The Real World: how Toronto is cashing in on the reality TV boom
Reality television is booming in Toronto; nearly 100 shows are made here every year—some of them drawing more viewers than (gasp) hockey. Call it an affront to good taste or appointment TV, it’s the future of Canadian entertainment
Every Wednesday last fall, a friend of mine invited a bunch of us over to her Front Street apartment to watch The Bachelor Canada. The star was Brad Smith, a broad-shouldered himbo tasked with choosing a wife from a harem of 25 tanned, bleach-toothed beauties, including a former Playboy bunny and a Miss Universe contestant. We rated the questionable appeal of the contenders and cringed as they performed awkward cabaret routines or competed in lumberjack competitions to prove their marriage potential. During the solemn rose ceremonies, when Brad sent home our favourites, we shouted expletives at the TV. My friend also hosts parties for a handful of other reality series. We consume these shows the way sports fans watch Leafs games—screaming “Oh my god!” in glorious, cathartic unison.
In this era of downloading, streaming and TV-on-demand, reality shows have become appointment television, and Toronto is cashing in. Nearly 100 of them were made here last year, collectively targeting every conceivable TV pleasure centre: sleaze (Big Brother Canada, with its lecherous housemates and salacious showmances), camp (Golden Gays, a Slice series about gay retirees in Palm Springs) and schadenfreude (shelter shows like Property Virgins, in which couples with tiny budgets scour the Toronto housing market).
In the 2011-2012 TV season, the genre poured $297 million into the Canadian economy, up 30 per cent from the previous year. The vast majority of that revenue was generated here in the city by three production companies—Insight, Cineflix and Proper Television—that develop both original programming and Canadian versions of established U.S. shows, like the homegrown edition of The Amazing Race. Produced by Insight, The Amazing Race Canada debuted in July to the largest audience in the history of Canadian television: three million people—one in three English-speaking Canadians—tuned in.
For production companies and networks, these shows are profit machines: they’re cheap to produce and almost guarantee huge ratings. An episode of Buying and Selling, a popular house-hunting show on the W Network, for example, costs just $230,000 per episode and draws 2.8 million viewers. The average hour of scripted television, meanwhile, costs around $1.5 million. And sometimes a lot more: The Borgias—a Canadian co-produced Renaissance drama starring Jeremy Irons and featuring enough brocade and candlelit nudity to populate a museum’s worth of Botticelli frescoes—came in at roughly $5 million per episode. Yet only 500,000 people watched each week. And, in a CanCon coup certain to have fiscal conservatives crying gravy, reality production companies in Ontario can get tax credits for 35 per cent of their labour costs under the Ontario Media Development Corporation, which makes Toronto a particularly affordable place to produce reality TV. Plus, the city happens to be home to hundreds of talented, well-trained documentary filmmakers struggling in a shrinking industry. Reality TV is their honey pot—they’re mastering the dark arts of faux-candid footage, commercial-break cliffhangers and tearful exit interviews.
Through means both noble and nefarious, TV watchers have been downloading their favourite shows for years, yet it’s only recently that their numbers have become traceable. Social media analytics companies like Trendrr and Canada’s Seevibes have started measuring the success of shows in terms of social engagement. They calibrate what they call second-screen activity—every tweet, Facebook like and Downton Abbeyoncé Tumblr post—in order to quantify that amorphous alchemy known as buzz. In 2012, Trendrr reported that reality TV and sports were the subjects of half of all online conversations about TV. And of the top 10 most buzzed-about shows, five were reality series: The X-Factor, The Voice, American Idol, Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta (about a clique of rappers’ girlfriends) and The Bad Girls Club (in which seven women of questionable psychological stability are locked in a house together for optimal cat-fighting).
The shift toward social TV is saving an industry in crisis. In the 2010-2011 season, Canadian private broadcasters such as Global, CityTV and CTV made $152 million in advertising revenue. A year later, that number plummeted to $23 million. Advertisers that used to buy up 30-second spots for $30,000 are now moving those dollars into social media campaigns and online video. The networks are scrambling to capture and leverage that online audience. In June, both Bell Media (which owns CTV, MuchMusic, TSN and Discovery Canada) and Shaw (which owns Global, Slice, Showcase, History Canada and Food Network Canada) partnered with Twitter, so that when a brand buys a TV spot, the sponsorship also pops up each time someone tweets a clip of the show.
Reality TV, with its chatter-inducing hookups and tantrums, is an ideal outlet for the newly social world of television. This fall, the Rogers-owned OLN will be debuting The Project: Guatemala, a reality show that sends nine spoiled millennials off to Guatemala ostensibly to participate in an adrenaline-rushed adventure series. Once they arrive, they realize they’re stationed in a village where they will spend the next six weeks building a community centre for orphans. Rogers is also launching a web-only after-show in which fans can interact online with the cast members, effectively capturing (and selling) our eyeballs across platforms.
