Navigating reality TV production

As more reality TV shows make their way to television, the logistics of producing such content on a tight budget is getting more complicated (and refined) all the time. The recipe for success is to keep costs down and maximize production time by securing affordable studio space and hiring the best freelance staff you can find.

Take, for example, The Food Network's hit cooking show “Chopped,” a cooking competition show that challenges contestants to complete dishes with previously unknown ingredients. Its on-air look rivals anything out there, yet is shot on an “affordable” soundstage in Long Island City, NY, and is produced by a company called Notional. Notional in turn has contracted with Bexel Corp. to provide all production equipment and engineering support to make the project successful.

Bexel and the Notional team recently wrapped production of seasons 9 - 11 of “Chopped.” While in seasons past Bexel typically supplied cameras for the show, this year it also oversaw the entire production, taking control of the cameras and control room (engineering racks, monitoring, multi-viewing systems and remote controls of all cameras). It also provided a flypack that included 10 Panasonic AJ-HDX900 cameras, two POV cameras, a 16x16 router and two onsite Bexel engineers (one of those engineers was EIC Timothy Quinn). In comparison, the first season was shot with only six Panasonic SDX-900 cameras.

“Productions like this have to proceed according to schedule or they lose money,” said Quinn, who added that this past shoot was the first time they provided engineering help on set. “We were on set the entire time to ensure that that didn’t happen. Luckily, the Notional team is very experienced and knew how to move the shows along. That made my job a lot easier.”

Each half-hour episode is shot live to DVCPro HD videotape and takes one 15-hour day of shooting and almost seven weeks in postproduction (by a Notional editor on an Avid Media Composer at Postworks, in New York). Preproduction meetings before shooting begins help the production days go smoother.

“We have gotten better at producing the episodes, but we clearly couldn't do this and stay within budget without the help of Bexel,” said Shoshana Horowitz, Production Manager for “Chopped,” who also works freelance for Notional. “The key for us is to learn from the previous season’s successes and mistakes, and try to do this more efficiently. That’s what keeps us moving and constantly improving.”

“The stakes have gotten higher because the show’s ratings are up, and lots of celebrity chefs really want to be on the show, so there is a bit more pressure to do it right the first time and stay on schedule,” said Loe Fahie, line producer for “Chopped” and a freelancer with Notional. “I feel like this year, with the help of Bexel, we operated as a well-oiled machine. That was key to our success.”

Everyone involved agreed that using the services of a company like Bexel helps shows like “Chopped” to cost-effectively leverage the latest technology and engineers who have extensive production experience.