November 3, 2023
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Story Producers: Crafting the Drama for Reality TV

Loring Weisenberger
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Story producers are the unsung heroes of unscripted production. Their work behind the scenes is an integral part of creating a reality TV show of any kind. From hit game shows to hard-hitting docuseries, these reality show producers keep the unscripted world turning. 

In this post, we’ll shine a light on all things story producer. We spoke to a veteran story producer for networks like TLC and National Geographic as well as Irad Eyal, executive producer of Floor Is Lava, for the inside scoop on the story producer job description. Below, we’ll use their insight to go deeper on one question: What does a story producer do?

First, let’s cover the basics.

What is a story producer?

Reality show producers come in many types and can be responsible for many things. Story producers, however, focus exclusively on a show’s narrative. Episode to episode, the core of their job is to craft an effective story out of the mountains of material provided by production.  

Here’s how our veteran story producer describes the gig:

“The story producer is essentially the scriptwriter [in unscripted TV]. You’re figuring out how to make it work.”

Of course, an actual screenplay does not govern unscripted TV shows. There are no pre-written scenes, script notes, rehearsals, or second takes. 

Story producers, instead, face the unique challenge of building their story after it’s already happened.

What does a story producer do?

Story producers begin their work when an episode of a show enters post-production. They want to review all of the footage from the shoot and arrange it in a way that tells the most effective story. While story producers often have editing skills, they work with professional editors to achieve the final cut.

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Story producers generally aren’t involved in production or pre-production. SOURCE

In theory, that’s a simple goal. In practice, however, the task can become quite complicated.

Check out how our pro story producer puts it: 

“The story producer is responsible for taking on all the content, putting it together, putting it into a place that makes sense, right? Doing a lot of fact research to find out what [the production] may have missed. Basically, a story producer will take all of the interviews [and other footage] that they have been given in a reality TV programming format, then create an outline of what the story should be. Then the story producer has to work hard to try to create the story that needs to be told for the entire series[.]” 

So what does a story producer do on a reality TV show? Essentially, they do anything they have to to make a story come together in the edit. 

For exactly that reason, the role of the story producer requires a diverse skillset. In the following sections, we’ll dig into nine key tasks for a story producer and highlight the skills necessary to do them at a professional level.  

1. Gather the story

The story producer must craft their story from pre-existing audio and video. Therefore, the story producer’s first task is to study all the materials that the production has gathered for their episode.

Note that this is not a passive viewing experience. When a story producer reviews footage, they’re also working hard to identify significant plot points, character moments, and conflicts. 

These are the raw dramatic materials they’ll use to shape an effective story.

2. Develop the drama

After reviewing available material, the story producer shifts toward putting it together. They have to connect pieces and juxtapose moments in a way that makes the story entertaining. 

This process often starts with an outline. Story producers map out their story on paper to find its structure and flow. They flex their dramatic skills to tease out conflict, conjure suspense, and shape disparate bits of life into powerful story arcs.

Crafting the Drama for Reality TV - Wrapbook - Story Outlining
Every team has their own method of outlining. SOURCE

Developing a show’s drama is the core labor of a story producer. This work begins on paper but it carries all the way to an episode’s final cut. They bring it all together in the editing room. 

3. Edit

Story producers require basic editing skills. While they don’t need to be experts, they do need to understand how two shots can be cut together to create a dramatic effect. Their participation in the editing process is an essential part of unscripted post-production.

Here’s how Irad Eyal describes it:

“Some story producers are also editors. They know how to edit. That’s a pretty common skill now. Most story producers work at their Avid producer’s station, putting together assemblies of the big beats of a scene- they’ll flag the  relevant beats, cut out stuff that won’t make it to the final storyline. And then hand that off to an editor to refine and polish.” 

A story producer focuses on the “big picture” of an edit. They prioritize the story as a whole, so that the editor can prioritize the fine details. 

4. Work with what you’ve got

Creating a reality TV show carries certain risks. There’s no guarantee that production will deliver all the footage you want or even all the footage you might need. So what does a story producer do when they’re short on storytelling material?

According to our pro story producer, they get creative and work with whatever they’ve got:

“That involves a lot of frankenbiting. You’re taking a lot of interviews and putting pieces together to make the talent say what you want them to say.”

Frankenbiting is the art of splicing two separate audio clips together to create a new sentence. It’s a common way for story producers to cut to the heart of a dramatic question when there’s no footage that spells it out explicitly. 

