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.