CAREER DEVELOPMENT / AUG. 16, 2014
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How to Make it In Reality TV: Camera Operator

Dreaming of making it big on Reality TV? Well, if you wait around long enough, it might just happen. Clearly, it doesn’t take much talent or charisma or looks to become stars of this television genre, but at the same time it does seem to be a rather hit or miss career path. Don’t despair, however. Pretty much every channel on your cable TV lineup features a Reality TV show of one sort or another and if you have been paying attention you will notice where the real opportunities for steady employment lie. Hint: it’s not in the path of waiting for someone to discover the next dynasty of bearded redneck or the next talent-challenged daughter of O.J. Simpson’s best friend.

No, if you really want to take long-term advantage of the seemingly endless lifespan of Reality TV, what you do sometime later today is find the nearest school capable of teaching you how to operate a hand-held television camera.

Back in the glory days of television when producers didn’t have to pretend their show wasn’t scripted and episodes were filmed on a set inside a Hollywood studio, there were at the very most openings for three camera operators. With every single movement carefully planned out, you didn’t need multiple cameras shooting thousands of hours of footage from multiple perspectives at once. Even though Reality TV is far more dependent on scripted emotional tension than the most gullible fans might think, there is no denying the reality that the key to this genre’s long success is the ability of multiple cameras to record random moments of shock and surprise. Since a large cast of unknowns is still significantly cheaper than a small cast of celebrities, a new Reality TV show very often lives or dies on the ability to use enough cameras to ensure one of those random moments never goes unrecorded.

The result has been a career boom for those qualified to shoot all that action without missing the most surprising moments and without constantly running in the other camera operators. Sound like something you’d be interested in?

Your favorite Reality TV show may air for as little as 30 minutes a week and that’s including commercials. Take out the title sequence, the recap and the repetition of the same hot trending scenes over and over again and a half-hour Reality TV episode may actually contain less than 20 minutes of entirely new footage. Fortunately for those with the education or experience in operating a TV camera, getting those 20 minutes is the job of the editor who must piece together each episode out of hundreds of hours of footage shot on multiple cameras. Multiple cameras translate into multiple jobs. That’s the good news. Now for the bad news.

Shooting your share of those hundreds of hours of footage for a Reality TV show can mean hauling around a hand-held camera weighing more than 25 pounds. While that may not sound like such a bad thing, the bad news is also that you forget about the eight-hour work day. Expect your days lugging that heavy camera around to extend to ten hours or twelve hours or even fifteen hours and, quite possibly, beyond. We’re not talking about one of those cameras you see on talk shows. Reality TV cameras are attached you and you may be in near-constant movement for long stretches of time. Before you settle on this as a viable career path, seriously think about the actual contribution of the camera operator to the success or failure of a Reality TV show.

If for any reason the camera fails to record to that thirty seconds of emotional gold that not only gets included in the 20 minutes of new footage, but is so great that it shows up in every recap of every episode and is the featured attraction of the show’s commercials and is, essentially, the moment that sells the show, nothing else captured by all the other camera operators may be enough to capture the attention of the nation and bring the show back for another season. That’s a lot of pressure.

Here’s some more skinny on becoming a Reality TV camera operator to further inform your decision. The Bureau of Labor Statistics put the median annual salary for a TV camera operator at about $46,000 or about $22 per hour. Do the math to figure out if a 15 day at 22 bucks an hour sounds like a good deal. Another issue to factor into your decision to pursue this career is that not all jobs filming real people either doing their actual thing or taking part in a game show will mean exotic locales or put you in close proximity to D-list celebrities. Those 15 hour work days may get no more glamorous than spending all day inside a pawn shop or putting your life at risk filming from the crew boat shooting down a raging river.

So, if you are still interested, you may be wondering what it takes to get in on this part of the Reality TV game. A Bachelor’s Degree in camera operation or digital film will put you ahead of the game. Real life experience is also great, even if it has been limited to running your own small town video production company. Many camera operators start out as production assistants working primarily for the benefit of on the job training in the camera department.

Keep in mind that your future does not have to be limited to filming here now and gone tomorrow Reality TV celebrities. Extensive experience as a Reality TV camera operator can lead to jobs as feature film cinematographers, editors for scripted network prime time shows and even eventually into the sphere of producing and directing. In the meantime, however, these camera operator jobs don’t look in any danger of being outsourced or downsized so despite heady competition, the lure of low-cost, high-profit material for an ever increasing number of cable networks remains too high for these jobs to evaporate overnight.

 

Image Sourcing: Roomate on Camera for Commercial B-Roll

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