Reality editors shape vast footage on short skeds

Thousands of hours of footage logged. Characters on the edge often doing the unthinkable or unimaginable. Storylines that must be teased or outright wrangled in order to become clear.

It’s all just another day in the life of an editor on a reality program.

These editors must contend with all these factors and then deliver a cohesive, understandable show on a short television production schedule.

“Intervention,” an Emmy nominee in the editing for reality programming category, must maintain its focus on an addict who might become entirely unpredictable at any moment. On “Top Chef” and “Survivor” — nommed in the same category — the editors also struggle to balance the battle between a group of alpha personalities, each vying for their share of prizes, air time and overall attention.

“For every episode, there are probably 140 hours of shooting done by four cameras that are on for more than 12 hours a day,” says Steve Lichtenstein, an editor on “Top Chef.” “These are all strong personalities, but you have to be able to give some attention to the ones that might be a little quieter because the audience can’t get to the end of a season and wonder where one of them came from if they emerge as a finalist.”

Both “Top Chef” and “Survivor” keep on schedule by keeping multiple editors and other support staff at work. Each installment of “Top Chef” is the work of three to five editors as well as assistant editors who often produce rough stringouts that are then discussed and reworked by editors and producers.

On each episode, “Survivor” has two or three editors, a story producer and a segment producer in addition to loggers, who watch all the footage, and transcribers. The division of labor isn’t all that strict, according to “Survivor” exec producer David Burris.

“We’re all talking to one another all the time,” Burris says. “And we’re each doing a little of whatever needs to get done at the moment. This kind of chaos can only work if you’re all hashing things out to get the best, most relatable story you can to the audience.”

Though “Top Chef” and “Survivor” each rely on a large staff to keep tabs on their multiple contestants, episodes of “Intervention” are put together with a smaller staff that cultivates a delicate relationship with the addicts and their family and friends to tell the story of their recovery or relapse.

In the course of telling the addict’s story, editor Erik Christensen, who is nommed for the “Intervention” episode “Robby” this year, tries to tell a complex story that shows what issues helped create the addiction and doesn’t turn the subject of the episode into a villain.

“It’s a five-week process for us of drilling down to the truth of the story,” says Christensen. “We have one editor and one writer on each episode, and we screen it and adjust it until we’re sure what we have tells an honest story that will connect with people.”

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