Camera crews trail behind people, not professionally trained actors, as they go about their accustomed routines. Elaborate film sets creating imaginary worlds are replaced with cities and towns.
This is reality TV, and it’s no stranger to New York. “The Apprentice,” “What Not to Wear,” “Project Runway,” “Princesses Long Island” -- the list of Empire State reality shows goes on.
Production generates a minimum of $7,500 daily for the Suffolk County economy, according to Michelle Isabelle-Stark, director of the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs. Marybeth Ihle, press secretary for the New York City Mayor’s office of Media and Entertainment, says reality TV contributes to the annual $7.1 billion the city generates from production. The East Coast hot spot has evolved into the perfect set for those shows that do not require lines.
After all, who needs a script when New Yorkers’ realities are just as engaging as fiction?
“I don’t know what it is about the East Coast, but the people who have grown up there are incredibly honest and forthright,” said Howard Lee, executive of vice president for production and development for TLC. “And that’s why they make some of the best talent on reality shows.”
For Lee and his team, it’s all about storytelling when looking for compelling men and women to cast. He explains that chronicling a person’s progress is the key ingredient for the channel. TLC receives ideas internally from its team as well as from outside production companies. It can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year or more before a show gets produced and broadcast.
TLC viewers saw complete transformations on “What Not to Wear,” which recently aired its final episode after a 10-year run. On the show stylists revamped a chosen woman’s inappropriate, unflattering or dated wardrobe when makeovers seemed impossible for the rigid subject.
Season one of TLC's “Breaking Amish: Brave New World” gave young adults from simplistic means a peak into unchartered territory: New York City.
“You want to see .?.?. what they are struggling with, their journey, what they’re trying to accomplish,” Lee said. “If it’s fascinating enough, we’ll tune in.”
And the good thing about New York is that there are always ideas.
“When you talk about New York, it’s always changing,” said David Sirulnick, executive vice president of MTV news, documentaries and specials. “Tastes always change and we’re always changing.”
MTV filmed young adults living Uptown in “Washington Heights.” When Broadway needed to find its Elle Woods for “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” the channel documented the women singing new pitches and rehearsing hours on end for the coveted spot. As Ideas evolve, Sirulnick insists that the channel does as well.
“[We work] in and with New York and it’s been terrific,” he added.
With the opportunity for more New York-based programs comes the need for more production workers, something beneficial, according to Michelle Isabelle-Stark. In addition to the utilization of Long Island-based businesses during production, Stark also believes that the recurring nature of reality TV brings people back to New York. Communication with various channels, she says, has developed into contacts.
And why not return to New York?
Shari Levine, Bravo’s senior vice president of current production, New York, believes the 24-hour city serves as a “visual style” that garners “a universal attraction.”
“New York is the best kind of melting pot,” Levine said. It is within that mix that Bravo is able to hone in on various subcultures for shows centered around fashion, cuisine, architecture. The location itself is a great place for the channel to be visually and culturally involved as life happens.
Bravo’s “Newlyweds” follows real-life couples during the first 365 days of their relationships. “Princesses Long Island” shadows Jewish girls in their 20s and 30s living in the suburbs. “Nine By Design,” which ran in 2010, trailed married, Manhattan-based architects and their seven children.
And then, of course, there’s Bravo's “The Real Housewives of New York City.”
As a former cast-member of the show, Jill Zarin said reality TV “is not for the faint of heart” and felt differently about being filmed at various points throughout each season of the show. She claims not to watch past seasons.
“I always thought I’d have it as a memory,” she said.
Originally, the show was set to focus on family and the New York school scene; Zarin thought she and her daughter Ally Shapiro would be able to take on this experience together.
“Kids lives in the city are not better or worse, just different,” she said. “There’s the assumption that they all go to Harvard, and that’s not true.”
But the show switched its focus from New York students to New York socialites.
Throughout Zarin’s time in the Bravo spotlight, viewers saw her friendship with self-made mogul Bethenny Frankel dissipate while encounters with Brooklynite Alex McCord and Upper East Sider Ramona Singer range from pleasant and tolerable to horrific. Despite difficult times, the show captured her closeness with LuAnn de Lesseps, her daughter’s first weeks of college in Bronxville and her businesses ventures.
For all the good times and bad times that were captured on film, Zarin said she’d do it again. If there is another reality TV go-round for Zarin, she hopes to use those big New York personalities for a family-oriented show, her mother being “the character of all characters.”
“You only regret the things you don’t do. Remember that,” she said.
Reality TV has impacted many New Yorkers, from shows’ casts and crews to the local business owners and targeted audiences.
“As a genre, it’s growing and there’s no end to people’s imagination,” Stark said.