away so much especially from the mainstream.

      1. I’d guess that Intel are so into the data-mining business, FPGA based home-brew Open-zx-arm86-AES CPUs would kill off their fun.
        That is on the basis of presuming Intel’s ME co-processor (or now functions also as a bootstrapping processor) is really back-doored for some OPdatAQ operation and not just to restrict how an end-user uses their PC (i.e. Vendor lock-in options etc).

    2. I also ignored a lot of requests to go onto Intel’s Maker show. I’ve also gotten other reality TV requests. And I’m very very VERY glad that Jenny List wrote this article! Something about it each time rubbed me the wrong way and made me feel “There’s something sketchy about this, and I don’t care that Intel or whoever is sponsoring it. It’s just sketchy as hell.”

  5. Mythbusters the search showed a few hackaday regulars in a bad light. My only personal experiences of TV crews was when i run a retro games shop in wales and let a few production companies either borrow props or use the location for magazine type features for teenagers or even a music video, they convinced me to be in a scene once (beer was provided on set), but it was in welsh so i have no clue how i came across. I found that they always paid up (not much mind) and were respectful of the property. But there was no competitive elements, and ratings is not something welsh language TV worries much about.

  6. I’m going to have to do this reply AC.

    Some years ago, a group of us from an off-road driving centre applied to be a team on Scrapheap Challenge. We all liked a laugh, and between us we could build (bodge!) almost anything. We thought we would be a good fit for the show.

    We were rejected as any of our creations were deemed “unlikely to fail”. We all stopped watching the show after that.

  7. Good article, nice read. Everything that you wrote about was very consistent with my experience of being on the newest run of Battlebots; I really wish I had read this before getting to experience most of this stuff personally and financially.

  8. (Sound of old rant being removed from shelf)
    I no longer watch A&E (are they still around? Never mind…)
    Too many of their shows (as well as competing channels) were based on contrived conflicts.
    I guess I am one of the micro-minority that thinks that building/crafting something is entertainment (as well as educational).
    So, it must be a majority of viewers who want to see members of the show cast yelling obscenities at each other because some part wasn’t delivered in time or an ordered or constructed part doesn’t fit properly.
    I watch Velocity channel most now, although it isn’t immune to such cheap shots. Seeing someone take a sheet of metal to an English Wheel and turn out something new or reproducing a part that hasn’t been manufactured for decades, or another taking a block of metal and seeing what comes out of the mill, or welding a frame or roll cage, is what I love to see.

    Last month while visiting Salt Lake City, I was able to tour Kindigit Designs. (where Bitchin Rides is filmed) The crew was busy, and we were herded through the shops, with the guide explaining the various builds going on (no touching! a fingerprint on bare metal could mess up a paint job), but they would smile and wave as we walked through and even answered a specific question or two. One part the TV series puts in, is the role of the 2nd in command. Through out the show he is portrayed as a clutzy screwup, but he is actually one of the hardest working people there.

    1. I remember watching “American Customs” or whatever it was called, it was filmed in Boyd Codington’s shop in LA, and it was asinine! The contrived issues, the ludicrous deadlines, the constant bitching between co-workers was too predictable.

      To watch one episode was to watch them all, they were identical.

      I always wonder about the person that ends up with the cars these shows build – do they feel remorse having found out ‘how the sausage was made’?

          1. He couldn’t find a way to buy out her half? It just added to the pile of contrived ‘problems’ for each build.

            The issue was the producers lied to the audience – they acted like it took 10-12 weeks to build a car, but invariably each week they’d throw something together in 3-4 weeks… after watching this ‘miracle’ occur each week, you start to think it isn’t really that miraculous after all…

        1. Why did they always have an incompetent worker (Bear) involved in the critical path of the project?

          Why did they treat the paint & body shop staff so badly?

          It was just so sad to watch.

          On the other hand, the motorcycle show in upstate NY was interesting, but the father/sonfights got old fast.

          1. yes, its tried battle tested formula for reality TV, manufacture:
            -conflict
            -time limit barely met at the end of episode
            -controversy
            -something stupid for the viewer to point a finger at and say “mmm Im better than this”

            works great on smooth brains

      1. about the only car show I can take watching is (was) wheeler dealers, the rest is just showing sponsored products and scripted panic about crazy deadlines and made up problems

        1. Gas Monkey/Fast & Loud is entertaining, Count’s Customs is fun to watch, but the rest are pretty bad.

          Graveyard cars is annoying, I think the owner pays the channel to air it, eho’d want to sponsor his endless ego trips and bragging about arcane facts regarding the cars?

          1. Gas Monkey quickly degenerated into silly happenings and Richard flashing money, and the “fights” with
            Misfit garage, a show Richard is executive producer on.

            Graveyard is basically just made up fighting and infomercials on sponsored stuff

        2. wheeler dealers was _relaxing_, they loved the cars, made solid no gimmick repairs and weren’t afraid to show sometimes losing money on the deal. Even my Mum stops channel surfing on Discovery when they show reruns.

      2. I can’t shake the feeling at least part of the misery was real. Sure, much of the conflict was contrived and the deadlines must have been a lot less tight than portrayed, but the asinine atmosphere did not do anything good for the show, nor yielded any good villains. It may very well have been just how things were.

