Reality competition skeins challenge editors

Leave the map behind.

In the realm of reality competition shows, editors must break out the metaphorical hiking boots, take a deep breath and prepare for a long ascent, every single episode. There are no short cuts through the mountains of footage shot for each one, much less for an entire season.

The genre lacks scripts and holds unknowns waiting around every corner, and editors must learn the ins and outs of the reality competition terrain — starting with the contest structure itself.

“In the format of ‘Project Runway’ there’s a natural progression of who you’re going to follow, because there’s a winner and a loser, and two runner-ups and two people that share the bottom three spots,” says Lisa Trulli, editor for Lifetime’s fashion design face-off. “Automatically you know those six people are going to be your most important characters for that show. But it’s important to sprinkle in other people. And that goes back to what’s fun or interesting or dramatic.”

Who or what to sprinkle in often depends on what diamonds might be waiting deep in footage that may have made it to the string-out. On “Top Chef,” Bravo’s cooking competish, “often a lot of the best moments are between scenes,” says editor Kevin Kearney.

“Say the chefs just finished a quick-fire challenge, there’s this moment of rest, and they’ll look over to the chef next to them and say ‘Jesus, that was tough.’ Those are often the gold moments, when they let their guard down, and you really get a sense of how stressed they were. So it’s about finding those little nuggets — eventually.” Field notes offer guidance but by the end of the month-long edit, Kearney says, every second of footage has been parsed.

Deciding what to include as a competition is in progress, however, can make for a tricky trail to walk, when cast members who may be the center of the story one week could be kicked off the show the next. “What we’re trying (to do), always, is to figure out a way to interject that (lesser-known) person within the story of the week,” says Alex Katz, co-executive producer of NBC’s weight-loss juggernaut “The Biggest Loser.” “The key is, it has to be organic. We don’t just put something in there just because we know something’s happening.”

Still, following format, digging for dramatic gold and guessing who will last an entire season might take yet another skill. How else do editors hedge their story-arc bets? “You don’t,” says Katz. “You just roll with what happens. That’s reality TV for you.”

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