This country’s biggest success in the social TV sphere thus far has been Big Brother Canada, the homegrown adaptation of the Dutch show in which 15 strangers are locked in a house with a hot tub and apparently very little clothing. It premiered in February to crackerjack ratings (700,000 people watched each episode), but the true measure of the show’s success was online activity. Slice’s website streamed something called Big Brother After Dark, a live feed tapped from 77 cameras strategically placed throughout the house, where fans could watch contestants sleep, eat, connive and meet for middle-of-the-night hookups. These avid viewers watched one million hours of footage over the course of seven weeks. Die-hards also created Big Brother Canada GIFs, blogged about the show in fastidious detail and filled Twitter with OMGs on finale night. In total, Big Brother Canada earned 116 million cross-media shout-outs, more than any other Canadian show in history. The two most pervasive cultural phenomena of the past decade—reality TV and social media—converged in feverish synergy.
Big Brother follows the classic social experimentation model of reality TV. Back when the genre was young, producers placed contestants in ridiculous circumstances and environments, transforming them into lab mice to be poked, prodded, challenged and rewarded. (My favourite was Temptation Island, the sordid docusoap that stranded couples on an island with oiled-up hotties to test their fidelity.)
The new crop of Toronto reality shows manages to make outrageously entertaining TV out of comparatively mundane subjects. Shred! follows burly salt-of-the-earth men who work for an industrial shredding company as they stomp on discarded photocopiers and demolish old RVs. Deck Wars showcases contractors racing to build patios in 48 hours. Both shows offer masculine catharsis wrapped in blue-collar grit. In Til Debt Do Us Part, Princess and the tactfully titled Money Moron, the wrathful personal finance coach Gail Vaz-Oxlade drags real people through financial boot camp for having spent $2,300 a month on organic dog food or racking up $141,000 in debt. “You don’t know diddly-squat about money!” she hollers at them, her brow furrowed into Klingon ridges. For viewers, the show is equal parts cautionary tale and ego boost, allowing them to peek into strangers’ strangled bank accounts and judge the bad decisions that brought them there.
Then there’s a whole mini-genre of second-hand economy shows, which exploded during the recession: Canadian Pickers, Junk Raiders, Pawnathon Canada and Storage Wars Canada. The latter is the paragon of the form, following a band of profiteers bidding on abandoned storage units in the hopes that they might unearth riches. The characters are shady and unpolished, yee-hawing and bluffing like gamblers at a saloon. A bullish bidder might pay $2,500 for a unit and find a $50,000 diamond ring, or lose everything on a locker full of urine-stained mattresses and VHS tapes. For sensible viewers—the kind of people who make low-risk investments in tax-free savings accounts—Storage Wars is a new kind of aspirational TV that romanticizes a world of roughened speculators and buried treasure.
I recently sat in on a taping of Storage Wars Canada at a self-storage facility the size of Yorkdale Mall, up at Finch and the 400, where I confirmed the industry’s worst-kept secret: reality TV isn’t real. When Proper Television purchased the Storage Wars format from its U.K. counterpart, it came with what the producers call the Bible, a scrupulously detailed manual for recreating the look and energy of the original show down to the camera angles.
For casting, the Proper producers trolled auction lots all over the province, seeking contestants with the right combination of scrappy likability and mercenary skill. These shows tend to follow a casting formula that heightens the melodrama on set. First, you need a pair of veterans: Cindy Hayden, a tiny woman in her 50s with a smoker’s rasp and a leather jacket, and her partner, the skinny, trucker-capped Rick Coffill. At auction, they divide and attack, faking out other bidders and sending each other signals from across the lot. Next, you need a newbie, played here by Ursula Stolf, who runs an eBay consignment clothing store from the Junction. Her business-casual Banana Republic wardrobe stands out in the cowpoke crowd as she sidles gingerly through the grimy lockers in patent heels. She’s the classic naïf, learning the game as she plays it. And, of course, you need a bad guy. Roy Dirnbeck, anointed “The Instigator” by the show, is the quintessential reality villain: a bully who wears mullet wigs and fake gold teeth to psych out competitors. His best locker find, he says, was a $17,000 Rolex watch. “I kept it as a trophy,” he brags.
On the afternoon of my visit, Bogart Kenny, a bidder in his mid-20s with an earring and gel-spiked hair, had won a grubby lot for $300. He was chest-puffing his victory when a producer announced a reshoot, instructing Cindy and Rick to bid against Bogart. When the cameras started rolling, Cindy prowled the centre of the bidding circle, aggressively matching his offers for a locker she didn’t want. Eventually, when the fake bidding hit $300, she shook her head with theatrical pathos, as if to say, “Too rich for my blood.”
