Reality Challenged: What Happens When Challenges Go Awry?

This is the second in a three part series about the science and strategy behind reality show challenges. Read the first part here.

Making reality show contestants talk and argue during a challenge can take time. Yet that’s often a luxury which challenge producers like Sam Cotler don’t have when working on a show with a tight budget. When a game has a ticking clock, like the Tool Academy ublek challenge, there can be precious-little footage of couples drama. Other games, though, have no clock and are limited only by their estimated budget. When an open-ended challenge goes long, however, the price of crews and cameras goes up. This was the case with the very first challenge on Season 2 of Tool Academy, when Cotler and his fellow producers had to come up with a game on the theme of “dedication.” As he re-watches the episode, Cotler breaks down his challenge of coming up with a game that both entertains Tool Academy fans and which quickly familiarizes them with the dynamics of a new batch of contestants.

“I think there are 12 couples, so there’s 24 cast members, which for a show like this is really a lot. And you’ve only had one or two segments with them so far, so in the challenge you really wanna kind of get to know them a little better. It’s always important, but in this case it’s really important to make sure they’re gonna talk and you’re gonna get a feel for who these people are. It’s a relationship show, so what’s something we can do that shows the current dynamics of the relationship through a somewhat physical challenge?”

Cotler was also well aware of the higher-ups watching to make sure his opening challenge was worth their expense.

“This is the first day of the show. The network executives are gonna be there. On some shows, not in this case, but in a lot of shows you have sponsors. So they’re gonna be there. And then you’ve got your peers, all the crew, and the story producers and everyone else. And you really don’t want to totally drop the ball, because there’s literally so many people watching, and so much money being spent.”

At least Cotler had the benefit of a previous season’s-worth of Tool Academy episodes to watch through for inspiration.

“In the previous season, I think they had done in the first episode a challenge where each couple had an IKEA bed that came in boxes and pieces. And the guy sat in a lounge chair and read the directions, and the girl had to put together the bed. She could never look at the directions, even though IKEA furniture is sometimes really complicated. So It was a good challenge, because it really showed the dynamics of how they work together. And some of them really got frustrated. We gave ‘em coolers of beer, and I remember one guy smashed the cooler, smashed a chair. And so, [executive producers] wanted something that achieved the same thing, but was bigger, and a little more physical, and a little more fun.”

What Cotler’s team came up with was “Keep Your Relationship Afloat,” involving the couples competing to make some very un-seaworthy rowboats stay above water.

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    • Etienne

      What a waste of time and intelligence (reality shows and then, analyzing the “science” behind them). I, myself, would much rather know how they can film and achieve many of they shots on nature programs.

    • Etienne

      Actually, the article itself, is very well written, constructed; analytical and kept my interest. Which is in and of itself amazing. Since the subject matter is about something that I detest.

    • Bayla Kallstrom

      It was fun to read. Who would have thought that so much planning goes into something so apparently ‘spntaneous’!