The Case Against Standardization and What To Do About It!

Lowbudgetfun joins us again to provide some of his expert insights on the reality industry. Today he addresses what I consider one of the most pressing issues in the industry… a lack of standardization.

fog of war
As long time readers know, one of FarFromReality’s implicit goals is greater standardization within the reality television production; as well as ethical guidelines.

Everyone who works in the industry knows that things vary widely from production company to production company. And by “things” I mean everything, literally. From the responsibilities of a Supervising Producer to the quality of the computer equipment; from how the field team interacts with the post team to the expectations of craft services; the degree of difference between any aspect of one production company to another varies more than any other business I know.

The case for standardization is straightforward. Standardization equals greater efficiency. Labor is able to more easily relocate when there is a standard way of doing things. Costs would be reduced if we did have to reinvent the wheel on every single show. Just imagine for a moment if architecture or medicine operated similarly!

But there is an argument to be made for NOT standardizing. And I’d like to make it, if only to play Devil’s advocate.

Playing it loose forces people to be open to new roles & responsibilities.

In my experience, the Supervising Producer (S.P.) position experiences the most variation between shows. On some, the S.P. takes over every episode at the Fine Cut stage and locks each one to ensure a level of consistency across the season. On other shows, the S.P. is the lieutenant who manages the entire post production team while the Showrunner oversees production in the field. I’ve seen the S.P. operate as senior story producer, working on the most challenging episodes (for example; the finale) with no management component.

By not standardizing what a Supervising Producer does; production companies gain the ability to use an S.P. in the way best suited for their business and their show. By strictly defining what someone does, you inadvertently define what they can not do. When taken to the extreme you get ridiculous segregations: just look at how the Editor’s Guild divides Editors and Assistant Editors, without creating a middle-of-the road Junior Editor position.

The way around this is for teams to establish clear roles & responsibilities at every stage, from the interview onward. On my staff, at the start of every show, we create a roles & responsibility document together that sets the expectations of who ‘owns’ individual tasks. Also, we make sure to review the document every two or three months to verify that the work is being shouldered efficiently and equitably. This gives us the flexibility to reassign roles as the work ebbs and flows; while also empowering individuals to own their responsibilities.

“I respect their process.”

Every editor and producer have a method for shifting through the massive amount of footage generated by the field. That is the crux of the reality TV problem (1). When producers and editors talk about their “process” what they are talking about are the strategies and tactics they use to find the footage they are seeking. A good story team will often divide the work between the producer and the editor.

Producers will frequently become masters of the interviews and transcripts. They are also aware of the story arches between cast members and between episodes. And finally, producers need to know the legal restrictions and the promotional obligations of their episodes.

Editors are often responsible for the overall organization of the Avid project and maintaining the groups of raw footage, knowledge of the b-roll and music libraries; with the goal of anticipating additional needs and communicating those requests.

The overall idea is to get eyeballs on as much of the footage as possible and hoping for happy juxtapositions to form from the screening of the raw elements. One of the goals of any reality show should be to have people talking to each other about the things they’ve seen. It’s an undisciplined version of why Steve Jobs designed Pixar to have a central atrium.

Process has the habit of developing into a “right way” and “wrong way” when put down on paper. When companies formalize their process, they risk alienating and frustrating their employees, or freelancers as is often the case in reality television. Keeping the post production process loose allows producers and editors to work in the manner most comfortable for them.

The end of an intellectual exercise

I set out to argue against standardization as an intellectual exercise because the best answer is very cynical: business owners usually benefit the most from the fragmented nature of the reality television production. People are more likely to stay with “the devil they know” than risk jumping to another production company when everything is up in the air. Standardization helps labor organization. And finally, standardization would further commoditize the market, making it even harder for prodco’s to earn a dollar; much like commodity vendors struggle to differentiate themselves in other markets.


(1) Side note: I believe that people within the entertainment industry look down at reality television because reality production is not about inventing, it’s about retrofitting. The lack of a clearly defined creative intention before rolling camera is seen as inferior to planning everything out beforehand. Although what passes for an editing challenge in scripted television, would barely raise a reality editor’s eyebrow, such are the challenges in the unscripted edit suite. But I digress.

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