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Is ‘Casting’ Really So Important for Reality TV? A New Farming Format Is About To Find Out

betting the farm reality tv format entertainment carbon drawdown carbon reduction casting challenge

Experimental reality show Betting The Farm tests whether farmers can reduce carbon and still make a living challenges a long-held article of entertainment faith

Why do entertainment TV producers believe ‘casting’ is so important?

Reality TV: noun

  • television programmes in which ordinary people are continuously filmed, designed to be entertaining rather than informative.

Ask any old-school TV pro to reveal the single most important factor in the success or failure of their show, and they’ll probably mention ‘casting’. 

The pivotal importance of featuring ‘good characters’ is an article of faith for all format creators and documentary filmmakers, but particularly so in the reality TV game. By night, reality show makers dream of ‘breakout stars’. By day, they prospect the country for diamonds in the rough, sifting the Joe Public muck for TV gold, 

The elusive quality they seek goes by different names: ‘charisma’, ‘personality’, ‘character’, ‘empathy’, ‘star quality’, ‘TV natural’ and ‘on-screen presence’. 

Whatever you call it, it’s a reality TV truism that if you’re in the business of using ‘ordinary people’ for entertainment purposes, ‘casting’ will make or break your show.


Reality and Risk

The obvious answer is people don’t want to watch boring people, as we have plenty of them in ‘real life’. When we want to be entertained, we want ‘larger than life’ characters, extroverts, entertainers, clowns and villains.

But if that’s true, why bother pretending its ‘real’ at all? Were there not something compelling about the authenticity of the ‘real world’, they wouldn’t badge it ‘reality TV’, would they?

Reality show producers, or docu-soap directors usually explain the importance of ‘casting’ good characters in terms of reducing risk. 

They might explain it in commercial terms:

  • Reality TV shows are a product, and the people who make them are running a business.
  • Reality content requires many experts and much equipment, both expensive.
  • Investors (traditionally TV companies and film funds, but increasingly a complex consortium of broadcasters, online platforms, production companies and venture capital firms) don’t want to lose their money, so they do everything they can to reduce their risk.
  • Ensuring you have appealing characters who people want to watch is a key way of improving the odds their investment will pay off.

Or they might use a sporting analogy.

  • Rich football clubs pay fortunes to soccer superstars to improve their odds of success. These are ‘celebrity’ versions of reality TV shows, where stars ‘bring their audiences’ with them. Football stars cost more, but guarantee audiences and success.
  • Poorer football teams have to be cannier, risking buying unproven or raw talent in the hope their good judgement will bring rewards on the pitch. These are the regular reality shows, using regular people with no public profile. If you can create new stars, everyone cashes in.
  • Talent scouts get paid top dollar. A proven track record of finding cheap stars in a cut-throat business makes you a key person for any football club. TV companies pay top dollar to TV executives with a track record of finding fresh talent (who then profit from finding such breakout stars as they progress towards celebrity status).

If you press reality TV folk to explain the metrics they use to pick winners and measure success, however, these analogies start to fray a bit.

Measuring Success

Football analysts pore over numbers like ‘XG’ (‘Expected Goals’), which measure predicted outcomes against actual performance.

Reality TV has no such statistical metric. There’s no methodologically rigorous ‘XS’ (‘Expected Stardom’) equivalent. Like old-school football talent spotters, reality producers trust their gut. They may not be able to put their finger on what exactly constitutes ‘star quality’, but they know a) they’ll ‘know it when they see it’ and b) whatever it may be, this elusive thing is critically important.

Celebrity magazines regularly list ‘ordinary people plucked from obscurity’ who’ve now joined the ranks of the Gods: Jon Hamm, Meghan Markle, Harry Styles, Emma Stone, Aaron Paul, Kelly Osborne, Khloe Kardashian, Rylan Clark, Jamie Oliver or, Jade Goody. All owe their first step on the public stage to some TV exec or other who gave them their first break, based on their superstar spider-sense.

The problem with this gut-feeling approach, of course, is that there’s no way to disprove it. Like advertising creatives, it leaves reality producers plenty of wiggle room. Hits can be attributed to their brilliance; misses can be blamed on a multitude of factors beyond their control.

The only evidence they can point to is post hoc. The array of current celebs who started out as ordinary contestants on reality TV only prove this pathway exists, not how or why.

Like academy trainees who made it to the big leagues, these are the lucky few, former cannon-fodder fed into reality TV’s rapacious maw, but they could have just got lucky. All music stars know there are buskers with just as much talent, who never got the right break.

Many of the metrics of sports and entertainment celebrity are the same: endorsement fees, TV ratings, brand value. 