    2. So many people I know say the same about all the clone shows of “people build/restore something whilst shouting at each other”, interesting that there’s a few popping up on YouTube which ditch the stupid fake formula and just do the actual cool stuff. They deserve to do well IMHO.

      1. I guess that is the difference between; technical people doing technical stuff they and hopefully the viewers find interesting and media people making technical people do technical stuff wrapped in a format they think they can sell

  9. “Usually this involves technical assistance being required to make something happen, but which would fall outside the on-screen “rules” of the show. If you need an unobtanium screw to complete your build and the producer will not get the episode in the can without one, then the cameras will stop rolling while one is found at all costs, and the viewers will be none the wiser. ”

    Such as one team finding a complete working Land Rover in a junkyard, and the other team having to find individual components that may or may not work….

  10. (frustrating reality tv story follows) I have an acquaintance that is a very talented, classically trained country mechanic (hands-on beside *his* father). He will cadge/haul off for scrap/buy worn out/ any piece of equipment he needs and keep whaling away on it until he makes it work, which makes for some non conventional repair and maintenance to say the least. Couple that with some generations-old rural survival skills and you have that unicorn that never went to college a day in his life but can fix anything but a cat or a broken heart. Very frequently it gets accomplished only because he is the only one in his circle that cannot clearly see he *can’t* do it. He doesn’t give up in the wake of miscalculations or other setbacks. A few lines of text do not do this guy justice. I would tell some stories, but I must be circumspect, lest some NDA from this old project is lodged in the side of his life like a rusty antitank mine.

    So some guys take note of his accomplishments. To me, they are very impressive accomplishments. The visuals are very hardscrabble, often brutal looking but effective repairs and the theme is indefatigable industriousness. These guys tell him they work for a producer that does reality shows, and they point upwards to some shows that have gotten on TV at the other end of what proves to be a very long ladder between him and financial gain. They tell him they are impressed by how he gets things done, and they want to put him on TV. Good enough. They proceed to try to get him to *act* and pantomime the most outrageous and illegal things that have nothing to do with his core competencies or his work ethic or what a hackaday reader would find interesting. Like has been noted several times, a lot of formulaic fights, a lot of pre-brewed conflict, and some looking-for-trouble, which is not what he’s about. After a bunch of wasted time, it turns out they are NOT producers. Instead, they are the kind of little minnows that occasionally make a pitch to bigger fish that make a pitch to the fish that can get in touch with the whales that might shower some money on this project eventually, after everybody is tired and worn out and it’s gone through enough layers of fakery that the point is completely missed.

    Sadly, I agree with their initial assessment that this would make a great show, but they can’t Get There from Where They Are. They have been prospecting for Reality TV Gold for so long they can’t recognize what Platinum Ore looks like. Everybody has to sling tools across the shop and swear at each other under bleeps coming back from the commercials or it’s not good reality T.V.

  11. Print and radio media is the same, not just TV. Radio shows will pick a topic (or issue or sometimes individual) and portray that to give them best ratings. Newspaper/magazine (print articles) are even worse. If they say something incorrect (full spread on page one), rest assured the correction will appear buried down the back as a one or two liner in print to small to read. They wouldn’t even do that if they weren’t required to by law.

    The media will choose to make you the villain or the saviour at their whim, regardless of the reality.

    How about we change “I substitute your reality for my own” with “I substitute reality for whatever gets me the most cash”.

  12. “If you believe that your thoughts originate inside your brain, do you also believe that television shows are made inside your television set?”
    ― Warren Ellis

  13. The BBC recently had a 30-minute show called “The Repair Shop” – presumably jumping on the “maker” bandwagon, it featured people taking damaged or broken items such as clocks, vases and paintings to a group of restorers who attempted to fix them. It was done very well, with none of the false jeopardy often seen in other productions, and I hope they make another series as occasionally they did non-antique items such as a pinball machine.

  14. “Junkyard Wars” ruined it for me when I realized the “junkyard” was salted with just the right parts to make the damn thing work.
    And that it wasn’t a “real junkyard” that I go to, to pick stuff up at.

  15. Very good, informative, and highly believable article.

    Nowadays, unfortunately, news programming falls into exactly the same category. What? You think that the news programs and news channels don’t have to turn a profit? A BIG profit? And you think that Donald Trump’s or Theresa May’s latest shopping trip was NOT the indication of a nascent ‘Communist Plot’? What a jerk.

    One of the first notable examples of this happened many, many years ago on the U.S.-based quiz program–probably not carried in the UK– ‘The 64-Thousand Dollar Question”, when a then-unknown young PhD with a photographic memory, Dr Joyce Brothers, appeared.
    Dr Brothers didn’t, and wouldn’t, wear make-up of any kind, which was anathema to the women’s-make-up sponsors of the show. The sponsors tried everything to ensure her early departure, most notably by posing questions which stumped even experts and long-term aficionados of her topic: the pugilistic sport ofboxing. BOXING!

    Dr Brothers won anyway, and ‘The 64-Thousand Dollar Question” lost.

    Be very careful where you (a) get your “news”, and (b), what very young, pretty person–man or woman–you bet against.

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