Mothers have been known to say, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” Which for the most part is true … unless you’re one of the producers or execs working on ABC’s hit reality show, “Wife Swap.”
“It might be the hardest show in reality TV to cast,” ABC executive director of alternative series Brandon Riegg says. “You not only have to find two families that are TV-worthy, but they have to match up for this show in particular.”
Indeed, getting cast on “Wife Swap” involves a minefield of tests and challenges, which is why the casting department works on a year-round schedule. So even though the sixth season doesn’t debut until the fall, the hunt for families is starting even as you read this.
Casting is a two-pronged process: Roughly half of the families apply via ABC’s website; the other half come from producers’ brainstorming sessions.
“Everyone pays attention to pop culture — reading books, looking through newspapers,” casting director Dominique Bouchard says. “We bring these ideas and figure out: Are these families we can find for the show?”
Anything can lead to a rare family: a yo-yo artist, a raw-food diet, a roller-derby movie, even an article on storm-chasing.
When “Wife Swap” wanted a power-lifting family, for example, the casting directors placed ads with weightlifting organizations, magazines and websites, inviting families to submit written applications.
When the show receives an intriguing application, two things happen: The family’s profile goes on a bulletin board designed to track them through the process, and producers arrange a family phone call.
“We talked for an hour about our family,” says Sandi McCaslin, whose family of weightlifters responded to producers’ powerlifting postings. “(The casting producer) was very interested, and her question was: ‘Would you do this show?'”
If that answer is yes, the family submits a video application, “introducing us to a day in their life,” Bouchard says. “They’re showing us, visually, things that make them interesting. If they’re clowns, and they perform together, we want to see that.”
Producers use the videos to cull the herd before intensifying the process with a barrage of heavy-duty phone conversations.
“We were talking to somebody almost every day,” McCaslin says. “It would be really weird questions. Basically, security questions like, ‘Have you ever been arrested?’ And before I knew it, they were sending a (field) producer to see what we were about.”
Those producers spend a day interviewing each family and shooting footage of their lives. They then edit a five-minute presentation so producers can match that family with another.
“There’s no science to our matching process,” casting director Heather Teta says. “We look for another family who has things they can offer: a different perspective, a different philosophy. Who can benefit from this outlook for the duration of the swap?”
When producers find a match, they send a package to ABC for approval. It includes a DVD with both presentations, written bios and a treatment illustrating how families might interact or conflict.
“Most of the time, we approve it altogether,” Riegg says. “Sometimes, we might say, ‘(One) family is not as strong’ … or, ‘It’s similar to a family we’ve done recently.’ In that case, they take Family B away and use them later.”