Being on the inside of a reality-competition show, as a judge for TV Guide Network's
America's Next Producer
, has one major disadvantage: As it's happening, I'm only seeing half the show. When watching at home and seeing what went into the execution of each of these challenges, you may well come up with a different decision some weeks on who should stay and who should go. We on the judges' panel only are able to see the final result and have to use that, as well as whatever info we glean from the Q&A on the stage, to make the tough call on who to send home.
First elimination taping, and it's a warm Friday afternoon in early May. The judges convene in a spartan green room. The regulars are myself and David Hill, the wonderfully outspoken CEO of Fox Sports. The guest judge is David Friedman, the boyish executive producer of NBC's
Last Call with Carson Daly
. (The name seems familiar, and I soon discover his father is renowned news executive Paul Friedman, currently senior vice president at CBS News.)
The first thing we notice when we go onto the stage and get settled on chairs behind a long table, joined by our glamorous host Ananda Lewis, is how warm it is. Most TV studios are kept mildly chilly, but this is an old-school film soundstage, and the air-conditioning is off. "This is like filming in Cancun," David Hill announces, calling for the air to be turned on while the cameras and lights are being set up. But when the air does go on, it's deafening, like we're on an aircraft carrier or something. I bring this up to explain that if you see us perspiring in the final cut (why did I wear a jacket that day?), it's not nervous tension or flop sweat. It was just plain hot in there when the cameras rolled. (Soon enough, things would get hot among the contestants. More on that in a minute.)
It's an awkward process as the stage crew sets the lights while the 10 contestants, complete strangers to me at this point, sit across from us. We're told to stare at them as they stare at us, and then in unison we all turn to gaze at the blank screen on which their projects will be played back. We repeat this several times as lighting cues are worked out, staying mostly silent, which feels so uncomfortable. At this point, we (especially David Hill and I, who had never laid eyes on these people before) are completely in the dark as to the identities and personalities of the hopefuls across from us. That doesn't last long.
As we screen the pieces, some are definitely better-executed than others, which is a bit of a relief. Not knowing what to expect, I had worried they'd all be pretty indistinguishable and hard to judge. But I also soon realize we're not basing our opinions entirely on what's up on the screen. We're also judging them on their presentation - how they sell themselves as well as their work. It's especially uncomfortable when Ananda asks each team member which person on their team should be sent home should they end up in the bottom. A surprising number choose themselves.
The team making the strongest first impression is unquestionably Zo and Daniel. (It was hard to pick a single winner for the inspired skit from Britney Spears' point of view, but it was Daniel's idea, and his instinct - overruled by Zo - to reveal the gag at the start of the piece meshed with David Friedman's way of thinking, so he had my vote.)
The contestant making the most explosive first impression is unquestionably Sharon. After her and teammate Lindsay's piece is screened to sharp criticism, Sharon lectures the panel that comedy is subjective (as if we didn't know) and begins to tell David Friedman what is and isn't suitable for the show that he runs, although she missed the demographic target by focusing too much on women griping about men, who are that show's primary fan base. Presumptuous much, Sharon? That's the impression we get from the eye-rolling of her young teammate Lindsay and others in the group.
As the contestants retreat upstairs to what the producers call the "sweat room," the judges begin deliberating, but before long, we have to stop. We can barely hear ourselves debate because a huge argument is raging upstairs, with so much screaming and shouting it sounds like a fight of epic proportions. We don't know what it's about, but we can't ignore it. Once again, I can't help but feel like an outsider. Eventually, things settle down and we make our unanimous decision. And we anxiously await the return of the contestants so we can find out what all of the hubbub was about.
The pregnant pauses this time are excruciating. Sharon stands in front of us, quivering, her eyes welling with tears and emotion. She wipes her eyes, but is looking more miserable by the moment. When Ananda finally breaks the silence to ask what the heck went on, Sharon opens up about the arguments that raged around her, peaking when Gwen, the youngest contestant, tells the 25-year-veteran producer to "shut the [bleep] up."
We ask who all was in on the fight. Half the hands go up. We ask who all were peacemakers. Half the hands go up.
Good grief. It's only the first judging, and already this reality competition has become uncomfortably real, with conflict and raw emotion spilling out onto the floor.
In the end, it comes down to a bottom two, Sharon and Bradley, and while Sharon's arrogance and defensiveness make her seem like her own worst enemy, Bradley's scatological piece is deemed worse, and his corny pep talk at the end of the judging panel earns him more demerits in the eyes of the scornful judges. (Rule of thumb: When it behooves you not to talk, keep your mouth shut.) Still, it's hard to say goodbye to someone so early in the competition, when it's impossible to know his or her true potential.
Still, those are the rules. And soon enough there will be more challenges to judge and another contestant to send home. Maybe with not so much angst exposed next time.