Behind the Scenes of Producing Unscripted Production Television

Posted on: Apr 23, 2024

Photo Credit: Grusho Anna // Shutterstock

By Gabrielle Glenn

Unscripted television has taken over the TV marketplace with more streaming and broadcast options than ever before. Here are the behind-the-scenes, best-kept secrets of producing unscripted television.


Casting will make or break an unscripted project, so it is imperative that producers, the network and casting agree on the types of characters they need to elevate storylines. 

The first step to great casting is being proactive about communication. Don’t be shy about picking up the phone or firing up Zoom to have a brief 15- to 30-minute introductory call with potential cast. Take the first five minutes or so for small talk. Ask them about the exciting things that are going on in their lives. The next half of the first call should be to manage expectations about what the project is about and express your enthusiasm about getting to know them. Once you’ve broken the ice and gained that person’s trust, you can schedule a longer call.  

The initial call sets the tone for the new batch of questions you will ask in your deep dive follow-up interviews. Base your questions around strong reactions, and remember the  five Ws: Why, When, Where, Who, What. Focusing on emotion and being thorough about the basis of that person’s story will set you up for success in the field. 

The second step to great casting is having a solid creative outline. I find that having two versions of an outline helps me immensely. I write the first outline based on phone and Zoom conversations with potential cast. In this document, I note each cast member’s fears, greatest hopes, foes and allies. Knowing what and who illicit strong reactions from our cast is important to building strong storylines in pre- and post-production. The calls should last as long as the conversation comfortably flows.

Establishing Rapport

Before going into production, you must know your story and the logistical elements as thoroughly as possible. That means you’ve established a comfortable rapport with all the main cast members, the production is fully insured, locations have been secured and the story outline is fully written with network approval. Knowing that all the important aspects of your production are accounted for makes it easier to settle into this new environment. No matter how prepared a producer is in pre-production, there will always be an unexpected fire to extinguish. Give yourself a leg up by doing your due diligence in pre-production. 

Interview Techniques

When interviewing, leave room for small talk because you need to break the ice with your cast. Even if you don’t care for small talk in your personal life, engaging in small talk with your cast prior to the interview sets the tone to having a warm rapport, which leads to great interviews. If you’re stumped about what to talk about, refer to your stellar research.  

There are times when you must ask the tough, uncomfortable questions. This is where having empathy and grounding is especially important. Trust between a producer and a cast member is monumental, so I recommend keeping the questions within the general scope of what was asked during the pre-production process.  

As the old saying goes: It’s not what you say, but how you say it. For the more emotionally charged aspects of your interview, I recommend using as few words as possible, and to get comfortable with silence. Sometimes, silence pushes the interviewee to speak more to cover it up. Other times, letting your interview subject sit in the silence helps them feel safe while they find their words, which many times leads to impactful and memorable soundbites. 

Managing Production Schedules

Have your vendors confirmed and paid before you land. A credit card authorization—a  document with the information of the debit or credit card used to pay for production purposes—is helpful for paying for hotels and other needs ahead of time. You can use credit card authorizations to pay for anything that needs a debit card. I’ve used these on small shoots where the creative producer and line producer aren’t in the same place. Always call the business ahead to make sure they have the correct payment information—there’s nothing worse than showing up to a hotel ready to check in and payment is nowhere in sight.  

Without a story, there is no shoot. Make sure that your storylines have fully realized arcs (at least on paper), and make sure that your cast and crew understand the broad strokes about what will happen. When cast and crew know that the producers know what’s going on, that gives them confidence.  

When giving camera people directions on what to shoot, only say what’s necessary so they don’t get bogged down by information. Tell them who the focus is, and then let them work. Observe, and only get involved when necessary. 

Take your time. At any given moment, there are multiple fires to put out, but that doesn’t mean you have to solve them all at once. Delegate responsibilities, pause to avoid making decisions immediately and speak up to trusted crew members when you’re overwhelmed. I used to keep things to myself to try to be strong and figure it all out on my own, but that only increased my stress. Talking to trusted colleagues can offer us a new perspective that calms our worries or shows us a solution we never considered. 

Bringing It Together

When wrapping a shoot, thank everyone for their hard work and remember to send the senior creatives and network a one- to two-page document communicating what was shot in the field. Close out any remaining balances and be sure to check in with your post-production team about what happened in the field.

Gabrielle Glenn is an unscripted TV producer and development professional.

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