Casting, Casting, Casting! Yes, it all comes down to casting, whether in the Unscripted or Scripted world. Who do we want to invite into our living rooms, theaters, phones, and screens, and spend more time with than even our own partners and families? The rule in the entertainment world is and always has been that the most important person on set is the person in front of the camera.
Even though the subjects of documentaries have always been important, once we transitioned from feature documentaries into TV series and the oh-so competitive need for eyeballs on the screen, casting for unscripted/reality shows blew up with a vengeance. Because networks were always looking for the biggest, wildest characters possible – ones you want to love, or love to hate, the casting process in unscripted TV became the central focus once a series was greenlit.
In the early days of lifestyle/reality television, the task of finding the “participants” was often done by researchers and/or production coordinators. It was so novel that the casting process was relatively easy. If you could convince a network that the homeowner/real estate agent/designer/chef could command the screen for half an hour, you could cast one of the early shows.
Today, with the market so saturated, and everybody has seen everything, dozens, if not hundreds of submissions often produce no casting results as networks know all too well that if the person on screen isn’t holding their attention each and every second, viewers’ thumbs are at the ready to click off to more salacious fare. Today, production companies have to allot more time to the casting process and sometimes will hire a casting director or company to do the job. Self-tapes, in person, and/or video interviews can drag on for weeks or even months as candidate after candidate is submitted and rejected.
Once a candidate makes it through the long and rigorous vetting process, chances are they are finally fulfilling their dream of being on TV as their wonderful, glorious selves.
It’s easy, huh?
No acting, just me! Sort of like someone following you around with their phone making YouTube movies or Tik toks, right? Well, er, uh…not exactly. Welcome to the world of television where long days, repeated shots, sore feet, frustrated partners, and the non-glamorous world of trudging to locations and dealing with constant problems (makes better TV), can really wear an inexperienced “performer” down. No matter how often they are warned in the casting process how difficult it’s going to be, it really doesn’t sink in until a certain point in filming when they hit a brick wall. It usually happens by about the 5th episode when the homeowner/real estate agent/designer/ chef who was so excited in the beginning to see their name in lights is now disillusioned, exhausted, angry, and ready to break their contract and go home. More about how we deal with this problem later when we get to “Production” but for now suffice to say, even the best casting directors and producers can’t predict how a non-actor is going to weather the challenging process of being on TV.
We once cast a fabulously interesting woman via two self-tapes, only to find out when we got to the location, she absolutely froze on camera and couldn’t speak a word. Every single shot, every single day for five solid days. The crew and I were at our wit’s end trying to elicit full sentences from her and I had to resort to asking her if “this” was what she was trying to say and if the answer was yes, I had to feed it to her word by word. It certainly tested my patience and skill set! And the poor crew had to work overtime to control their frustration, trying so hard not roll their eyes over and over again. Turns out, she had been drinking heavily during both of her self-tapes, which had loosened her up and she had delivered beautifully on camera. Now….absolutely nada! And we discovered this unbeknownst fact at the very end of our shoot during a party where she was drinking and she finally gave us an unbelievably great interview! Holy crap! Wish we’d known sooner ;). This leads me into the difference in casting unscripted and scripted performers on screen.
It’s tempting to think that casting in the scripted world would be easier than in the unscripted space. Unfortunately, the same rule applies: Casting is everything! The same long, laborious process of finding the right actor, convincing a network of their worth, negotiating fees, making sure they are available, and ensuring the chemistry is right with the other actors is crucial.
Luckily, the scripted industry has decades of production experience to draw on and by the time an actor is ready to be out in the world auditioning, they’ve usually been well prepared by their coaches and teachers. They know and understand much more about the process (including the incredible amount of rejection), and the challenges of the work than an unscripted participant who can be overwhelmed very quickly.
Though it can be long and arduous, the casting process itself is fast and furious so actors who can’t deliver on cue can be ruled out because competition is so fierce. Some producers understand that some actors deliver better in a second audition so call-backs are often requested to see if there’s more there or to have them play off of other actors to see what develops. No Magic, No Viewers. That’s casting, folks!
Unscripted vs. Scripted: