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How an IDEA can become a Competition Reality Show

*originally posted on

I am extremely grateful to be one of the original pioneers of competition reality TV. I have executive produced 100’s of hours of TV including Eco-Challenge (Discovery Channel and USA Network), Rock Star Season (CBS), Contender (NBC and ESPN), Expedition Impossible (ABC), Great American Road Trip (NBC) and Biggest Loser (NBC) so I know hands on how it all works. To get a network series on air is a massive team effort and a tremendous amount of work but for most people who are lucky enough to work in TV making a show is truly a dream job.

Should you wish to know how it works…below is the step by step breakdown of how most competition TV series are made:


Ideas are usually brainstormed within the development department of a production company. Concepts are flushed out in a pitch deck and usually a sizzle tape is produced and edited to visually show proof of the concept.


The concept is then pitched to the networks. The TV executives get up to 10 pitches a day so you better be excellent in the room. The art of the pitch is invaluable when selling a show.


If the network likes the idea then the lawyers and agents start negotiating the deal. This can take up to 6 months.


Getting a network to green-light a show is extremely difficult BUT when they do that’s when the fun begins.


The key to any reality show is the CAST. The casting director has a team of casting associates who head out across America to search for the best cast. Contestants send in a casting tape that is reviewed by the team; it’s important to see if they pop on camera. Of the 1000’s that apply usually 50 are brought to LA for in person interviews. After lots of interviews, background checks and testing, the finalists are chosen to take part in the series.


Once the show is green lit, the Executive Producer then starts hiring the core team to turn the CONCEPT into a reality. Each department is run by a Department Head which often times consists of a Production Designer, Casting Director, Line Producer, Challenge Producer, Supervising Producer, Director and Post Producer Supervisor. The production designer starts building the set if there is one. The Supervising Producer starts brainstorming challenge ideas with the challenge producers. The line producer starts hiring the team. Story Producers are hired, The Camera crew is booked, etc.

During the pre-production stage, the crew is usually on location for up to 6-8 weeks building sets, testing challenges, etc.


For a standard network competition reality show, the shoot is usually around 26-36 days. For every episode the crew usually shoot for 2-3 days. Competition Reality shows are usually 12-13 episodes. On a big competition show like Biggest Loser or Survivor – the crew can be up to 75 people. To keep everyone on schedule the AD (Assistant Director) sends out a call sheet the night before each shoot day. The call sheet is a breakdown of the daily schedule telling the crew where to go and at what time.


Post production is where the TV series is truly made. In post, the editors and producers work together to craft each episode of TV. Hundreds of hours of tape come down to only 42 minutes per episode. Interviews with the contestants help narrate the story. Producers listen to hours of transcripts to find the perfect sound bite. Music is chosen. Once the picture is locked, the episode is then audio mixed, onlined and color corrected. It is then delivered to the network to air.


The network then needs to schedule the series. Does it make sense on a Monday night at 8 or Wednesday at 9? Once the date and time is locked the networks promo and PR teams go to town getting the word out about the series.

Step 10. AIRING

The show then premieres. If the show does well in the ratings, you get to push repeat and do a season 2!



Lisa Hennessy

About Lisa Hennessy

Lisa Hennessy is a co-founder of DreamJobbing, an online destination for the coolest jobs on the planet. Lisa is an Emmy® nominated television executive producer specializing in large-scale network competition reality series. For over a decade, Lisa was a driving force behind Mark Burnett Productions (MBP). As an original member of the company, she played an integral role in the development and production of many of MBP's flagship network television programs and was responsible for production of hit shows including Eco-Challenge (MTV, Discovery Channel, USA Network), Rock Star (CBS), Pirate Master (CBS), and Expedition Impossible (ABC) among many others. Most recently, Lisa was the executive producer on NBC's hit show, The Biggest Loser. Lisa's first dream job began when she was persistently contacted Mark Burnett for six months until he finally hired her as one of the first employees to help produce Eco-Challenge, a global Expedition Race and TV series, which spanned nearly seven years shooting around the world in such breathtaking locales as British Columbia, Main, Australia, Morocco, Argentina, Alaska, Malaysian Borneo, New Zealand and Fiji. Lisa also served as a consulting producer for the documentary feature film Running the Sahara, narrated by Academy Award® winner Matt Damon and directed by Academy Award® winner James Moll, which tracked three runners in their 111-day journey to be the first to cross the Sahara Desert on foot. In October 2013, she launched DreamJobbing with her co-founders Burton Roberts and Alex Boylan to inspire people by giving them once in a lifetime opportunities and a chance to change their story through the powerful combination of digital, social media and TV production. Lisa grew up in Chicago and is a graduate of the University of Illinois. She also holds a degree in international relations from the Institute of European Studies in Vienna, Austria. In addition, Lisa devotes her time as a mentor at the Creative Visions Foundation, a non-profit committed to building communities to support artists and creatives. Lisa is an avid traveler and adventurer; she has visited 50 countries, climbed Kilimanjaro, road camels in the Sahara Desert, swam with sharks but marks entrepreneurship at DreamJobbing as her most epic adventure yet.