Leslie Coffee on Producing Reality Television
The Learning Channel series Police Women of Broward County focuses on women cops balancing intense police drama with home and family life. Reality TV producer Leslie Coffee, who works with Cheri Sundae Productions, talked to us about her role in the TLC show.
“As a field producer, one of my absolute favorite jobs to do, it’s all about getting the story in the field. On a show like Police Women, I have no idea what each day will bring, and must be able to roll with anything that happens.
“If my cop runs after a criminal, I run. If my cop is in a standoff, I’m hiding next to the car (as required), but listening to everything going on, taking notes for the hotsheet, and making sure myself or nobody in my crew gets shot.”
Field-producing for Police Women requires juggling the acquiring of an accurate and compelling story while avoiding interfering with police work and the legal process. Developing a sensitivity to the victims is also critical.
“Part of what separates a good producer from a great producer is knowing how to identify with someone, no matter what kind of background they come from. On the Police Women series, I regularly dealt with individuals being arrested, who had been beaten or assaulted, or were otherwise in some kind of panic situation.”
On other assignments producing for TLC’S Weird Travels, Coffee has had to interview “… individuals who said they’d been abducted by aliens, seen Bigfoot, or inventoried crop circles.” For most reality shows, Coffee normally deals mostly with everyday people from all walks of life. “Part of my job,” she says, “is to win these people over, even if just for that hour, that day, or that week. They have to feel totally comfortable opening up to me about things that aren’t always easy for them to talk about.”
Keeping a straight face “while asking someone what it was like to be probed by aliens is sometimes more than someone can handle,” she says.
Coffee says, “the most important thing about any kind of producing is always story. The job, at its core, is to tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
That beginning, middle and end extends through the edit process as well. “You have to be able to think about how the story is going to be written AND edited. If you don’t get visual coverage of something in the field, you won’t have material to cover part of the story, and after all, TV is the business of telling stories through pictures. If you don’t have the picture, you don’t have the story.”
“At the same time, interviews have to cover material as well,” she says. “Picture either supports the words, or vice versa. Gotta have both to have a great show.”
Keeping the Story Fresh
“On a reality show, or any kind of non-fiction TV (docs, ‘caught on camera’ clip shows),” Coffee says, “my primary goal is to tell the real story in a way that is fresh for the viewer. There are a million shows on Bigfoot, but how can I make this one different? What unique or new information or angle can I find? Who hasn’t been interviewed, but still has a great story to tell?”
Coffee opposes manufacturing a story. “I absolutely do not believe in creating from the footage a story that never actually happened. There’s nothing that gets to me more as a TV producer… It is what gives this side of the business a bad name, and I find, as a producer, I’m often fighting the public’s perception that it’s all fake. It’s not all fake. Some of it is, and I think we can all tell which shows those are.
“I won’t work on fake. I won’t put words in someone’s mouth.”
Coffee says, “What I will do is ask a question I know will forward the story, or cover something I don’t already have. If I need a wide shot and a close up of someone walking in a door, I will have the person walk in twice. They’re going in the door anyway, so it’s not making up content. That’s where you have to know where reality ends and TV begins. Reality equals real life story. TV equals pictures. They have to work together for the best product.”
Keeping It Real
The viewing public can easily feel jaded and cynical about reality shows. We asked Coffee how she achieves authenticity. How does she keep it real without scripting it?
“First I will say that I consider ‘reality’ one of the genres of non-fiction television. I work in reality, but also work in talk shows, documentaries, and entertainment news.”
That said, Coffee states “Any ‘reality show’ writing a script before shooting I would consider suspect.”
She continues, “To define what I think of as scripting a reality show, and to talk about what the viewing public thinks of as scripting a reality show, are often two different things. Before going out in the field, through my research and pre-interviews, I have an outline and a pretty clear idea of what the story is. Once out in the field, things can evolve or change. Once in post, they can change again. However, the basic idea of the story typically remains the same.
“As they say with film, you have one story in the script, one during production, and another that comes out of post. It’s the same general concept in TV.”
“So, to break it down, in pre-production I work from an outline or story pitch, which essentially outlines the story (no script). In the field, my interviews and shoots support that story. In post, a script is written from the material shot in the field. It’s perfectly normal for a script to be written at this stage, and its primary purpose is so the editors have something to work off when the writer moves on to the next script.“
Building rapport with subjects in a reality show extends also to working with the crew. “There have been several instances where I don’t meet my crew until I get to the airport. You better be able to get along with people you’re going to spend the next few days, weeks, or months with during typical long, 16-hour production days.”
