Meth Psychosis, Neck Needles and a Gene Simmons Kitchen Surprise: Emmy-Nominated Reality Producers Get Candid
From Guy Fieri to Nigel Lythgoe, reality TV's most talked-about producers reveal why the truth is often way, way stranger than fiction.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Executive Producer, Million Dollar Listing New York (Bravo)
"In terms of production scale and emotional impact, nothing was more talked about this season than [real estate agent and show star] Ryan Serhant's proposal to his girlfriend, Emilia Bechrakis. Shutting down Times Square would be an impossible feat for anyone in New York City, but Ryan made it happen. For the crew, it was a surreal experience, especially considering that for this particular event, Ryan took on all the preproduction and planning, which required some epic coordinating on his part. Sensing his nerves leading to the day — and not wanting to miss any verite [moment] — our crew had to get creative with some of the logistics, including hiding Ryan's microphone in the lining of his jacket and rigging a GoPro inside his car the night before, so as not to ruin the surprise."
Executive Producer, Property Brothers (HGTV)
"It was our 100th episode, so we had to get a cake, right? But this is a renovation show, so we don't just get any cake. We get an upgraded, renovated and fully engineered cake. A cake big enough for the appetites of our contributors and crew, but also big enough to fit [twin brother show hosts] Drew and Jonathan Scott, who are each 6-foot-7 — inside. We come to that episode's reveal, which is always an emotionally charged moment, and we show the homeowners what Jonathan has done with the house that Drew has helped them purchase. But we're one host down. How could we lose a 6-foot-7 man in a suburban home? A flurry of walkie-talkie chatter and a bunch of PAs running around later, we find him patiently waiting, as directed, inside our cake. Hiding in plain sight."
Executive Producer, Antiques Roadshow (PBS)
"For season 19, we visited New York City for the first time in 13 years. I knew anything was possible, but it all came to a standstill for me when I saw a wooden headboard riddled with bullet holes move across the event floor. Guests were asking if an animal had gotten to it. What kind of story was about to be unveiled? Thankfully, this one had an interesting ending: The headboard turned out to be a prop from The Godfather Part II and was used in a scene featuring Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Purchased for only $25 — along with a duplicate prop headboard — the macabre find turned out to be a treasure worth between $6,000 and $8,000."
Host, Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
"Hosting live TV is like doing a trapeze act without a net. Lose focus even for a second, and in full view of a startled audience you could go hurtling to a grisly, pancaked death. But sometimes paying attention means knowing when not to be a live television host. That's what happened in our most recent season. Among our standout contestants last season was 14-year-old Hunger Games actress Willow Shields. With her pro partner, Mark Ballas, the charismatic couple seemed headed to the finals. But then in week seven, they were eliminated. The viewer votes hadn't kept pace with the judges' love. When I announced their names, the audience gasped, and a stunned Willow, who was still, after all, only 14, wept. Years ago, when Marie Osmond fainted on the show, I snapped into 'friend mode.' Now, with Willow looking absolutely heartbroken, I became the guy my daughters have grown accustomed to. 'Can I not be a TV host for a minute,' I asked her, 'and just be a dad?' We hugged. Sometimes the teleprompter just has to wait."
From left: 'Dancing With the Stars' host Bergeron, voted-off dancers Shields and Ballas, and co-host Erin Andrews.
Executive Producer, Intervention (A&E)
"This season had no shortage of 'We've never seen that before' moments. From subjects cooking their last hit of dope on the way to treatment using airport toilet water, to getting death threats from drug dealers, we've seen a lot. But producing Episode 200 ('David S.') was one of the strangest experiences we've ever had. Our subject was a 20-something homeless man who was experiencing extreme methamphetamine psychosis, and the majority of his paranoia was directed toward us. When David saw a camera or a microphone heading his way, he was just as likely to run as he was to grant an interview. This made telling his story incredibly difficult. One day after David had been avoiding us, his best friend went looking for him, and we naturally filmed her search. When she finally tracked him down, with us in tow, he launched into a tirade about the government, computer hacking, bank transactions and conversations being monitored. Then David abruptly cut off communication with us. Within 24 hours, he got arrested. Days went by with David being unavailable, and our shoot dragged on. His family was unwilling to post bond because they worried he'd skip bail. They'd been down this road before. We had the intervention all ready to go with no one to do it with! We ultimately waited three weeks to have the intervention, which was unsuccessful at first. But then two weeks after that, we got him into treatment — and he's still sober today."
Executive Producer, Shark Tank (ABC)
"In six seasons, we've seen some crazy, bizarre ideas pitched. They range from the Ionic Ear, a surgically implanted Bluetooth phone device, to the Sullivan Generator, a huge machine that creates a synthetic hurricane that would generate clean energy and tons of gold, to the Breathometer, a device that attaches to your phone to turn it into a Breathalyzer so people can avoid driving intoxicated. But nothing compares to this season, when a drone flies into the tank, after an amazing Q&A session, and all five Sharks are interested! In the end, the drone flies out with a $1 million deal! But with whom?"
