Making the Audience Love the Winner
I know exactly who is going to win this season of Survivor. Well, I think that I know. He’s not the person that I like the best, hell, he’s not even the most deserving, but the way that this season has been edited has lead me to believe that ol’ Excitable Jon is taking home the million. Ol’ Excitable Jon that thinks he’s a wine connoisseur. Ol’ Excitable Jon, who will vote with whoever talked to him right before tribal. He just gets excited, that guy. He goes hard and falls hard. Ol’ Excitable Jon, whose girlfriend can’t bear children but “he will still love her anyway.”
He’s not the worst person to ever play the game, nor the best. He isn’t particularly annoying (he doesn’t spit and fart like Wes) and he isn’t socially clever (like Jeremy or Natalie or Reed) but he has been in the right place at the right time often enough to make it to the final seven. It helps that Jon and his girlfriend Jaclyn are playing together, and they often become the “swing vote.” It helped that Natalie told Jon to play his immunity idol on the vote that would have sent him home. (He wouldn’t have played it otherwise.) And yet, despite his mediocre gameplay and vanilla personality, Jon has had a ton of screen time this season. It’s what we Survivor fans (the type of fans that take to message boards of pop culture websites) call “the Winner’s Edit.”
What’s “the Winner’s Edit”? Well, it varies on every reality show. As the phrase “winner’s edit” suggests, the editors (and producers) of the TV show have cut the existing footage to favour the ultimate winner. Why do they do this? Because at the end of the season, the viewers need to be satisfied with the last episode. Can we believe X won Big Brother? If we can’t, the whole season seems like a waste of time.
On terrible, low-budget contests, the kind that air at midnight on Saturday on Much Music Canada, the winner is usually the gal with the most screen time. On middle-weight shows, like your America’s Next Top Model, or Project Runway, the winner’s edit usually involves fleshing out the winner’s backstory. Was she bullied in school? Are his parents still together? Did she quit her job at Sephora for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? We are spending time with the winner. We hear how they feel, what they think of the other contestants, what their life is like outside of the competition. The editors get us invested in the characters as humans. If your favourite contestant has screen time every episode and you know about his childhood, you may be looking at your winner, folks.
Us viewers are pretty smart though. We caught on to the winners almost as soon as editors starting do them. Have you ever thought to yourself, “it’s so obvious X is going to win”? Editors realized that we need to be tricked into believing multiple people are potential winners to keep the drama going right to the finale. Middle-weight reality shows will present multiple “winners” even if it means padding episodes with pointless backstory.
But it’s not as simple as making a contestant likeable. If a reality show contestant is seen as a “good person” that signifies a sure-loser. Nobody wants the nice guy to win. Our winners have to be fallible and in the best case scenario, a scrappy underdog. Those are the people we want to win – the ones with skill, humour, edge, and insight into the competition.
Often the winners are the ones with the best onscreen interviews. Remember Tony from last season of Survivor? Paranoid Tony who built a spy-shack. Multiple times an episode, the editors would cut to a private interview with Tony where he would spout manic but truthful commentary on the game. Tony was brash, reckless but insightful. He would go on to win the game. It’s not that other contestants weren’t giving great private interviews, it’s just that the editors wanted us to listen to Tony. We should know him deeply, and understand how he is going to respond to each situation. When he wins, we need to believe in that win.
I would consider Survivor, the Amazing Race and Top Chef to be in the heavyweight division of reality TV. They, too, produce winner’s edits, but as I started to point out with the example of Tony from Survivor, their edits are much more complex. In these winner’s edits, the winners are seen at their best and their worst. They win challenges, they almost get voted out, they get in fights, their sad backstory is revealed. We get to see the full range of their character and experience.
When the editors are operating at their best, this interweaving of good and bad moments flows naturally. When they are operating sloppily, we, the viewers can see right through it. If 10 episodes into a season, a contestant who you barely know starts opening up about their backstory, they are going to get kicked off that episode. Guaranteed.
In this season of Top Chef, there are a number of excellent chefs. There are a handful of top performers, a few wildcards and a couple boring filler contestants. There are 7 chefs left. Who do I think is going to win? Gregory. Gregory was killing it in the first half of the season, only to all but disappear off our screens for the last two episodes. Seemingly he is in a slump. Or is he? Are the editors downplaying his ability to create doubt in our minds? After all, we don’t want the winner to be a foregone conclusion. We’ve received Gregory’s sad backstory (addicted to drugs and alcohol) and seen him at the top of his ability, but the reason I think he’s destined to win, is the fact that whenever the editors need a soundbite like, “Today the challenge is working with old-timey utensils” they cut to Gregory. He’s a constant presence. Every episode.
The winner’s edit doesn’t involve a specific formula. I can’t imagine the editor sits down at a mountain of footage and writes out what they need to do. They have to feel their way through the footage, finding moments, presenting them in the right way. The editor’s job is difficult. Make every episode enjoyable and satisfying. Make sure we laugh and feel connected to a number of different potential winners, so that we are surprised at the end. Make sure the viewer understands why the winner won. It’s a delicate process, that becomes even more complicated when the viewer starts to understand the editing process.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the winner is obvious from the very start (see: Boston Rob’s season of Survivor) and the editor has to accept the fact that we know who is going to win, and just make the season fun for us to watch.
On December 17, when the season finale of Survivor airs, I hope to be surprised at a winner who isn’t Jon. Then the endless minutes devoted to that airhead will simply be a neat editor’s trick, a red herring meant to redirect my attention. But my hopes aren’t high.