The Storage Wars brand of fakery is innocent compared to the ruthless shenanigans deployed by others on the reality scene. I spoke to one veteran producer who worked on Revamped, a 2009 series that followed several women living together while trying to give up alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. “We weren’t getting the shots we needed,” this producer says, “and the host approached a cast member and offered her a cigarette so she’d relapse on camera.”
Another industry insider was editing an episode of Opening Soon: By Design, a series starring two sisters who offerered decorating makeovers for new businesses. “They were opening a shop,” he told me, “and the producer scripted whole fights for them, and brought out a bottle of Visine so it would look like they were sobbing.”
According to one director, the challenges on Chef Worthy, an Iron Chef–like cooking show for amateurs that came and went in a flash three years ago, were all rigged. The judge—the Spoke Club’s former chef Michael Potters—was instructed to be nasty and abusive. One contestant got so fed up that he dropped out, and the series producers tried to entice him back by promising he’d win the show. It didn’t work.
Most reality shows dabble in soft-scripting—planning out the particulars of a scene to ensure drama. The Big Decision, a Dragons’ Den spinoff in which Arlene Dickinson and Jim Treliving provide financial advice to struggling businesses, takes that concept to cartoonish lengths. A former director on the show forwarded me an email that the series producer, Peter Waal, had sent out to the staff early in production. “The motivation for every scene is that Big Jim or Arlene has told [the contestants] to get their fucking shit together pronto or they won’t get any of their dough,” read the screed. “You guys need to be crafting setup, conflict and takeaways . . . to the point of giving them scripted lines to read.” I was both excited and disenchanted when I read the email, like when I learned the cast of Friends weren’t friends in real life.
Toronto’s home reno shows, which are broadcast all over the world, are among the worst fakery offenders. On Love It or List It, the W Network series recently touted by Hillary Clinton as her favourite show, homeowners decide whether to keep or flip their houses following hijinks-filled renovations. Several accounts confirm that the producers film two endings—in one, the owners love it, and in the other, they list it—and then air whichever makes for better television.
Property Brothers, which is exported to the U.S., where it’s the number-two show on HGTV (second only to Love It or List It) stars identical twin brothers Drew Scott, a realtor, and Jonathan Scott, a contractor. In each episode, they tantalize prospective buyers with the perfect home, then—a little too gleefully—reveal that said dream house is miles beyond the buyers’ budget, and force them to pick between two shabbier fixer-uppers instead.
A couple I know were looking to buy a home and contacted the show to see if they could appear. “Not to burst your bubble,” the casting researcher cheerily replied, “but we very rarely have couples or families on the show who haven’t bought a house already.” She then sent them a casting packet that read, “Our onscreen realtor, Drew, will present the houses to you, but, off-screen, your realtor is the one who completes your deal. We need to state that we will only feature people who have purchased a property.” Though the brothers would have you believe that they’re doing the work, Jonathan, the long-haired contractor, barely touches the renovation. The heavy lifting is done by the show’s less telegenic construction crew, but he’ll dutifully wear his tool belt and plaid shirt in solidarity.
With so many shows being made here every year, casting has become a challenge—there just aren’t enough teenage brides or bat exterminators (yes, they have their own show) willing to make a spectacle of themselves. Producers post casting calls online, looking for splashy personalities. I saw ads for a Toronto show called Cougar Baiting, offering virile young men the opportunity to date older women and earn $5,000. Another ad simply read, “Got a scar?” Style by Jury, an extreme makeover show that transforms people’s appearance with plastic surgery and dentistry, featured a woman who had been living in a homeless shelter and another whose teeth were rotting and black from prolonged meth use. A former casting director told me she scouted at racetracks and discount malls for contestants. “When you’re seeking extreme befores to get extreme afters,” she said, “you have to look in extreme places.”
The ultimate irony of reality TV is that it has managed to shape the so-called real world. Before Storage Wars debuted, locker auctions drew five, maybe 10 people. Now they attract bidders by the hundreds. The pawnshop industry likewise exploded by 57 per cent after Pawn Stars premiered in 2010. The MTV reality show Catfish sniffs out Internet con artists pretending to be people they’re not; now, in the second season, the swindlers have seen the show and bait the producers with fake identities.
Reality and reality TV have collapsed into a self-sustaining matrix in which the difference between tears and Visine, loving it or listing it, doesn’t much matter. Canadian television is no longer the placid paradise where Sarah Polley frolicked in pinafores. These shows are entertaining and addictive—even scandalous—and millions of us are watching them. When was the last time you said that about a Canadian show?