April 26, 2024

Inside Unscripted TV: Nicole Walberg’s Reflections on Making Reality TV

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Welcome to On Production the podcast where we take you behind the scenes of the entertainment world brought to you by Wrapbook. Today, I'm thrilled to welcome Nicole Wahlberg, a seasoned line producer with a wealth of experience in unscripted television. A native of Minnesota, Nicole has not only made her mark across the United States, but also has worked globally, contributing to a diverse array of projects over the last 15 years and Nicole has brought to life some of our favorite shows including Top Chef, Nashville Star, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman and traffic with Mariana van Zeller, Nicole has navigated the complexity of unscripted TV production from the initial concept to the final product. Today. She's here to share stories from her journey, discuss the evolution of unscripted television and offer insights into what it takes to produce compelling content that resonates with audiences around the world. Nicole, welcome to the show and thanks for joining us.


Thanks for having me, says cool. That's really cool.


Well, my first question Nicole was, can you share with us how you got started in film and television and what drew you to the world of unscripted TV?


Well, I actually went to Columbia College. I loved experimental film, and I wanted to make music videos, I thought that that would be super fun. And so when I lived in Chicago, I lived there for about 13 years, I was really involved as much as I could be in independent film. And so whenever anybody asked me to do something, I said yes. And so I sat on the board of IFP for a while, I chaired a committee for the International Children's Film Festival. For animation. I worked with the Chicago Film Critics producing different awards, one for William Friedkin, which, at the time, at that time to Sherry Lansing was big in the news everywhere. And she became kind of, you know, like an idol of mine. And so that was really cool, because she ended up coming to the award ceremony with William Friedkin. And it was just, it was really neat. Then, at one point, a reality show rolled into town called My Big Fat obnoxious boss. And I'm not sure that it ever finished airing the entire series, were all of the episodes, but from there, I went on to trading spouses. And then that's when I left Chicago and went to LA. And I lived in LA for just over 10 years before I left, went to DC for a while, worked with sirens media and herbs touch on some really cool projects there did development, learned a whole bunch about budgeting and being a better line producer in that process, and then got the opportunity to work on Bizarre Foods. So move back to where I grew up in Minnesota.


That's such a journey. That's really, really cool. I mean, you've worked on some huge titles that people who are familiar with network television, or unscripted have definitely been exposed to, which is really cool. You know what, with such a diverse portfolio of projects, when you're digging into a project, how do you approach the unique challenges of each, like kind of production that you work on?


In the beginning? It was more or less trying to figure out what everybody did, you know, asking lots and lots and lots of questions. What do you do? What is that piece of equipment? What do you need, because I started as transpo like, you start as a PA. And then I was a transfer coordinator on trading spouses. And we were in over the course of three months, we were in, like nine different cities. And so you're prepping one city as you're working in another city as you're wrapping out the past city. And so you have to figure out how to work as a team and how to communicate as a team. And sometimes that's really hard, you know, navigating different personalities, or how people think, or, you know, how people put together the information that they need. And so I think the biggest thing like that I've taken away and then I do more and more over the past, you know, 10 years or so is trying to figure out really how people communicate. Because everybody's job is, you know, like the titles are synonymous across companies across genres across you know, Film Television. What have you, but they're also different, they're they can be different based on, you know, the team that you have put together and whose strengths, you know, match with who's, you know, not so great strengths. And so you can customize that, to make your team stronger, you know, or breaking down the barriers, there's always, you know, kind of like field production against, you know, post production against producers against production management against crew, like, different kinds of things. And when you kind of figure out how people work, what it is that they need to make their job successful as production management, I think you can start breaking down like, we're all trying to get to the same place, we all want to, you know, have fun while making television, which is not something that everybody gets to do, and do it safely.


Now, it's really wise, as a line producer, for some of these major unscripted series, can you explain for our listeners, what your role entails and the key responsibilities you manage? I mean, I think you spoke beautifully to like, the kind of discernment of who has which strengths and getting them aligned. But I'm just curious, like, what other kinds of key responsibilities are you managing when you are in charge one of these productions? I


mean, you're always managing the budget, and you're managing the schedule, and you're managing, you know, the people that you work closely with, and then you work like as in your team, but then you're also working with, you know, is it the co-EPS or the EPS, you know, supervising producers, and then the heads of your department who you really work at, or should work at having a good relationship with those people, it always makes your job easier when you can have a clear avenue of communication. Each one, like Bizarre Foods is very different than working on traffic, and very different than, you know, being the Director of Production. Now traffic to is one of the best teams that I've ever worked with, no matter how hard or how difficult the subject matter was, or, you know, kind of like the not obstacles, really. But like the challenges you had to get to get to a certain location or to cover a certain topic. There was always a group of people that around you was like, Okay, what do we need to do, and you'd hit these lists. And even if it was different from the next one, you're like, Okay, break, and then you come back together, and you're like, I got this, I got this, I got this. But There ended up being a shorthand where you can talk to people. And we were all over the world at that point, because you've got fixtures all over the world, you've got, you know, talent that is in DC, that's in London that's in you know, LA, and then I was in Minnesota. And so you have to be able to learn how to communicate, even if you're really angry, or you're really sad about something, or you're having trouble, like, you have to learn how to push through those things, and communicate, because everything else kind of falls apart when you don't. And so that was just it was one of my most gratifying experiences that I've ever had, but also the hardest on, I was


really curious, can you share an example of maybe some of the particularly challenging issues or productions you've worked on? And then how you navigate those challenges. I mean, it sounds like the foundation or the Cornerstone is really in communication, and working through anybody's emotions or feelings about a particular issue at any given moment to get to the goal. But I'm curious, just from your view of having been in the industry a long time, how you navigate it.


