#31: How do I make money in reality TV?

Every week, I probably field about a dozen queries from people all over the world who ask these general questions:

  • How do I own my show?
  • How do I keep the rights to my show?
  • How do I produce my own show?
  • How do I syndicate my own show?

Without fail, after we’ve talked, the real question underneath those original ones is: “How do I make as much money as possible for as little effort as possible in reality TV?”

If you already have read my book (it’s been called the “bible” of the biz!), this won’t be news, but if not, know this: Reality TV is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not even a get-rich-SLOW scheme. The phrase “as little effort as possible” is not in the game plan. As guilds battle over how to organize and represent reality staffers, keep an eye on these telltale complaints: “Seven-day work weeks,” “Eighteen-hour days,” etc. Reality was the first career I had where the higher I rose the crazier I had to work. From PAs to show runners, reality professionals lead very intense lives.

To better grasp this, I encourage you to settle in and read all of my posts from year one. Until then, let me walk you through the business model briefly.

WHO MAKES THE MONEY
Advertisers, networks, production companies, staff. See how “show creator” is not on the list? That’s not part of our model typically. Even development dollars are slim in non-fiction. If you’re planning on cashing in by selling an idea to a show for big bucks (which honestly is a lot of people’s plan, based on my email), buy a lottery scratcher and up your odds. Not to be harsh! Just to really drive home that it is not the way we work.

HOW THEY MAKE MONEY
Advertisers sell products. Networks make ad income and licensing and DVD income from re-distributing your show. Production companies get a fee for making the show. Staffers make weekly paychecks (they’re the only ones pretty much guaranteed to be paid, no matter what).

WHY THEY MAKE MONEY
These institutions make all the money because they take all of the risk and do all of the work. They already have lots of ideas, including a few dozen that are pretty darn similar to yours. Move past having an idea as the money-maker and focus on executing it into a sellable pitch. Come to my seminars (they’re usually free) or read the book! There is a way to navigate this, and it’s not impossible. It’s just a lot of work – and shouldn’t it be for all of the reward?

All right, I’ve laid the groundwork and can answer those questions now:

  • How do I own my show?
    • Produce, distribute and market it yourself. That’s even more work and more money than the network route, but if you’ve got a ton of reality experience and an existing audience, it’s not a bad plan. If you’ve never made a reality show in your life before, reconsider this option. The time and money you spend trying to start at the top might be better invested in taking seminars and actually earning money working on someone else’s show to learn the ropes.
  • How do I keep the rights to my show?
    • Same as the above. As soon as someone invests the time, money and risk to distribute and market your product, they are going to want the rights so they can make their money back.
  • How do I produce my own show?
    • Usually, you work for a few years on other people’s shows, learn the biz, form a production company or partner with a more experienced company and produce a couple of shows to get some traction, rep and connections before launching your own projects independently. If reality is entirely new to you, at the very least you want to invest in an experienced show runner to build the production out and oversee it. Show runners aren’t cheap, but they’re less expensive than shows that you scrap due to poor production value, blown clearances, lack of story development, etc.
  • How do I syndicate my own show?
    • That requires some strong tentacles in that world or an excellent showing at a product conference, like NATPE‘s annual gathering in Vegas.

The big tip I always open with when I talk to reality enthusiasts is: in each of these questions, replace the word “how” with the word “why”? That’s when we usually get to the “instant money” plan. Instead, imagine what the most is you will get for the MOST amount of effort you put into this business. That attitude shift alone will open far more doors.

I have twice gotten a note that my advice is “discouraging” to newcomers. That may be true. It is not my intention to discourage anyone from succeeding in this very amazing industry. But if the tough truth about how to get the job done does anything other than motivate you to get the job done right the first time out with someone’s generous free advice, believe me, your first day on a reality staff is going to be brutal. So I hope you decide to process the information, apply it, and send me links to your show credits as you advance.

All the best with your projects!

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