How To Break Into the Reality TV Business
Posted on: Jan 18, 2023
You’re sitting on your couch, trying to figure out how to get your first TV job. You’re eating instant ramen noodles and wondering if you’ll be doing so forever. I get it. I see you. And that’s because I was once that couch-sitting ramen-eater.
After I graduated film school, I didn’t know anyone in TV or how I’d get my first break. Now, years later, I’m an executive producer, and I’ve show run over 20 series, produced over 30 individual hours, and directed my own documentary shorts. I’ve worked on shows for a dozen networks and streamers like Peacock, A&E, Sundance, HBO, Oxygen, Discovery, Nat Geo and Lifetime.
I want to share what I managed to do right, what I got spectacularly wrong, and what you can do to get your first job in non-fiction television.
1. Don’t be shy
When I was looking for my first gig, I contacted around 100 production companies and independent producers. Out of those 100 cold calls, I got a couple of responses, and one place hired me for my first internship. So, while 100 reach outs seem like a lot for one job, it really might take that many.
Try these suggestions for finding contacts to reach out to:
- Look at Staff Me Up’s listings for AP jobs
- Search social media for TV creative groups and email anyone you can find
- Contact anyone in your college alumni group who works in the industry
I know it seems scary to cold call but remember this: every director or producer needs a production assistant or an assistant editor. By getting in touch, you’re doing them a favor.
2. Your first résumé
When I look for a PA, I’m not expecting to see a ton of jobs on someone’s resume. I just want to see that someone is capable, has a good attitude and that their grammar is flawless.
I don’t want to see a long or creative cover page. Keep it short and sweet. Something like:
I’m a recent college graduate, and Jill Doe referred me to you. I’m a big fan of the work you do at Greene Films.
I’m looking for an entry-level position as a PA in the field/post/assistant editor etc. I’m a quick learner, an enthusiastic worker and I know my way around Google Docs.
I’ve attached my resume.
I can be reached at email and phone number.
This could also work well as your contact email when you’re cold-calling prospective employers.
3. Kick ass at your job
Before you know it, you’re going to have that first TV job, even if it’s just a few days on a shoot getting coffee.
The first gig I ever landed in the business was a couple of days of AVID prep work where I had to log 40 hours of black-and-white archival footage of the Oklahoma dust bowl. It was not fun. It was not interesting. In fact, it was truly mind-numbing. But I kicked ass at it.
I showed up early, asked my boss if he wanted me to get him coffee, and then got to work. I got those hours logged in record time. My boss liked my work ethic and attitude and told the head of the company to hire me to be his full-time Associate Producer.
A few credits later the company promoted me to Producer, and a few years later I was running shows. At that first job, I learned everything that I still use in my business today.
I know it’s tempting to phone it in when you’re at the bottom rung of the ladder and being paid accordingly but TV production is a team sport. If you show you’re a reliable part of the squad, a company will find a way to hire you.
And never underestimate the power of buying someone coffee without being asked to! I think that unasked-for coffee started my whole career.
4. Don’t do the job three levels above you
This is one of the biggest regrets of my career, and while I’m embarrassed about it, I’m sharing it so you don’t make the same mistake…
When I started as an AP, I had a little bit of an attitude. I had an Ivy League degree and a few grad-school documentaries under my belt. I was itching to be creative at my job and I felt like I knew just as much, if not more than, the people I was working for. When the accomplished producer I worked for told me to check a fact I felt I’d already checked or to go back to an interviewee who’d turned us down to ask them to reconsider, I’d push back.
Please folks, do not be me.
After a few months I realized that everything that wonderful producer forced me to do was right. The interviewee who had refused to participate? My producer called them and convinced them in five minutes to do the show. That fact she made me fact check for a third time? It turned out the first two checks were wrong, which I wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t made me check that third time.
The producers you’re working for have so much to teach you. Listen to them.
I apologized to that producer I gave attitude to profusely. We hugged, cried a little bit and we’ve been friends ever since.
5. The one key to success — the ‘to-do’ list
Making great TV starts with a solid to-do list. So much is happening so quickly both in the field and in post that it gets tough to keep it all straight. I keep a small palm-sized notebook in my pocket to write my to-do’s as it’s the one foolproof way I know to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
Use a notepad, use your phone’s notes app, download a specialized app — whatever works for you. Screenwriter John August has a great downloadable daily plan template if you need some inspiration.
When I see a PA writing down what I’m asking them to do, I know that I’m working with someone who has essential organizational skills, and it gives me confidence that they’re going to get it done.
6. Be on time
I know this seems obvious, but I’ve had several PA candidates show up for interviews late. I’ve had interviewees text me 10 minutes before they’re supposed to be there, saying they are stuck on the subway. That just tells me you didn’t budget your time well.
Your main job as a PA will be to be punctual: for picking up an interviewee, for delivering equipment, for getting lunch to a crew on their 30-minute break.
Before an interview, make sure you’re in the neighborhood at least a few minutes early so you’re on time.
7. Be patient in your career
When I first started, I wanted to be a producer after an AP credit or two. I saw some people moving up the ladder faster than me and it made me wonder if I was doing something wrong.
I know now that I wasn’t. I was learning my craft during that time. The producers I worked with taught me a ton of skills including how to:
- Dig in on the research
- Work the phones
- Build trust with interviewees talking about sensitive subjects
- Do an excellent on-camera interview
- Work with a DP to get the look I want
- Write a shit-hot script
I use the skills I developed as an AP every single day as a showrunner. That’s my craft. A craft I’ve worked hard to develop and have become great at. It was hard-fought and hard-earned, and I’m very proud of what I know and what I can do and it’s because I took the time to really learn it right.
8. Don’t get discouraged
When I was working at the bottom of the ladder, there were days I was convinced that I’d be there forever.
Take it from me, you will get there, I promise.
The hustling you’re learning to do now is going to serve you well in the TV business. Or any business, really. Don’t give up and you’ll be fine. I believe in you. And call me when you need a PA gig because you never know, I might be looking for one.
Ready to put Wendy’s advice to work?
Staff Me Up has thousands of production crew jobs that you can apply for today. Log in or sign up now and drop “reality TV,” “unscripted” or the name of your favorite genre into our job search tool to find the production job you’ve been dreaming of.
Wendy Greene is a showrunner and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She most recently was Executive Producer on the Peacock DocFest two-part documentary “I Love You, You Hate Me” which chronicles the meteoritic rise and bizarre backlash of the children’s show character Barney the Dinosaur.
You may also like: