The Unscripted Associate Producer Field Guide
Posted on: Sep 14, 2023
Reality TV has been a staple in American media for over 30 years, ranging from documentaries to formats to “shiny floor” game shows. Regardless of which type of reality, or unscripted show you’re considering, there are many jobs one can work behind the camera, such as a producer. That being said, there are several jobs one can work within the producer realm.
If you would like to get into unscripted production, looking for opportunities as an associate producer or “AP,” is a great way to get your foot in the door.
What is an associate producer?
An associate producer is a junior-level position on the producer’s team. Some ways to get into this position is to get promoted from being a production assistant or development assistant/coordinator at a production company, or to go from being a story assistant to an associate producer. Though with many positions in production, there is no one set path.
What does an associate producer do?
The exciting world of crafting engaging unscripted stories is both challenging and rewarding, and as an associate producer, you’ll be at the center of it all. Every prop, cast member, storyline and location you see in your favorite television shows has been well thought out and curated by an associate producer. As an associate producer, you’ll be at the center of it all.
As an associate producer, you’ll be booking locations, casting day players, pitching story ideas and solving story problems. A great AP is organized, can talk to anyone (regardless of their personality type) and is a creative thinker who comes up with unique ways to tell stories.
Without the work of an associate producer, standout characters would not get cast on your favorite reality shows. APs search diligently for the right location, shot, sound and camera angle to illicit specific reactions. Although being an associate producer is a junior-level job, it’s one that comes with much responsibility. The skill sets one learns as an AP provides producers with a stable foundation from which to elevate their producing career.
For casting and story purposes, there’s a massive amount of research that must be conducted accurately and in a timely manner. The number-one thing that will make your job as an associate producer easier is the ability to genuinely connect to their person you’re talking to and the story they are telling.
Learn what’s bothering cast members and why. See how the project you’re working on gives a cast member potential opportunities to solve their own problem. Remember: If the story you’re producing is based on conflict, don’t try to solve their problems. The story is in how cast members solve their own issues. Knowing what needs to change to bring the protagonist success will make your job easier as you battle the multiple pivots to finalize the story.
Check in with your cast at least every other day at the beginning, then daily for quick chats and updates close to and during shooting. This may seem excessive, but I have had cast members and day players drop out at the last minute. Keeping in regular contact is a great way to get ahead of any casting snafus beforehand.
Nurture conversations with the cast by connecting with them about things they like. I’m an introvert who doesn’t talk much, but one thing I am enthusiastic about is connecting over topics someone has a passion for. It’s a great way to get people to open up and make it easier for people to acquiesce when I direct them in the field. Remember to connect with your fellow production workers who have the same passion for storytelling that you do. Working on-set is tiring and can get lonely quickly. Building a support network always helps.
APs have a lot of work, but please utilize your team. Have clear communication with your producer. You do not have to have all the answers, so the moment you find yourself stuck, speak up! Asking for help is never a problem, but before bringing up an issue, have some solutions ready to share so that your team knows that you’ve tried to solve the problem.
As a junior member of the team, you have just as much to contribute as anyone else. Have ideas about how to approach a story from a unique way. The best way to do that is to become a great listener. Ask yourself if there are any problems on-set you can help to resolve. When slaying dragons in the field, make sure that you clearly understand what’s expected of you. Underpromise and overdeliver because you never know what challenges will come up.
While it is tempting to say “yes” to most requests, do only what you can do and learn to delegate wherever possible. Respectfully assert your boundaries. This will prevent burnout and allow you to enjoy your producing journey.
Before the show wraps, I exchange contact information with everyone I worked with and follow up for a coffee or dinner about a week after wrap. When people reciprocate my efforts, I keep in touch. I let relationships where there is no reciprocation fall away with no hard feelings. Remember: Networking is a numbers game, so don’t be discouraged about the connections that don’t seem to work out. Your people are out there, so keep doing what you do best so they can find you.
Becoming a great associate producer takes patience, confidence and the ability to adapt. Don’t be worried about not knowing an answer, because you will figure it out, so stay calm. With these tips you’ll find yourself booked and in demand. If you have any thoughts on this topic, feel free to connect with me directly @budlongaveprods on X. (formerly known as Twitter).
Happy job hunting and I’ll see you on the next project!
Gabrielle Glenn is an unscripted TV producer and development professional.
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