Emmys: How Reality Show Editors Whittle Thousands of Hours of Footage Into One-Hour Episode Bites

In the cutting rooms of three popular reality competition shows — 'The Voice,' 'The Amazing Race' and 'Survivor' — editors wield significant power, often shaping narratives with the finalists already in mind.
Courtesy of CBS (2); Tyler Golden/NBC

The Emmy-nominated teams of editors behind the reality competition series Survivor, The Voice and The Amazing Race were challenged to create compelling stories from mind-boggling amounts of footage — and, sometimes, even attempt to predict the future.

Take, for example, NBC's The Voice, the singing competition where contestants compete on one of four teams; the show accounts for the largest editorial setup on the Universal Studios lot — with 22 editors in total.

The show has four parts: blind auditions, battle rounds, knockout rounds and the live episodes, culminating in the finale when the winner is announced. The raw footage for one season's blind auditions alone — which includes the auditions, interviews and hometown visits with dozens of contestants — can account for a whopping 10,000 to 15,000 hours of footage, according to supervising editor Robert M. Malachowski Jr.

The editors also are creating the narrative as they go. "When we are editing the blind auditions, we know who makes each team and proceeds to the battle round, but we have no idea who progresses past that," he says. "[The stages] all have their different challenges. During the live shows, we have the least amount of time. We are on the air Monday and Tuesday; we are sometimes shooting [footage for prerecorded finalist segments] Tuesday evening immediately after we've gone off the air."

Some segments are shot up until Saturday, then edited and turned around to air by that Monday. "The knockout and battle rounds are great because we kind of know the artists and can get away from the background and see their growth and how they are working with their [coaches]," adds Malachowski.

For CBS' globe-trotting competition The Amazing Race, the race itself takes about three and a half weeks for contestants to complete. At some points, there are as many as 30 cameras capturing not just who placed first but the competitors' stories and conflicts — what editor Julian Gomez calls "the narrative of the human."

Each two-person team has their own video crew, with story producers who follow the pairs to track the arc of the season — from candid, funny moments to the eliminations. "The first episode has 11 teams, and the leg might be close to 36 to 40 hours in duration," he says, adding that it might require three to four editors to whittle down to a one-hour episode. "By the end, there are two editors per episode. Because there are fewer teams, the footage and story load aren't as [large]."

Gomez continues: "We begin editing about the last week of the race, so when we start cutting, we have a good arc of the season. The toughest part is distilling the moments into the time frame and doing it in such a way that's compelling and really honors the events that happened. It's a big deal for the people on the screen; I think that's what connects with the audience."

According to Brian Barefoot, supervising editor on Survivor, another long-running CBS reality competition series, the editors start cutting once shooting wraps — meaning they know the final three contestants but not the final outcome. "So on an episode-by-episode basis, we concentrate on telling the most compelling stories while keeping an eye out for the series' arc as a whole," says Barefoot.

The editing team also has a large volume of film to review. "For each one-hour episode, we screen roughly 300 hours of raw footage," he says. "Our biggest challenge is cutting all the great storylines down to an hour while making sure they're clear, entertaining and accurately representative of the contestants' experiences."

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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