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Televised redemption

Bryan Flatt ’12 gets a behind-the-scenes look at reality television

By Bryan Flatt
On February 13, 2012

How real is reality television? I was skeptical of the authenticity of what I saw as tabloid television, until this past summer, when I had the chance to go behind the scenes and see the making of an episode of Redemption Inc., Shark Tank star and billionaire extraordinaire Kevin O'Leary's new show. Thinking of Jersey Shore, The Hills and Survivor, I found that even my friends who religiously follow the lives of Snookie, Lauren Conrad and The Tribes still question the validity of the scenarios and scenes on the shows. Of course, hours upon hours of footage are shot and the producer must maximize the drama and stay true to the concept all in a 45-minute block. As a part of that whittling down, rumors purport that scenes occasionally need to be tweaked or manipulated. Although this may be true for other programs, my experience with Redemption Inc. felt mostly authentic.

The show is the brainchild of multi-billionaire entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary and British company Wide Eyed Entertainment and follows 10 recently freed ex-cons as they try to persevere through challenges in hopes of a chance at true redemption with a $100,000 start-up investment along with support and personal mentorship by O'Leary.

Over nine episodes and many unique challenges, including taking over a carwash and detailing center, selling charity tickets at a major sporting event and running a swanky art show, contestants are driven to work as a unified team while competing to be top-dog every week.

Imagine The Apprentice with a twist and a boss as equally unforgiving and ruthless as Donald Trump. Throughout the series, the ex-cons, convicted for crimes concerning drugs, weapons, abuse and money laundering, are put to the test as team participants and leaders.

Unlike any other show, however, each week the weakest participant still gets the chance for some redemption with a package offer including educational scholarships, life-coach training and resources to help them continue to foster their entrepreneurial spirit.

The ultimate decision comes down to the last few minutes of the show where the contestant can pick the package and leave the show or risk it all and continue as a contestant without any future considerations. They can keep playing to win, but if they are in the bottom again, they give up any package the next time they lose and go home empty-handed.

My experience with Redemption Inc. began much earlier in the summer at a Canadian-based bath, body and cosmetic products company called Upper Canada Soap. I worked in the marketing department as the social media and e-commerce coordinator put in charge of boosting online views while working with a team to help revamp the website.

On a day-to-day basis, my work consisted of gathering information on the benefits of ingredients such as maple syrup, goji berry and vanilla for the skin and asking poignant questions to our loyal followers such as: "What is your favorite scent to put on every morning?" and "How do you fight the midweek work blues?"

Around mid-July, one of the show's producers contacted Upper Canada Soap with a proposition to make the company a part of a new reality series by designing a challenge for the ex-cons participating in the show. My dad—company President Stephen Flatt—asked me if the show was worth pursuing. I responded with an enthusiastic "YES!" As a regular entertainment enthusiast, the chance to fuse my job with an opportunity for insight into the television world was quite exciting.

After signing waivers and conducting a couple creative meetings between the producers, my dad and Director of Marketing Chantelle Tersigni, the details were worked out and filming was ready to begin.

The task at hand was for the six remaining contestants to work together to design a product that transcended Upper Canada Soap's female-centric lines, a three-product men's line. They were in charge of every aspect of the super-streamlined two-day product development—from target market, to logo, to fragrance and bottle design. Seeing multiple cameras take over a workplace was one thing, but to actually see the drama unfold was a whole other ballgame.

During lunch breaks on both days in the office, I spoke with the contestants and heard a lot of their personal stories and experiences on the show. Somewhat surprisingly, each contestant was frank about his or her background—whether crack dealer or financial schemer—and honestly seemed to want to get the second chance the show promised. We think about society abandoning ex-cons after they do their time, but all of the six people I met legitimately wanted to make their lives—and the world— better. While each of the contestants was extremely nice and appeared fairly down-to-earth off-camera, they still were always thinking about the competition as tensions rose and allegiances started to form.

Despite being on a unified team, the feelings of the contestants from day one to day two quickly intensified. All the drama that is seen onscreen from the comfort of your couch is 100 percent true, and they needed to cut out a lot of additional material. I listened to the one-on-one testimonials of the ex-cons between challenge tasks and, at the end of the day, I really got to hear every piece of the puzzle come together while getting inside the minds of the contestants on the show.

Seeing the product—labeled "Alpha M"—go from an idea into an actual three-product line in just two days was pretty remarkable, but the true action happened on the final day of the shoot in the Redemption Inc. boardroom. Meeting up with O'Leary, we talked about the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and I moved to the control room to see where the magic happens.

The three days of shooting accumulated over 20 hours of footage overall, and I couldn't wait to see the final product air on television two Mondays ago.

After watching the episode, it was surreal reliving what seems to me to be highlights of a lengthy and unique experience behind the scenes. The producer did an excellent job taking the main excitement and making it prevalent while highlighting Upper Canada Soap and all its brand names and products. There were even some twists in the episode that we didn't have the chance to see during the filming process, making it all the more exciting to watch.

So how real is reality television? Its entertainment comes not in the situations the contestants face, but in something much more basic—human nature. By pulling up the veil and seeing the good, the bad and the ugly of the entire experience, I not only was able to help be a part of an exciting time for Upper Canada Soap, but I got to re-examine my own relationship with reality television.

Now I don't see it as just "tabloid television," despite its inherent voyeuristic nature, but instead a character drama with real people I can support, hate, love and follow. All it took was a little time on the other side of the camera for me to truly understand the synergy that is the "reality" and "television" in the ever-popular medium. Plus, if nothing else, it made for an exciting week at work. Nothing says marketing like an hour on national television. 

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