From Extreme Weddings to Border Security: What goes into making real ‘reality’ television

Outside the realms of dating shows and talent competitions, there's a whole avenue of reality content that doesn't generate the same salacious headlines, but often delivers reliable ratings. At Seven, these shows are overseen by head of factual, Lyndal Marks. She speaks with Mumbrella's Hannah Blackiston about what makes good factual TV and why viewers of all demographics love it.

The TV landscape snapshot provided by overnight figures often creates stories framed on a couple of key players – the big reality TV juggernauts or the massive sporting events that bring in over 1m metro viewers. But beyond the headlines, there are the other players, the reliable rating-givers which perform well across BVOD, in repeats or on multi-channels.

This type of viewing is dominated by factual TV. Shows like Border Security or Highway Patrol that often find a home on 7Mate or 7Two and deliver steady figures each night they are on. There are also lifestyle versions of the format, shows like Extreme Weddings and Yummy Mummies – unscripted linear programs that find popularity in the BVOD binge-watch space.

Lyndal Marks

At Seven, the remit of factual television falls to Lyndal Marks, head of factual programming. She’s had a career deserving of its own show – getting her start on 60 Minutes straight out of university, when it was under the control of famed executive producer Gerald Stone.

“I went in and was expecting to just have a conversation about how to get into television, because 60 Minutes was my dream job, but it turned out they had a role open as a researcher. So I went from being all cocky, sitting there with my pad of paper, to them suddenly telling me they had a job open. I got the job, zero experience, fresh out of university, landed the dream role without even knowing I was there for an interview,” she says.

From there she went to CBS 60 Minutes in London and worked at the London bureau for five years, as the producer for legendary reporter Morley Safer. Because Marks had an Australian passport she was sent all over the world for stories, from warzones in Beirut to the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace on the Ivory Coast built by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, to the Intifada in Israel. During this time Marks has the opportunity to cover stories people weren’t getting to cover and see things other journalists just weren’t seeing.

When Stone moved to New York he poached Marks, moving her across to where he was working for the Fox Network, this time to be on camera for the first time on A Current Affair (no affiliation with the Nine program) during the time Maury Povich and Maureen O’Boyle were the hosts. This was the first time Marks was able to source and work on her own stories, which she could then deliver herself. It was here that Marks was credited with solving a murder, when she followed the story of a missing girl for three years, resulting in a conviction.

Several years later on a trip back to Australia, Marks met up with her friend Peter Meakin, who asked her to return to Sydney to work as an executive producer on Midday. Looking for the next step in her career after working as a producer and on-air reporting for several years, Marks returned to Australia and stayed with Nine for a while, launching cooking show Fresh and working on Entertainment Tonight in her time with the network.

After a break to spend some time with her family, Marks moved across to work on scripts and production for Border Security at Seven, which began her career with the network and lead to her now heading up the factual division. It’s a role she takes very seriously, primarily because it’s one that could easily be ended if she ever slipped up and made a mistake on a story.

Making good factual content

“The beauty of factual and how we do it here at Seven is that we have developed a department which is well trusted. We have never broken that trust and I think people know that they can trust us. If someone is a bit unsure, somebody we want to do a show with, there are plenty of references we can give from commissioners of police and heads of departments. We’ve got some pretty heavy hitters who have never had a problem with us,” Marks says.

In factual it’s the access that is so important and I, and the people I work with, would never do anything to mess with that access.”

After the career she’s had and how involved she’s been in telling stories for many years, Marks knows better than most that sometimes things are part of a bigger picture. The key to creating good factual content she says is respecting that you’re working inside something that is bigger than you.

“If I get an inkling through listening to the rushes [early raw footage] that there was a woman who had been pulled over for drunk driving or speeding and someone mentions domestic violence, that kills that story instantly,” she explains.

Beach Cops

“I sleep very well at night because the people are more important than the story. Those stories will come again. We always get stories because we have the access and we get the access because we’re trusted and we’re trusted because we’ve never screwed up.”

It also means nothing can be manufactured. There’s no recreating a scene because it wasn’t shot properly, or the cameras missed something. If nobody is there to catch something or if a shoot doesn’t go to plan then the story is over. Doing anything else would go against the whole premise of factual television.