“Teamwork,” says Coffee, “is the glue that holds production together. Nobody can do this alone, at least not on the scale of commercial production. A good producer plays well with others, and further, a great producer has people who want to work with them because of their teamwork and other skills. Everyone involved should share the same passion for and understanding of the project, and that’s something that should be initiated by the producer.”
Coffee stresses that, “since your next job usually comes from someone who knows you, or whose friend knows you, it’s best not to burn bridges or be known as difficult, annoying or just someone people don’t want to work with. Last, a happy crew makes for better product. And that’s what it’s really all about, right?”
The Driving Force
“Two of the most important things to have,” Coffee says, “are a true passion for what you do, and a tenacity that won’t let you quit. This business is very competitive, and if you don’t love it, or you don’t keep going with everything you have, you won’t make it. There’s always someone in line ready to take your place.
“With that said, not everyone is a good producer. The way to set yourself apart from other producers is to give 110%, stop bitching and complaining, and instead have a great attitude.”
The responsibilities behind the title “producer” will vary in reality television. Leslie Coffee, whose experience includes Police Women of Broward County, Police Women of Dallas, and Weird Travels, talks about the roles of story producer, field producer, and supervising producer.
“The responsibilities can differ,” Coffee says, “depending on the type of producer position, as well as the particular show or project involved. I mostly work as a story, field, or supervising producer on projects.”
“As a Story Producer, my responsibilities cover taking the story from pitch to post. After getting the initial story information, I’m in charge of finding and contacting participants for interviews, and then pre-interviewing those subjects prior to the field shoot.”
Coffee’s pre-interviewing lays the groundwork for strong on camera material. “This gives me the opportunity to find out the facts in advance for a more cohesive and better-told story. The subject may say something you had no idea happened, or correct any mistaken information. Oftentimes, this is also the point where a relationship is being established. You want the interview subject to like you, trust you, and WANT to tell their story to you.”
Thinking ahead is essential. “Story producing also involves writing interview questions, and making sure the questions cover exactly the information you need to tell the story. I think information is always better coming from the person being interviewed rather than in voice over. After all, not every show uses voice over.
“Sometimes as a story producer, I also go into the field to produce; other times it’s done by a field producer.”
Doing your homework ensures your show will get on the air. “Releases (location, appearance, materials) are a huge part of the job,” says Coffee, “and often overlooked by sloppy producers. As a story producer, I’ll get as many pre-signed as possible. Without the proper legal paperwork signed, you can have the best interview in the world, but nobody will see it. Lawyers don’t care about excuses, they want paperwork backing EVERYTHING up. Otherwise, you as the producer are putting the production company in a litigious position.
“Once the shoots are done, as a story producer, it’s time to follow the story from writing to edit. Depending on the show, I may write the script, do a paper cut, or, what’s more likely these days, do a stringout or first cut on AVID. Some shows have a writing staff where none of this is applicable. Just depends on the show and, ultimately, the budget.”
“As a Field Producer on documentaries or magazine-style entertainment news shows, the shoot has already been set up by the story department, and it’s a matter of making sure everything they want covered actually gets covered. This includes interviews, any A-roll or main story shooting (like a celeb surprising a fan), any supporting B-roll, and if the show calls for it, recreations.
“I’ve worked mostly cable TV shows, which for me, means I typically work with a smaller crew comprised of a cameraperson, audio tech, and either/or an associate or segment producer and a production assistant (PA).
“The field producer is the ‘boss’ in the field, so on smaller projects like documentaries, I also put out daily call sheets (a production manager’s job on bigger shows), daily production notes (or a hotsheet), as well as any remaining coordination with locations, interviewees, etc.
“Important aspects of being a successful field producer include being able to adapt quickly and easily, not getting stressed out when things don’t go as expected, problem solving in the moment, and managing people (anything from emotions to ego to nerves).
“As the field producer, I’m interacting with the story department and the executive producer every day about what’s happening, and also what isn’t happening. Part of this job also requires taking notes to whatever extent is required by the story department, which sometimes could be one paragraph, and at other times could be several pages. As the field producer, I’m also in charge of conducting all interviews, whether it’s an OTF (On-the-fly) in the field or the more formal, sit down interview.”
As a Supervising Producer, Coffee’s responsibilities center on the “big picture”. She says, “I hire and manage any in-house producers (segment, story, associate, etc.), hire any field producers, as well as know where each story stands at all times. I have to make sure scripts are written in time for edit, and coordinate with the post supervisor to make sure edits are done on time for show delivery, from rough cut through lock.