It’s a practice that demonstrates both the resourcefulness and the depth of imagination that story producers must bring to work every day.

5. Interview

In some cases, the story producer may be able to acquire missing material in a talent interview. For that reason, interview skills can be surprisingly important for a job that mostly exists in the editing room.

Story producers have to be able to ask questions that provoke organic responses that fill in the blanks of a pre-existing story. Answers can’t be too scripted, or the moment will feel false. 

However, answers have to be focused enough to finish the story that’s already coming together in the edit.

Crafting the Drama for Reality TV - Wrapbook - Interview
Interviews can help shape an unscripted story by providing context and reactions. SOURCE

This is a unique challenge that few filmmakers face, yet it’s the norm for story producers. Meeting it requires a cocktail of personal empathy and story analysis. 

Note that interviews do not always happen on an ideal timeline. Story producers must have the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities as they arise without being dependent upon them.  

6. Collaborate

Story producers must be experts in collaboration. They have to work with their team to deliver the best story possible on a limited budget and within a limited timeframe. 

For tips on unscripted collaboration, check out Wrapbook’s eBooks on collaborating in the production space. We interviewed executives from major production companies and collected their insight into complimentary guides. Inside, you’ll learn everything you need to know about effective communication, efficient teamwork, and how to make the most of professional synergy.

Crafting the Drama for Reality TV - Wrapbook - Commercial Collaboration

The story producer’s most important partner is their editor. Here’s how Eyal describes the relationship:

“In the best case, it’s a symbiotic relationship, where the editor has a set of skills and the story producer has a somewhat-overlapping-but-different set of skills. Together, they can cover the breadth of all the footage that’s there and all the story elements that are there and also all the little details that make an episode shine. Like, this shot is the best way to introduce a character or enter a scene. A good team, can divide the work to cover the vast amount of material on an episode without missing the little juicy tidbits that elevate the drama.”

Mutual trust is key for any collaboration. A good story producer demonstrates respect for their teammates’ insight and expertise. They know that’s the best way to tell the best story. 

7. Manage the team

While story drives story producers, their role is also a management position. Creating a reality TV show means navigating an endless stream of shifting timelines, budgets, and personalities. 

Story producers must be able to lead their team through these challenges.

Effective management boils down to communication and decision-making skills. Story producers must be able to establish clear goals and firm boundaries for their team, even when some of their teammates disagree. That may not always make them the most popular person in the editing room, but it’s a critical condition for navigating production constraints. 

8. Achieve the boss’s vision

While story producers are responsible for individual episodes, executive producers must oversee the entire show. That’s why it’s imperative that story producers work in support of the executive producers’ vision.  

As an EP for hit shows like Southern Charm and Floor Is Lava, Eyal describes the importance of trust from his own experience: 

“The story producer is often the interface between the edit, the executives overseeing post, and the showrunners. So they’re the ones answering the questions about what’s possible with the footage and what’s not. You’re counting on them. They’re the ones who sat through the hundreds of hours of footage. You’re counting on them to know what’s there. If the executive goes back and watches the raw footage and finds that bit you said didn’t exist, they will not be happy.”

Projecting honesty, composure, and confidence can help a story producer set the right tenor with their EPs. A strong creative performance will build trust over time. A extra dash or two of enthusiasm will ensure that the relationship remains positive.

9. Take care of yourself

Story producers have a difficult job. They work long hours under high stress. Their responsibilities can take a serious toll.

That’s why our veteran story producer encourages colleagues to take care of themselves:

“I think it’s important for people to know before they get into this industry that it’s not stable. And you really have to run and gun. You’re not getting any kind of benefits. You’re not getting any 401k. You’re freelancing the entire time. Then, you know, life happens. It can burn you out. There’s a lot of amazing people you’ll meet. There’s a lot of amazing experiences you’ll have. But I will say, that’s one big advice I would give to anyone."

It's crucial that anyone working in unscripted production pay attention to their financial, physical, and mental health. Active self-care is the best way to protect yourself and guarantee a long and fulfilling career. 

Wrapping up

Without the story producer, reality TV just wouldn’t be the same. Story producers perform a vital service in making unscripted television as entertaining as possible. 

Special thanks to both our pro story producer, as well as Irad Eyal for volunteering their behind-the-scenes expertise.

For more like this, check out Irad’s insight on how to produce unscripted television, or dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of creating reality TV with our guide on unscripted collaboration.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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