Reality TV is known for having a blueprint. Competition shows hit all the same thematic beats, usually involving some sort of challenge and deliberation. There are also stock characters that reappear in every show like the villain or the comic relief. Other shows like the “Real Housewives” and “Kardashians” franchises follow more of a sitcom formula in which conflict is introduced, and the characters must figure out a solution. And as narratives repeat, the music does too.
“Survivor” composer David Vanacore says the blueprint for how reality sounds comes less from the CBS hit’s world music soundtrack and more from the orchestral scores of shows such as “Temptation Island” and “Joe Millionaire.” Vanacore worked on those shows in addition to other reality staples including “Big Brother” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” But since he created that quintessential sound, Vanacore has run into some frustration — that’s all anyone wants to hear.
“Sometimes we’ll try something different, (but) that orchestral mix just works for certain types of television,” he says. “And it’s on every show now.”
On “The Amazing Race,” a team of composers write music that is entered into a database that the producers try to pull from as much as possible. The formula for scoring the season has pretty much stayed consistent since the first season, says co-creator and exec producer Bertram van Munster. “Once we identify the countries, we can think about how we are going to compose the music and how far we want to take it,” he says.
On “Top Chef,” the music drives intensity as the seconds of the clock tick down during a challenge, or just before a judge delivers a verdict. For Steve Lichtenstein — the show’s lead editor with production company Magical Elves who has worked on the show since its inception — scoring is a balance between subtlety and complementing absurdity. The show doesn’t play accordion music every time a chef makes an Italian dish, but if a chef is saying something outrageous in a fake Italian accent, “then we might go there just to have fun,” he says. “But for the most part we do want the music to reflect what you’re seeing on the screen but not be too on the nose or over the top.”
Vanacore says music is especially fundamental to reality programming because reality drama revolves around a constant soundtrack. “It’s rare that you don’t hear music,” he says. “If there’s 42 minutes of programming, there’s 42 minutes of music.” A 42-minute scripted drama, on the other hand, might have upward of 20 minutes of music, “and some can have as little as five,” Vanacore says.
So the composer lays out a challenge: Try to watch a reality show without the music. Without constant music on “Survivor,” the mounting tension before Jeff Probst announces who was voted off falls flat, and the tone set by the music that plays during sweeping shots of each season’s exotic location isn’t quite so dynamic. Although Vanacore’s work can get repetitive, it is done that way because it works.
Still, every so often he gets a new challenge. A few years ago he worked on Howie Mandel’s “Mobbed,” a short-lived hidden-camera show involving flash mobs.
Vanacore says the show was a refreshing chance to try something different. “I don’t really want to do the same thing unless that’s actually the right thing to do for the show,” he says. “We try to do what the producers and the networks really want for their show. I want to be collaborative, and that’s the most exciting thing for me.”
And don’t forget the sound effects that are important to unscripted shows. “Top Chef” lead editor Steve Lichtenstein relates how the show’s iconic knife sound came to be: “I was editing on the show for the first season. They already knew that the (dismissal) line (for the losing contestant) was going to be ‘please pack your knives and go.’ And one of the producers said, ‘Why don’t we put a knife SHING! when they say that and it will punctuate that moment of them going home?’
“It came from a sample of sound effects that we owned. So we sampled shorter knives and swords, and it needed to be significant and long enough to be a good punctuation. I remember when we placed it into the cut, we watched it and we thought, ‘Oh man, that’s really digging it in there. You were just eliminated and then… SHING!’
“We played with the volume and where we placed it. I think inevitably the knife sound effect does happen on some sort of facial reaction, whether it’s them closing their eyes, or dropping their head in exasperation.It does score their emotion with that SHING!”