News Column

Reality TV comes with highs, lows

July 10, 2013

YellowBrix

July 10--While many may rag on reality TV, San Antonio native Marina Nieto Ritger not only praises the genre but makes a lucrative living from it.

For the past five years, the Roosevelt High School graduate has worked as a story producer for a wide variety of reality fare. Shows have ranged from the cream of the crop -- "The Amazing Race" and "Dancing with the Stars" -- to "The Real Housewives of New York City" and "Big Brother," which she affectionately calls "the equivalent of a trashy novel you'd take to the beach."

Ritger's job requires her to turn hours and hours of raw footage into fun, snappy and engaging story and character arcs for the television shows. Though it can be challenging, she continues to be attracted to what she calls the "underdog-ness" of unscripted television.

"Sure, a lot of it is truly awful," Ritger, 42, said in a phone chat from Los Angeles, "but some is very, very good."

Presently, she is working on season 15 of "Big Brother," watching up to 12 hours of house footage each day and shaping it into a watchable episode that, starting this week, will air at 7 p.m. Wednesdays. This can't be easy, considering all the bad press the show has been getting after some houseguests were heard making racist and homophobic comments during the 24-hour live feed.

Ritger declined to comment on the scandal, explaining that, as someone working on the show, she isn't supposed to talk to reporters about the current season. She did indicate, however, that such controversy isn't new. After working on season nine of "Big Brother," the story broke that the winner, Adam Jasinski, was jailed after telling a federal agent that he used his $500,000 prize money to buy drugs.

On the opposite end of the reality spectrum were Ritger's years on the Emmy-winning "Amazing Race." She was hired in 2008, first as associate story producer and then story producer, and stayed for seven seasons. For the last three, she actually traveled with the contestants as they raced from destination to destination -- Stonehenge, Ghana, Australia, Tokyo, China and Indonesia.

"I loved doing that adventure stuff!" she said, explaining that she was especially into "all the inspirational storylines: people overcoming their limitations, their fear of heights."

She also enjoyed her time on the most recent season of "Dancing With the Stars," which ended with Kellie Pickler and Derek Hough claiming the trophy. She actually operated a camera on this reality assignment, capturing the emotions and struggles of contestants during rehearsals before the live shows.

"It can be incredibly inspiring," she said. "You see them when they're tired and frustrated, making mistakes, and also really joyful when they've mastered a dance."

She was particularly impressed by teen star Zendaya, who, while putting in grueling hours of dance practice, also was filming her Disney Channel show and attending school.

During our Q&A, Ritger shared more reality secrets and insights.

Is what we see on "Big Brother" and the "Real Housewives" shows real, or are the participants coached or manipulated to do crazy things?

"Are you kidding? You can't make this stuff up," she said.

On season five of "Housewives of New York City," for instance, "the women really delivered. Some were straight up ridiculous people, others had some surprising layers."

As for "Big Brother," she said: "The dynamics are real there, too. In fact, there are rules against such manipulation because prize money is involved."

Family reaction to her line of work?

"My husband's a screenwriter and most writers don't like reality TV," she said. "When I was working on 'Housewives,' he told me, 'How can you watch this crap?' "

When she told her father-in-law what she does, she added, "He looked at me like I had broken wind or something."

How does one prepare for this job?

Ritger went to Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia and "got the all-purpose liberal arts English degree." Her first practical step, however, was relocating to Los Angeles, where her husband "wanted to pursue writing for movies and I wanted to pursue TV. One thing you can say about the entertainment industry is it doesn't require an advanced degree or film degree. You can make it literally from the mailroom to the head of the company. It's about paying your dues and making connections."

The pay? Depending on what you do and what level you're at, Ritger said, you can make anywhere between $1,800 and $4,000 a week. "Of course, if you're freelance, like I am, you might not work for a few months, and that can be scary," she said. On the up side, she likes getting breaks between shows so she can spend more time with 7-year-old son Max.

Any special quality you need to succeed?

"Being sensitive is important, which is sometimes hard to be in Hollywood," she said. "You watch hours and hours of footage. Sometimes on 'Big Brother,' I'd see characters cry themselves to sleep. You have to empathize and care if you want to tell stories that make the audience care."

An offer she'd definitely refuse: "I would never work on a Kardashian show; I couldn't spend all day and night on that."

Finally, the memory that helps remind her why she loves authentic reality TV: It happened during a trip with the character-rich "Amazing Race," she said. "In what other job can you find yourself in a prop plane flying above the Australian Outback, wedged between a Harlem Globetrotter and a real cowboy?"

jjakle@express-news.net

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