“Something That Is Always Fascinating”

One panel at Alumni Weekend featured a set of alumni with a collective résumé you might not expect in a venue usually heavy on expertise in politics, science, and the economy: Survivor, Flavor of Love, Don’t Forget the Lyrics, Shaq’s Big Challenge, and Project Runway. Moderated by Katherine Sender, associate professor and associate dean of graduate studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, “Getting Real: From Campus to Camera” included alumni who have both worked behind and in front of the camera, with producers Mark Cronin ENG ’86 and Greg Goldman C’96, and former contestants Charlie Herschel C’01 and Kristin Haskin Simms C’93.

Cronin claimed, only half-jokingly, that he double-majored at Penn, in “chemical engineering, and Mask and Wig.” The competition for his time grew so intense, he said, that at one point “I ended up on academic probation, because I was dressing up as a woman every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. And trying to study in heels. It was painful.”

As it turned out, both courses of study would serve him well. “A producer of reality television is really a kind of an entertainment engineer,” who’s constantly solving real-world problems, he said. After graduating, Cronin actually pursued a more traditional engineering career, because he wanted a “real” job and figured that all his classmates heading to New York City to work as actors would starve. “And I was pretty much right,” he added. But he also started writing jokes for a friend producing a TV news spoof, who paid $100 per joke. “I’d write them on my way to work as an engineer,” he said, and when he was making as much from the jokes as from his “real” career he realized it might be time to reconsider.

Crooked career paths were a theme among the panel participants. Simms recently did a stint on Project Runway. But when she arrived at Penn, “I thought I was going to law school,” she said. Then she considered transferring to Wharton, detoured through creative writing, and even considered communications. Mostly, she said, “I wanted to live in New York.” A trip to study abroad in Paris inspired her to apply to art school, and after picking up her MFA she finally swerved into the fashion world.

For his part, Goldman is now a successful producer, but he actually spent a year in med school before dropping out. “I looked around, and everyone else was excited to be there,” he said, but the experience left him cold. “The creative wheels weren’t turning,” and he realized it was time to decide whether he wanted to “just keep going through the motions, and make my parents very happy,” or strike out and try to find something he loved.

All the talk of passion forced a confession from Charlie Herschel. “I did not follow my passion, and I am a lawyer,” he said. But while at Penn he also developed an obsession with Survivor, the grandfather of reality competition shows. He and his roommates would dress up to watch it every Thursday night, and 17 seasons later he summoned the courage to audition. He didn’t win Survivor: Gabon—Earth’s Last Eden, but “I had my seven weeks of glory,” he said [“Alumni Profiles,” Nov|Dec 2008].

Auditioning “is a grueling process” that lasts about six months, said Herschel. “And they’re constantly saying, ‘You’re in, you’re out’ … and you have no control over it.” He sat through two days of psychological testing, and since it’s not clear what personalities the producers are looking for, “there are no right answers.”

From her time on Project Runway, Simms had a similar take. “You just have to be yourself,” she said. “If it’s fake they can see right through that.” Her audition video featured a sped-up montage of her trying on every stitch of clothing she’d ever made. “And I had my dog in the video,” she said. The editing took longer than she expected, so she ended up spending $50 to FedEx it on the last possible day.

Cronin, meanwhile, has dealt with the casting problem from the other side of the table, for shows like Flavor of Love and Bridalplasty. “I’ve had to cast everything from trying to find a group of women who are interested in dating Flavor Flav—it wasn’t as hard as you’d think—to brides-to-be who are willing to let us determine their wedding date. And who wanted plastic surgery procedures, but weren’t so hideously ugly that you couldn’t watch them on television. So that’s a very fine line.”

In a ratings-driven world, casting is all about the ability to hold the audience’s attention. “If you’re someone who has a rich inner life, you’re not really good for TV,” Cronin said. “You need to ‘pop’ on camera. But that’s a very subjective question.” If you notice your eyes drifting while watching an audition, he said, that person probably won’t make the cut. A good producer can sniff out mass appeal from a stack of casting tapes like a dowser sensing water.

Once selected, Simms said, she wasn’t allowed to speak to any other cast members of Project Runway off camera. And though enough outspoken personalities will naturally generate conflict, Simms describes how the producers can ratchet up the pressure even further. When Project Runway aired, the show gave the impression that contestants had five hours to complete the first challenge. In fact, “it was really only three and a half,” she said. “And it became more stressful than they portrayed.”

Cronin is the first to admit that reality TV producers freely manipulate their subjects. “We’ll use tricks,” he said. A wily contestant in the interview chair might say, “You’re not going to get me to say that I hate Kristin.” But, he said, “With a simple edit, we make that ‘I hate Kristin.’ And the truth is, they hate Kristin. They just didn’t want to say it on TV.”

“We don’t do journalism, but we do tell the generally true story of what happened,” Cronin said. He added that narratives techniques like compression and juxtaposition are as old as storytelling itself. Goldman had another take on the value reality shows have to offer. “There are a lot of scripted shows that are very formulaic,” he said, and far too many “comedies with three laughs per page.” But most often people go on reality shows “because they’re at a point of transition, and things are changing in their lives. It’s very relatable, and it’s extremely emotional.

“And when you have one of those moments that’s happening in real life, and you’re documenting it,” he said, “there’s something that is always fascinating.” —Sean Whiteman LPS’11

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