But when it comes to talent-spotting, the English Premier League and Big Brother aren’t the same league.

Picking future football stars has become way more scientific. Once, the emergence of gawky teenagers from favelas or shanty towns into global superstardom was attributed to irresistible natural talent, or brilliant talent scouts.

Now they use stats.

Where reality TV and football differ

Football has many built-in ways to measure post-hoc success, all well-known to fans: match results, goals, clean sheets, red cards, league placings etc. It now has a vast array of nerdish indicators to predict this success, from XG to kilometres run per game, length and direction of pass, aeriel duels won, tackles attempted and made, etc. etc.

For reality shows, the metrics for success or failure are still much fuzzier. Talent-spotters can still largely get away with hindsight to justify their roles. What, apart from ‘gut feeling’, can they use to predict success before anyone knows the results?

Sport is now full of such predictive stats. Recruitment has now largely passed from old-school hunches to spreadsheet nerds, as celebrated in Moneyball. When baseball, cricket, football or tennis coaches look for ‘the next big thing’, they rely on quantitative analysts tapping on computers. The opinions of ex-pros, hunched in the rain watching semi-pro games, are not much valued these days.

When pushed for evidence, reality producer tend to argue from precedent, like the old-school talent scouts who go with their hunches. You need to feel the magic. It’s why:

  • a format on paper isn’t enough to sell a TV show
  • you need to film a real pilot using real people to convince advertisers, commissioning editors and marketing experts
  • most reality show pre-production budgets are spent on sending assistant producers around the country on a ‘talent search’ for potential stars.
  • they’ll research thousands of candidates, meet hundreds, simmer them down to a long list of dozens to show their production company bosses, who’ll whittle them down to a shortlist of a few contenders from which the TV executives and money people will help select the handful they’ll invest the production budget on filming. 

One reality talent show even calls itself ‘The X Factor’.  But again, why does no one question the need for casting the right people as your characters?

Reality has always had quotation marks

Are you wincing slightly at the word ‘casting’?

‘Casting’, you may think, should belong to fictional, not factual content. Such auteur manipulation should apply to Hollywood movies, but not the gritty reality of fact-based filmmaking. To have any claim to ‘reality’, surely even entertainment formats shouldn’t be too fussy about picking and choosing their subjects. 

Journalists, after all, have to deal with what’s in front of them. When news teams show up to a disaster zone, with a pressing deadline, they don’t have the luxury of faffing about finding the ‘best’ person to feature in their reports (a professional constraint memorably summarised by foreign correspondent Edward Behr in the title of his 1978 memoir, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?).

But students of cinema have always used finger quotes when talking about ‘reality’. Accusations of ‘faking’, ‘staging’ and ‘deceiving viewers’ go back to the first documentary ever made.

Robert Flaherty’s blockbuster Nanook of the North, was controversial from the moment of its 1922 release. This silent movie, since billed as cinema’s first documentary, was a huge hit, stunning audiences around the world with its privileged insight into ‘life and love in the actual Arctic’.

Nanook of the North appeared to be a faithful visual documentation of the daily life of an Inuk hunter in the Canadian Arctic. Audiences in Chatanooga, Paris, Newcastle, Delhi, Peking and Buenos Aires thrilled as they watched Nanook hunt walrus in the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, build an igloo in unimaginably desolate snowscapes, and heroically perform other exotic (to most cinema audiences) daily tasks to support his family.

But ‘reality’ was not as it seemed. Even the title was a stretch -the name of the Inuk hunter featured was Allakariallak. Flaherty renamed him ‘Nanook’ (Inuktitut for ‘polar bear’) for ‘marketing reasons’. Nanook’s ‘wife’ was in fact Flaherty’s common-law wife. Allakariallak had long been using a rifle to hunt, but Flaherty insisted his use a harpoon for ‘authenticity’.

But even if the use of air quotes for ‘reality’ TV has a history as long as the form itself, why do we still harbour such schizophrenic, paradoxical, contradictory expectations of ‘factual’ content?

If we’re so interested in the authenticity that only real-world participants in real-world situations can provide, why do why feel the need to blur the lines between ‘reality’ and artifice?

It’s easier to say ‘I Love You’ than ‘Yours sincerely, I suppose.

All little sisters like to try on big sister’s clothes.

Elvis Costello, ‘Big Sister’s Clothes’

Why not select politicians randomly, like jury service?

There’s  an obvious way to test this conventional wisdom that personality is so mission-critical for reality – do a reality TV show without casting.  

Logic aside, there’s a substantial body of academic and real-world research to support this approach.  

