Despite critics’ predictions that the success of reality TV would be short-lived, the genre, which is widely scrutinized, continues to proliferate. “Still, as soon I admit that I work in reality television,” explains independent field producer, Terri Porter (’88), “I get stereotyped as somebody who would humiliate someone for ratings and that’s just not what I do.”
Since graduating CSU, Porter has worked on everything from live news to cooking competitions and home improvement programs. “My job is to carefully place myself in a stranger’s day-to-day world, in their work and often in to the lives of their families,” Porter says. “Once I’m in, I ask myself, ‘What’s their story?’ and get to work.”
On Building Alaska for the DIY channel Porter spent her days flying in cub planes to shoot the story of a burly Alaskan hunting guide whose project was doomed to incompletion. On Prospectors for The Weather Channel she climbed around the flanks of 14,000-foot Colorado peaks with hardcore miners in search of aqua marines and topaz; they often came up empty-handed. On The Miracle of Kandula for The Discovery Channel she documented the life of the only living Asian bull elephant calf conceived in captivity through artificial insemination–a triumph that took over a decade to achieve.
How Porter helps the story get told is the crux of her work. “At first, I just shut up and listen so, I can learn how the talent expresses their self before figuring out the best way to help ‘manage’ their storytelling,” she says. Whether the program is fiction or reality the story still has to be cohesive so it’s up to Porter to encourage them to tell their stories in their own words, but with a little coaching. For instance, in a competitive cook show, Porter listens intently for problematic moments that emerge.
“If the talent mumbles something like, ‘the temperature came up too fast, but I think I can get it back down,’” Porter explains, “my instinct is to slow the moment down and ask a series of questions that will help the audience understand the situation: What’s the problem? Why did the temp come up too fast? What’s at risk? If you don’t get the temp back down what could happen? And if that bad thing happens, how is that going to make you feel? And then I want to hear how they’re going to resolve the situation, resolved like, ‘Thank goodness I was able to pull some embers from the fire to bring down the temp so I don’t burn my brisket and get sent home without the 50 grand!’”
The result, she says, should be a cohesive story. “I help the talent tell their story with a beginning, middle and end, which is not easy when things have gone wrong or we’re outside and the weather has turned.”
Despite her deep involvement with tracking a story line, the final product is not in her hands. “I take copious notes, turn them into post production hot sheets that are then passed on to the writers back in editing and then I walk away from the gig,” Porter explains. “It’s hard to watch something that has taken me 12 hours to shoot be over in less than two minutes, but it’s no longer my story to tell.”
Television production has been Porter’s goal since attending the former Colorado State University Broadcast Institute as a high school student. After graduating, Porter came back to CSU for college and then spent a year (thanks to the encouragement of her infamous adviser, Dr. Robert MacLauchlin, known affectionately as Dr. Mac) on a junior year in New York exchange program where she attended Hunter College and interned at Rockefeller Plaza. “I returned to CSU for my senior year, but all I could think about was getting back to New York City,” Porter says. After graduating from CSU in 1988 she sold her Jeep and moved east.
“I channeled my inner Mary Tyler Moore and pounded the pavement with my padded shoulders and Payless pumps and thought, who wouldn’t hire me?” Porter says. Eventually she got hired, but only with a temp agency.
With only a few bucks left in her pocket she got an interview for a yet-to-be-launched series. How fast could she type? Was she willing to work 14-hour days for 10 dollars an hour? Yes, of course. She got a call that night; she was hired. Her job: assistant to the executive producers of a new TV show,Inside Edition.
“When I went in on Monday, the empty warehouse [where I interviewed] was filled with desks and newspapers, TV sets, and young people, like me, who had just graduated college,” Porter says. “There was a buzz of excitement in the air, but there was also a ton of pressure on us from King World to make this show fly considering they’d dumped like, eight million dollars in to the promotional budget, which was unheard of back then for a syndicated show. “
The show went live and David Frost anchored, followed soon after by Bill O’Reilly. “All of a sudden we were not just the news, we were the start of a news magazine show,” Porter says. Within the year she was promoted to assistant coordinating producer and by 1989 was promoted to Coordinating Producer.
“We were up against it every day. I mean, every day we’d have a breaking story and I’d have to pull someone off one story to fly them somewhere to shoot another and then call around–we didn’t have Google to do our research–for editing suites and then to find a satellite truck. It was madness,” she says. “If we missed a window for a satellite shot, if we missed the story–that all came down on me so, yeah, no. Not making our window wasn’t gonna happen.”
The intensity of working on Inside Edition inspired Porter to do more than coordinate. After New York she moved to LA where she worked in everything from development to story and field producing for ABC, Columbia Tri-Star, and The Learning Channel, Lifetime. In 2001, Porter moved back to Denver and has been freelancing for HGTV, DIY, Discovery, The Weather Channel, Destination America and The Food Network ever since.
Porter hopes that her adventures in field production are far from over. “I’m so grateful to the local production companies for trusting me with their reputation out in the field,” she says. “I still get super nervous the night before a shoot because it’s not just the company’s reputation I’m worried about, but my own, and in reality TV you never know what’s going to happen.”
Like the time her assignment on DIY’s Building Alaska was to capture the final days of a man’s attempt to complete his dream construction project. “Except, after hours of transporting crew and equipment–one cub plane at a time into remote Alaska wilderness–it was obvious that there was no way his lodge was going to be finished in the four days that we had scheduled to be there and that my mission to deliver an end to this story was going to be tricky,” Porter says.
That night in the mess tent, Porter explained to the talent that she was trying to figure out how to tell his story without making him look like he failed. Honesty, she says, is paramount to building trust. “Unfortunately, he didn’t respond well and shut me down because he thought I was telling him to build faster, but as the evening wore on he heard me.”
The final shoot, Porter says, involved the guide standing on the porch of his unfinished lodge and Porter yelling his lines to him, ‘Nothing’s going to keep me from building my dream lodge in Alaska, not even Alaska!’
“Even though they were my words,” Porter says, “and we had to do it 10 times, he eventually made the words his own because what he was saying was his truth.”
But did you put words in his mouth? “Yes, I put words in his mouth.”
Did you produce a reality moment? “Yes, I produced an end to his story that he was okay with because he knew I was helping him. He knew I wasn’t trying to humiliate him. That’s just not what I do.”
Terri Porter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.