Head Judge and Executive Producer, Top Chef (Bravo)
"We shot the Thanksgiving episode on site at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, the site of America's very first turkey day. It was great to share the experience with members of the [local] Wampanoag tribe. But seeing the chefs rise to the occasion of cooking under the same conditions as the European settlers was also a real treat. The difficulty of cooking over an open flame wasn't lost on anyone and, even more compelling, with limited equipment like cast irons, wooden bowls and whole spit sets. The chefs that really understood how limited colonial cooks were in their repertoire reflected it in the simplicity of their dishes, and this juxtaposition of America's roots against modern-day cuisine was really remarkable."
Colicchio and 'Top Chef' host Padma Lakshmi in the series’ 2014 Thanksgiving episode.
Host and Executive Producer, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (Food Network)
"We were on location in Culver City in L.A., shooting in the kitchen of a local restaurant. And as I was talking to the chef-owner about one of their popular dishes, a loud banging noise started coming from off-camera. It was so distracting I had to find out what it was so we could get a clean take. Then out from the back of the kitchen comes Gene Simmons from KISS. I'm a huge fan. Who isn't?! I had totally been punk'd by my crew. We finished the shot with Gene, a regular at the restaurant, tasting one of his favorite dishes."
KISS frontman Simmons (left) and 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' host Fieri.
John Gray Jr.
Executive Producer, Deadliest Catch (Discovery)
"Our show is usually filled with testosterone-fueled action and drama, so this season it was strange for us to film an event that was not in our typical wheelhouse: a birth. For the birth of longtime Catch castmember Jake Anderson's son, we stationed a cinematographer with Jake and his very pregnant wife for almost a month; only a few hours after the newborn was delivered, [the baby] threw up on our cinematographer."
Host and Co-Executive Producer, The Amazing Race (CBS)
"Shooting 12 shows in 21 days and working 24/7 takes a toll. As the host, my rules are: sleep whenever I can, meticulously monitor everything I eat, guzzle water to avoid dehydration, stay attached to my phone for story updates and keep a bottle of shampoo and a towel close so I can do a quick hair wash after all-night plane rides. It's like being on a roller coaster for three weeks, which is fun, but last season something weird was happening with my voice starting in episode one after a long night in the cold in Japan. By episode three in Thailand, the pain was so bad I had to write things down to save whatever voice I had for the camera. By the time I got to Germany, I had an emergency appointment with a doctor who looked at my throat and said, 'That's bad, you need to stop talking for three days to let this heal.' My only other option was to take some shots of cortisone to reduce the inflammation. A couple of needles to the neck, and I was good to go!"
Abdul on 'So You Think You Can Dance.'
Judge and Executive Producer, So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
"[Contestants] Ariana, Gaby and Burim had just finished performing an African jazz routine choreographed by Sean Cheesman to a track called 'Gorilla' by Lord Kraven. [Judge] Paula [Abdul] started her critique with a compliment on a very strong routine, and then came the biggest faux pas in So You Think You Can Dance history: Paula said, 'Burim, I love watching your package.' The audience gasped and broke into embarrassed laughter. I was a little slower to react as I was frozen, believing that I had heard her say, 'Burim, I love washing your package.' I was already thinking about all the explanations and excuses we'd have to give the press at the end of the show. Coming back to my senses, I asked Paula to explain what she meant. She got tongue-tied, so [host] Cat [Deeley] helped her out. 'She means video packages.' You can always bet it's going to be a fun time with Miss Abdul."
2015 contestants from 'So You Think You Can Dance.'
Host and Executive Producer, Mythbusters (Discovery)
"In our season opener, 'Breaking Bad,' we were setting up to test the machine-gun booby trap that Walter White (Bryan Cranston) used in the series finale. [Bad creator] Vince Gilligan, a longtime fan of MythBusters, came to the set to be part of the fun. We had three different systems to keep that M60 machine gun pointed where we wanted. It worked! I mean, the mechanism worked perfectly and we properly shot up the wall we had set up at the gun range and left our Walt and Jesse [dummies] mostly unharmed. But the first thing Vince said afterward was that he didn't realize the bullets would gather at either end of the M60s' sweeping path and that he was disappointed that [Breaking Bad] didn't get that hole pattern correct. Now that's what I call an attention to detail."
Executive Producer, Alaska: The Last Frontier (Discovery)
"The most bizarre moment on our show [which follows the Kilcher family in Alaska] was when [Kilcher brother] Atz Lee gave his wife, Jane, a new rifle. On her first test shot, despite numerous warnings to back off the scope, she fired and the kick of the rifle thrust the scope back into her sighting eye. She recoiled in pain and chaos ensued. It's a moment like that when the crew instinctively wants to step in and help, but we were documenting their lives so we needed to stay out of the reality. Thankfully, she wasn't badly hurt, but she did have a nice shiner for a couple weeks. Can't script that!"
Executive Producer, Wahlburgers (A&E)
"My strangest situation on the show — besides cleaning toilets in the men's bathroom, was getting confronted by a crazed seagull. The restaurant is in a marina, and this bird spent his time patrolling the Wahlburgers roof looking for scraps. I named him Steven Seagull. I tried to scare him away, but he ended up scaring me away."