Politics, however, doesn’t operate in a sanitised academic environment. It’s a dirty, messy real-world endeavour. In theory, politicians can tell business and media moguls what to do. In practice, Government, Business and Media are intertwined, like a three-headed beast, linked below the neck by Power, and below the waist by Money. 

Cynics might dismiss the idea of selecting our leaders at random as a fantasy, pointing out that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas – if politicians don’t hand over power to random citizens, why should TV executives risk giving up their power of selection?

Such cynics may not be aware the there are real-world examples of turkeys voting for Christmas, most notably the elected officials of a democratic nation of 24 million ceding decision-making power to their citizens via online consultation

Still, when it comes to reality shows, you’re probably already imagining why no one would try. It’s a classic Catch-22, a self-fulfilling prophesy; if everyone thinks it would be crazy to try, anyone would be crazy to try. 

So long as everyone thinks not carefully casting a reality show would mean certain failure, of course no one will want to take the risk, and no amount of philosophising is likely to convince them.

Consider the risk of doing a music talent show, and simply featuring the first buskers you met on the street, or pickign characters to follow for a docu-soap about parking attendants by parking on a double-yellow line, standing on the corner, and asking whoever issues you with a ticket?

This quick-and-dirty approach would save you all the cost of that elaborate audition process, but, insiders presume, would risk all the remaining budget. Throw all the presenting talent, studio time, editing, post-production and marketing budgets, on a random bunch of nobodies, rather than a carefully selected bunch of wannabes, and…well, best not to even think about it.

The safe bet is to keep selecting participants the old way. Less risky.

How to spot moving goalposts

Have you noticed how the goalposts keep moving in this article so far? 

Such sophistry is slippery to spot when we keep switching metaphors. A reliable way to expose such trickery is to check whether the same metrics are being applied in every case. Let’s review how we’d measure success/failure for the three areas of human endeavour we’ve discussed so far:

  • TV: ratings & money
  • Football: scores & money
  • Governance:  votes & money

Is the real issue now becoming clearer?

The tyranny of profit over planet

We’ve become so used to valuing everything via money, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. Money Goggles are strapped on at birth, and are not easy to remove.

As See Through News has extensively documented, our collective prioritisation of profit above all else largely explains our climate crisis, and accounts for why the tools we’ve come up with so far to deal with global heating are so ineffective.

The Internet, ‘new media’, and social media was, briefly, supposed to liberate us from the old tyrannies. As they still use the same metric – money – it shouldn’t have shocked us when they turned out to be just a new manifestation of the tyranny of money.  

Our Silicon Valley Overlords arrived on their white horses, brandishing their Swords of Disruption, declaring themselves Knights of Democratization, vanguards of the Digital Revolution.

In reality, they’d simply rustled Old Media’s horses, and turned out to be even more rapacious capitalists than their pre-digital predecessors.

In no time, as they ‘smashed things and moved fast’, asking for forgiveness rather than permission, it was too late to realise we’d been duped. The SVOs had replaced oil companies, car manufacturers and banks at the top of the rich lists and financial league tables.

Old media and business are belatedly trying to wrest back control, but now have less money than the digital bros. There have only ever been 8 trillion dollar companies:

  • Apple
  • Microsoft
  • Saudi Aramco
  • Alphabet
  • Amazon
  • Tesla 
  • Meta

A different ruler

So much for the knights in shining armour. Like them, we still use money as our default measuring stick when valuing things, and the results prove they’re better at accumulating massive piles of money than their predecessors, but little else.

Different rulers, same ruler, one might say.

What if we used metrics other than money?

  • The See Through Tax Heroes Project proposes compiling lionising taxpayers in the same way we celebrates the wealthiest people in the world.
  • See Through Carbon measures carbon reduction without the proxy of money, using the same metric used by climate scientists – CO2e. 

You may note these projects have yet to achieve the traction of, say, Forbes Rich List, Verra, Gold Standard or other commercial carbon auditing standards.

Which is rather our point.

The Hope Bit

If this is all getting a bit depressing, See Through News is about to embark on further experiments to challenge these obstacles to a sustainable future.

See Through Carbon’s roster of Pilot projects tests a variety of conventional wisdoms.

Unsurprisingly, the one that attracts most attention is doing it all without any money at all.

Naive, impractical, impossible? 

Well, definitely not impossible, as one CEO has already donated US$500K in supercomputing processing power, unsolicited

See Through is a global network of experts acting pro bono. They come from a wide range of disciplines, from AI to social media, software engineering, storytelling, marketing and music, but all donate their time and expertise because they value urgent carbon reduction (measured in metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent reduced or sequestered) above dollars and cents. 