Sometimes it's super hard. I mean, not gonna lie, I think we've all been that, in situations where it's, it's harder to kind of crack certain things, whether it's within you like, or if it's someone else, if you're trying to break down how to communicate, but there's always some fissure where it's like, Ah, okay, I see. And as soon as you start empathizing, and as soon as you start seeing the other person as an actual person, I think that that's super helpful instead of like hierarchies or, you know, like goals or things like that is, is knowing what's important to that person. And I guess, putting work into knowing how they need to communicate, or how their brain works. You know, that one's a little bit tougher. But I think when you listen, instead of talking all the time, that's when that's when you really think breaks through to me,


pivoting just a little bit, you know, you've worked in the industry for goodness, about two decades, how have you seen unscripted television evolve? And where do you see heading in the future? That is such a great question,


because it's something that I think we're all thinking about now to like, back when I was as an independent filmmaker. I mean, this As you know, like ages ago, you know that we were diehard, like, we're always going to be we're gonna shoot everything in 35 or everything and 16 millimeter and then the digital age and not the digital that we know of now with social media and Tik Tok, and, you know, all of that kind of stuff, it's digital as in like moving into video and not shooting on film anymore. And everybody was so an arms as to how that was going to change and destroy the film industry. And films weren't going to be good anymore. And quality was going to go way down. And that didn't happen, right. And so we got a wealth of different kinds of media and ways to consume that media. And, you know, everything's going to always constantly be evolving. But I think that that's what we're facing now is like, it started, you know, and I think like, really around, like five years ago is, is the change of linear and the change of like, what broadcast networks are as far as like the cable networks are and streaming. And in our like, all these different avenues like, I know my nephews, they watch everything on their tablets, and it's all YouTube and how they don't watch shows anymore. You know, so it'll be interesting to see how things do I don't think that things are gonna go away completely. I still like watching my shows on TV. But I also love reality TV, I get a lot of shit for it. I think sometimes, but I love competition. Reality shows I live for it.


Look, I mean, the data doesn't lie, right? Like nobody wants to admit it. But everybody's watching it.


Yes. I mean, engaged in shows like Love is Blind. So they, some of them are just like, This is crazy. But yet you're like Bigfoot is going on. I can't look away because it's great. And I love see I was I only worked on the first season of Top Chef. And so I was a production coordinator that was kind of parachuted in. And then I didn't go back to that series. But you know, that was the first season where they were trying to figure everything out. And so it's kind of like that for every first season where, you know, what's the format can be? And how are we going to film this and all of those kinds of things, which is also very exciting and very frustrating. You know, it's neat to see the journey that you know, the people that the contestants are taking, and the competition that they're actually competing in whatever thing comes down the line, you get invested, like on Project Runway, I live for like the final runway, when all of these looks come down. And you're like, Ha, that is so cool that someone did that had that much creativity, number one that could do something like that in a day or two days, but they accomplished it, and they have something to show for it. And then these people go on and have these really cool careers and you see them, like if you're lucky enough to go to fashion week or anything like that. And you're like, I know, you kind of it's an add on, I think it's really cool.


That is interesting. You know, it is it is interesting as a viewer of reality television to kind of not have it fully sink in that these really are people living lives with agency. And to see them years later with these wonderful careers. It's must be very satisfying. That's, that's super cool. You know, you were a little bit Nicole. But you know, you describe the digital kind of revolution from shooting and film. And, you know, I've heard folks in the unscripted world describe the digital transformation of cinema, as the catalyst for reality TV being possible, really. And I'm curious, like, what are some of the biggest changes that you've witnessed in the production process, especially with the rise of digital platforms, whether that's cameras, technology, whatever, just curious.