“When stories are in flux, I also have to be able to suggest new routes, people, or information the producer hasn’t thought of or is struggling with. That all comes from experience and knowing, essentially, how to produce myself out of a paper bag.”
The supervising producer is the link to the network. “It could be anything.” Coffee says, “from sending off a pitch reel to responding to network notes on a segment. Knowing what a network exec wants sometimes means reading between the lines, and also knowing what material can be cut vs. what needs to stay, for a story to be told.”
Often overlooked, says Coffee, is a producer’s ability to manage money. “As a story producer,” she says, “I’m spending money on props, permits, locations, etc. You have to know how to negotiate the price down to something affordable without turning someone off. A lot of people hear, ‘I’m working on a TV show,’ and think that means you have millions of dollars to spend.”
Coffee adds, “Negotiation skills are quite valuable because you always need to get it (whatever ‘it’ is) for less.”
As a field producer, she may deal with the same costs as a story producer, and also manage petty cash and expenses in the field. “One lost receipt means it can come out of your pocket, and no producer wants that. As a supervising producer, the overall budget is the bigger concern. What am I paying this story producer, and for how many weeks? How much is the footage? What’s the crew cost? All of these things must be kept track of for accounting.”
Producing for TV or Film
Are there major differences between producing for TV or film? “I can only speak to what I know from my own personal experience,” Coffee says. “While I went to film school and have done some work on low and indie film sets, I found my career in non-fiction television.”
Time and money involved are the biggest differences. “I find films work on a much larger budget with much larger staffs and for a much longer production schedule. A film may be in pre-production for months, a year, even longer, while for TV shows, it’s anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
“Once the show is sold to the network, that network has an idea, if not exact dates, they want to air the show. Delivery dates are usually much sooner than you’d wish for, but the show somehow always manages to get done.”
Editing to a Format
We asked Coffee if reality shows edit to any defined format. “The easy answer is, yes, shows follow a format. Just like there are differences in each kind of producing job, the type of show determines the format. It’s what the audience looks for, even if most of them never realize it. It’s the familiarity of knowing what to expect from that ‘brand’ (or show) without knowing what’s going to happen in the individual story.
“Instead of a ‘defined format’,” Coffee says, “you might think of it more like a ‘type’ of storytelling. Is it factual (documentary)? Is it revealing (fan surprise on a talk show or celeb entertainment)? Are stakes raised or are people in peril (‘caught on camera’)?”
Maintaining Story Arcs
Pacing is a critical element in the edit. “In addition to the individual story or segment, if the show consists of several different stories or segments, you have to work with the editors to pace the entire show. Do stories arc over commercial breaks to bring the audience back? What’s the lead story? Do you have too many of the same type of stories in a show (for example: ‘rescue, rescue, rescue’ instead of ‘rescue, impact, animal’)?
“The goal is to keep the viewer tuned in to your channel, and to give them no reason or desire to change the channel or tune out.”
“I became interested in TV & Film during my junior year of high school as a possible career track. My school actually offered a Radio, TV and Film course. Not only did I enjoy the class immensely, it opened up my eyes to the industry as an actual job. I knew TV/Film was what I wanted to do, and from that year on, looked for the avenue to get there.
“I went to the University of Texas at Austin, concentrating on film production, and earning a Bachelor of Science in Radio, Television and Film. I stayed in Austin for a couple of years after graduation, working the in-studio cameras at a local news station and working on any film set I could. A couple years later, wanting more out of the business, I moved to LA. I began sending out resumes, cold, to companies ‘currently in production’ listed in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
“My first job in LA was logging tapes for Wild Things, a show Bertram van Munster did before The Amazing Race. Every job I’ve had since then has been from word of mouth and networking. I always say it’s who you know that gets you in the door, and what you know that keeps you there.
“Another aspect to being a great producer is experience. Get as much experience as you can, and get varying types of experience. Some of my TV experiences/skills have included researching, production management, clearance, travel coordinating, scouting/casting, and editing. You never know in what producing job these different skills will come into play. It could be the thing that sets you apart when it’s time to interview for a new job.”
Leslie Coffee says that producing continues to be an extremely rewarding job for her. “I get to do something different almost every day, yet with the same skill set. I get to meet people and experience things many people don’t even dream of. I love my career, and I can’t imagine doing anything else every day of my life.”
Check out Leslie Coffee’s own website: http://lesliecoffee.com/Home.html
and IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1628441/