The more See Through achieves, the more motivated the members of its network are to support it, and the bigger the pool of volunteers grows. The list on the See Through Carbon ‘Who We Are page is far from comprehensive, as people are joining faster than the website is updated, and many prefer to contribute anonymously. Still, if you still want to  quantify things in money:

  1. click on the extended bios of all the contributors in the network
  2. estimate their daily consultancy rates
  3. multiply those rates by the number of days you reckon it would take to get the the point of starting the Pilots

Whatever total you come to is the precise sum of money See Through Carbon doesn’t need.

Now on to the best bit…

Betting The Farm

Did you think we’ve strayed too far from where we started this article, talking about ‘casting’ for reality TV? Here comes the landing.

A new, YouTube-based See Through brand, See Through Together, is partnering with See Through Carbon to recruit farmers to sign up to Pilot 6, Global Agriculture.

See Through Together’s team of storytelling and communications experts have come up with an innovative way of doing this that might not have occurred to university researchers, or businesses – a reality TV entertainment format called Betting The Farm.

Why? Betting The Farm is designed to be a fun, engaging, innovative way to:

  1. recruit farmers to sign up to Pilot 6, in order to test the agricultural module of See Through Carbon’s carbon auditing standard.
  2. frame our ‘global farming crisis’ in a context that might actually solve the underlying problem.
  3. lead both farmers and viewers on a journey that ends up with sustainable, net zero solutions to one third of our carbon emissions

Here’s the premise of Betting The Farm, in the form of the draft video that will explain it to participating farmers.

And you may not be surprised to hear, See Through Together will not be auditioning participants…

Betting The Farm casting

For the pilot, See Through Together is doing the agricultural equivalent of recruiting parking attendants by parking illegally and seeing who shows up.

Betting The Farm is testing our theory that the importance of ‘good characters’ diminishes in proportion to the strength of the reality format’s premise.

If the premise of the format is strong enough, See Through Together reckons, the show will be enhanced, rather than weakened, by having genuine farmers with real-world stakes, instead of contrived, confected jeopardy like eating kangaroo testicles.

Unlike most reality shows, See Through Together can afford to take the risk of conducting this experiment because:

  • it has no budget
  • the TV professionals making it are interested in finding out

Watch this space to find out what happens next…

A viral coda

In the mean time, See Through Together has conducted an unusual experiment to test its theory.

In 2006, the satellite channel of Japanese public broadcaster NHK commissioned a small UK-based production company to make a 20-minute documentary on changing gender balances in Ireland resulting from the country’s ‘Tiger’ economy.

Director/Producer Robert Stern (now at See Through Together) decided to tell this story via Willy Daley, a third-generation traditional Irish matchmaker, whose forebears also helped farmers find wives in rural County Clare, at Lisdoonvarna’s annual Matchmaking Festival.

Like the festival, Willy has had to move with the times. His grandfather’s job included counting cattle to make sure the groom’s family could deliver on their dowry promises – Willy used more conventional matchmaking criteria, which included the woman’s preferences. Similarly, the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival, established to find breeding partners to enable isolated farmers to keep tthe land in the family, had re-branded itself as ‘Europe’s Biggest Singles Event’.

Robert structured the documentary as a classic reality show docu-soap, featuring the stories of three rural bachelors of different ages, selected from Willy Daley’s client list, to reveal these social changes.

Except the budget was far too small to permit any casting, Willy didn’t have that many clients, and only three were up for being filmed. So no ‘casting’.

One of the three bachelors was 50-something farmer Matt Devitt, Matt spent all day alone on his smallholding with only his animals for company, and was so painfully shy he appears in profile for his first interview, as he didn’t even want to look towards the camera. He spoke rapidly, as if unaccustomed to it, and would pause to let nearby cows moo before completing his sentence.

Matt would have failed any ‘casting’ process at the first hurdle.

As an experiment, Robert uploaded an English language version of the full documentary, whose climactic final scene featured none other than Matt Devitt, confounding all our expectations. From a clickbait conventional wisdom perspective, Robert couldn’t have handicapped it more.

  • At 23 minutes, it was way ‘too long’ for our short attention spans
  • The automatically-selected thumbnail image was so dark is was barely visible.
  • The Description was left blank, providing no way for the YouTube algorithm to ‘know’ who to recommend it to

Within 2 weeks, Looking For Love In Modern Ireland had accumulated more than 50,000 views…

If you’re a farmer who’d like to take part in Betting The Farm, or know one who might, just email