To me, I feel like it's a lot of attention span, you know, like you want to keep people engaged and with, with the social media part of it, you know, it's like the MTV, like, the look like everything changed, because how fast everything was moving, and people wanted faster and quicker. And, you know, and reality TV is cheaper production, they wanted to get a product on the market that didn't really cost anything. And so that is one of the downfalls is everybody wants it cheaper and faster. And so it's hard to do things like that, and still stay relevant. One big thing that we've been talking about since like the strikes and everything is the changes in budgets, because it seems like everything is has stagnated and in some cases has gone down. And you know, I think that that is going to become a really big factor coming up because you can't hire as many people you can't pay them because that's what's coming out of the network's because the network's also taking advantage of that but they also want something a product that is quicker And then it's faster and that they can put on the air in all these different formats. And all these different avenues. And there, it seems like they're asking for more that we can't really do unless we slashing the amount of crew members that you have. And then you have crew members that are doing three, four or five different jobs. And then everybody is just overtaxed. And so doing one show, you're just physically emotionally mentally exhausted after it. And so I haven't worked in independent film and in years and years and years, but like, I know that working in reality TV, when you're on a show, whether you're on the road, or you're shooting in your hometown, is that the hours are long, the work is long, and you're doing a lot of different things. And it goes back to like, you may have like, say a line producer title, but you're not necessarily line producing, you can be production managing, you can be line producing, and you can be, just because it's the necessity of the budget that you've been given by that network.


My question for you was, how do you manage the balance between the creative aspirations and the logistical realities of the budget and time constraint?


This was this was something that somebody said a long time ago, and this is an example that I use, like, all the time, is that yeah, if you want to glitter an entire house, pink, we can totally do that. However, we have bought all the pink glitter in the shade that you want out of the entire country. And so it's going to cost you this much to do that. Do you want to do that? And if the answer is yes, and it's going to cost, you know, however much money it's going to be, and they want to pay that then you move forward. You know, like, I never want to say no to somebody's creative decision, I want to figure out how to make that work. But it might be, I can't do that whole big thing. But these are the options of what we can do with this budget. Now, if you want to go outside of the budget and spend that money, then that's a different story. Let's talk about how that'll work. That's brilliant.


Have there been any memorable moments of collaboration or creativity on set that have particularly stood out to you over your career?


There's some shows that I've worked on, and not as, like a creative force, but the one that's, you know, just on set, like trying to make sure that we are balanced, like our PAs have, you know, like avenues, they need to go and do things and you know, like, the talent is happy, and your department heads are happy, your production managers happy, you know, I'm like just trying to get through the day. But I look back, even on really crappy days, when you're just like, why did I choose this? Think about like some of the really cool things that you've done, that you've been able to do in this competitive industry where there are 100 people behind you waiting for your job. Or that can probably do the job better than you can, like, you have to show up every day, and you have to put your head down and you have to do the work. Even if you don't want to make that phone call. It's something that Sherry Lansing said, like, if you're afraid to make a phone call, this is probably not the industry for you. Now, if you're, if you don't want to have a difficult conversation, or you don't want to rock the boat, or you don't want to push through, then, you know, you should find something else to do because that's all this is one challenge after another. That's


incredibly good advice. You know, I actually was going to ask you, you know, what advice would you offer to somebody aspiring to work unscripted television, but I think you absolutely nailed it on the head, which is, you know, if big challenges with emergent solutions is exciting to you, then maybe this is for you. And if it isn't, you find a different line of work.


No, but I always tell like when I meet someone that's just new into the industry, and they're trying to figure out what it is, you know, you try and give them an opportunity. And you're like ask questions, especially if you're on a big show. Like don't just stand around, definitely don't be standing there reading a book, like walk up to everybody find out what they want to do, or find out what they do, what their job position is. And keep going because if you ask these people, they like to talk about what they do, you know, whether it's a grip, or you know, art department or hair and makeup, find out what it is, and then figure out what you want to do from there. You know, I think a lot of people go out into this industry thinking that they're going to be a really big director or, you know, a DP or you know, a producer and they don't realize really what goes into producing, you know, or really what goes into directing and once they get on set and they're with a bunch of people that have these incredible skills right, you know, an incredible eye and are really good at their jobs. You're like ah, I like what that you know, lighting directors He's doing I want to continue with that. And it's like, alright, that's great. So you found something that you like, now start hanging out with them, ask them, How can you help? What can you do? And you'll learn more from them on set, then you will buy any online course any studying any, any school anywhere. You


know, you've been in the business quite a while what is surprising you in terms of things that you're still learning all these years later is shows kind of come and go off of your docket.


You learn all the time, I worked on a pilot for a renovation show as a production manager many, many years ago, but never that. And so I'm like, this is exciting, because I watch those shows, you know, and I love those shows. So now I know like, you know, and grateful that the EP that's running that show will take all of my questions. And I'm like, Well, how do you get from here to hear or just imparts in the conversations that we have that I think is really cool. I think that if you're not continually curious about what it is that you do, or just your own life, like figuring out like, oh, you know, like, I've been taking classes with the St. Paul School District just done, you know, some silly stuff. And sometimes, you know, stuff that I forgot, that I really liked doing and reconnecting with it. And it's a way to get out of the house, you meet new people, but you're also then you know, you're staying curious. And I think that that's fun. That is


extremely fun. Well, Nicole Walberg, thanks for being on production and sharing a bit of your story. It's super inspiring what you've accomplished over your career, the shows you've produced and been a part of are fantastic, and it's really awesome to count you as a friend. So thanks for being on.


Now. You're very, very kind. Thanks for having me.

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