“There are no actors. There are no constructed timelines. The show is linear. Obviously we have to cut the whole thing down a bit, but we have to be very careful that the timelines are intact and everything is done the way it happened. Then we work around procedural concerns and security concerns. And the people we use aren’t actors. Real people make the best talent.”

Finding the right audience

There’s more to factual TV than Border Security and Highway Patrol. Outside of reality dating shows where editing plays a large part in storytelling and the outcomes are influenced by producers, there’s a section of factual which includes lifestyle programming. These are the shows which often find their audiences in binge watchers. Yummy Mummies is a prime example. It failed to gain traction on broadcast, with metro audiences around 428,000 for the first season, but has since moved to Netflix, resulting in further series commissions.

Extreme Weddings is another project Marks is working on, set to air later this year. The show basically does what it says on the can – shows the most extreme weddings from around the country. These lifestyle-based shows still follow the same rules as the rest of factual TV says Marks – the timelines are still linear and there are no actors or producers whispering into ears.

“Later this year we’re airing Extreme Weddings and in that show it’s just the real, raw emotion of what’s going on. We can’t manipulate that, we just stand back and watch what’s going on. And we might catch somebody saying ‘I don’t know if I’d get married underwater’, and that’s the story – Aunty Jane isn’t sure she loves it, but the couple love it and they’re getting married underwater.”

Yummy Mummies

Making Extreme Weddings is the same process as making Border Security says Marks. It’s a fishing expedition. On Border Security, the crew can be in Sydney for three weeks and not find a single story, or they can be there for five minutes and get 10 stories. Even then, a story which would be great can get tied up in legal drama – nothing airs until there’s a conviction, and if there’s an appeal, nothing can air until that’s completed too.

On Extreme Weddings it’s a similar process – a callout is put forward for suitable weddings, but they have to fit into the filming schedule. A great wedding might not work because it’s outside of the schedule, or it clashes with another, or a crew can’t be sent to the location. Then it’s back to fishing for another.

So why is it that viewers love these shows? Why did Yummy Mummies find an audience on Netflix? Why does Highway Patrol pull in 200,000 metro viewers on 7Mate? Marks says it’s the stories that keep people coming back, and the extra factor given them to by the fact everything is real.

“What makes a great story in any of this is the mystery. Is he or isn’t he guilty? Does she have anything on her? What’s in the parcel? Is it a toy gun or a real gun? The mystery in the stories is what’s real and that’s what drives good factual. Real stories, no actors, no contestants, no competitions. There’s a very clear place for factual in TV and Seven has a very strong factual representation.”

Australian stories on the worldwide stage

Not only do the shows do well for Seven in Australia, both the shows and the formats are sold and produced around the world. Building a base of these shows was part of the plan behind 7Plus, Seven’s BVOD service which the network has built up to have a database of bingeable content.

“Viewers know it’s real, it’s not manipulated. Things aren’t taken out of context. I think viewers are getting fed up with things offered up out of context. But these are real people, they’re not put in a situation where they’re in a competition or anything. I came up with the idea for Yummy Mummies because my daughters are obsessed with the Kardashians, and they’re just people who are fun to watch,” Marks explains.

“Shows like Border Security, because it’s just good storytelling it runs across demos. You can run it at any time, any day in any demographic and it will do well because it’s comfortable, it’s good viewing.

“When you’re dealing with real people and you’re running around you can’t get in the way. It’s a safety situation, but also everyone involved needs to be responsible. We have editors we’ve worked with for a very long time, so they know they can’t use shots of Melbourne Airport when the story is from Sydney, it’s all got to be 100% accurate.”

The future for factual content at Seven looks bright – there are new shows on the horizon, including Extreme Weddings, and there’s work being done with Seven Studios in the UK. The hunger for Australian stories is out there, and Marks is currently on the hunt for ideas to send across.

“There are very few countries out there like Australia, and people have these amazing stories across the country. There are people living in places where they have to literally hop in a plane to go shopping. That’s a very rare thing, especially in the western world, to have access to those stories. There’s a big appetite for it, and I don’t think it’s full yet.

“If you look at Border Security, Yummy Mummies, these are Australian shows that are doing so well on the international market, trending on Netflix, so there’s clearly an appetite for it. There are a lot of great stories that can be told with great, real characters, and the world is definitely interested.”


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