An Interview with Teen Mom Producer Dia Sokol Savage on Making Real TV

Illustration for article titled An Interview with iTeen Mom/i Producer Dia Sokol Savage on Making Real TV

In revisiting the drama of the original Teen Mom cast in the new season premiering tonight, MTV's six-year-old series adds a twist to the format. Besides following the lives of these now-adult moms—Farrah Abraham, Maci Bookout, Amber Portwood and Catelyn Lowell—the show will also break the fourth wall and document their adjustments to fame.


It's an evolutionary fix to one of reality TV's biggest problems. As the recurring stars of franchises like Teen Mom or Real Housewives find themselves all over the tabloids, producers face the challenge of incorporating that madness into storylines. Most of these shows choose to ignore the cast's transformation into celebrities (think: Jersey Shore). Teen Mom OG (aka "Original Girls") is trying something new, which means we'll see its young cast not only interacting with producers, but also speaking directly about being famous. Exposing some of the show's programming guts has the effect of creating a more honest viewing experience—it's an extension of a refresh that started with Real World: Ex-Plosion and Real World: Skeletons.

Teen Mom executive producer Dia Sokol Savage (who's also worked on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane) has been on board with the series since its precursor, 16 & Pregnant. Savage spoke to Jezebel about her job, the show's reshaped format and what it might mean for reality TV in the future.


Jezebel: This new season of Teen Mom OG sounds similar to the changes I've seen on The Real World, where they showed producers talking to the cast and scenes with cameramen. How will that play out on Teen Mom?

Dia Sokol Savage: The way that we've approached this season is fundamentally, it's still a show about the girls and their lives and their relationships and their roles as parents. But we've incorporated the fact that they are on a television series and the fact that Teen Mom is being filmed. So you see some of that production process, some of those conversations with producers. The cameras are there. Basically, it's opened up the world a little bit so it acknowledges that they're in a room with people who are making the show.

What was the thought process behind this? Was it just time for a refresh?

We hadn't filmed with these girls in two years. And I think we are tasked with trying to tell their stories in the most accurate way possible. The biggest motivation was just to be true to what's going on with them, like who they have become in those two years is a big part of them having been on the show for four or five seasons prior to that. They've become spokespeople for teen pregnancy. Caitlin and Tyler travel around and speak about adoption. It played such a big part in what they did between the last season and this current one that I think it would've felt inauthentic not to address that. That was really the motivation.


Right, I always thought that's what was weird about Jersey Shore. We saw the cast becoming famous in real life, but not on the show. These are real people who blew up. I like that this format acknowledges that there's a world outside of TV.

Absolutely. And by the end of Teen Mom, it was something we really did have to produce around. They would walk out of buildings and there would be paparazzi or people coming up to them in the middle of our shooting and asking for autographs and those kinds of things. Their roles shifted so much in the time we were making the show that it was really the big motivator for when we came back with this season to sort of be true to where they are in their lives. It felt like you had to acknowledge that they'd been on a show called Teen Mom and they occupied that role in their lives in every way. It really changed things for them. It changes the way they go and get a cup of coffee, so being able to show that lets us do our jobs, which is to portray in an accurate way what their lives are like.


Is it a little easier logistically? What makes it different for you as a producer?

I don't know if it's easier necessarily. It definitely adds another layer to it because we've always made those shows and honored that invisible line. I think it's fun in some ways to show the ways that we get there. We pride ourselves on the shows being very true and authentic and that you do basically feel that you're being dropped into a room and listening to people have these intimate conversations. There's something fun about being able to show that, in some ways, that is the case, even if there are other people there. It's nice to show some of that conversation. And sometimes those conversations happen between the cast member and the producer.


How do you think this will affect the viewer's experience?

It's hard to predict. I hope it continues to be entertaining. I think the strength of these shows is always the girls themselves. They're really interesting people and they have interesting relationships and dynamics with the people around them. I feel like the power of the show is that you feel like you know them or feel like you can relate to parts of their lives or things that they're going through. In some ways, it feels like the next step and it makes it even more real. I think it gives you more opportunity to go, Oh yeah they really are real people. This is really what I'm seeing. That's always been the goal of the show, so I do think hopefully it'll let the audience feel even more connected in that way. And despite the fact that there are people coming up and saying, "Oh my gosh, are you Maci from Teen Mom?" I think it brings it home in the sense that you see what it means for a person to have gone from being on one season of a show to having done multiple seasons and being recognizable in the public eye.


I think there's a desire for shows to be less scripted, but maybe that's only what we think we want. People wouldn't necessarily like that, so I know it's a balance between what the viewer wants and what's entertaining.

There are a lot of shows and networks where people are all about suspending disbelief. You certainly watch reality shows kind of knowing that things aren't real or what they seem. I mean, I spend a lot of time thinking about what millennials are drawn to and what they like, because we've worked with MTV for so long. That's much harder to pull off with this particular audience. I don't think that they like to be lied to. I think they like to feel like they're in the know and there's something that really works when you acknowledge that you're making a show.


People still think there's a lot of trickery involved, though. Is part of that just viewers not knowing how TV works, as far as things like location scouting?

It's hard to pinpoint. I don't know if there's a big misconception or misunderstanding with this show. I think people are really shocked by what they see in our shows sometimes and that's the strength of them—that you're really watching things unfold.


Teen Mom does feel more realistic, more like a documentary than a production, maybe because these are much younger people being themselves.

And it's interesting because breaking the fourth wall in this series, it's really interesting when I'm watching the scenes or when they're happening because they do hold onto that feeling. You realize, oh it is a documentary. This is how you arrive at that point in the scene. So sometimes you're seeing a conversation with a producer and a cast member talking about, 'Well, here's what we're trying to explain..." Our shows are made obviously in cahoots with the cast. Not in cahoots, but they're a big part. It's their story. They're always our guide. We're always looking to them to know what's happening in their lives. So it's kind of fun to see some of those conversations when we're trying to work together to explain what's happening so we all understand it. It's definitely a team effort. I think the criticism of a lot of other shows that feel fake is that those convos may be happening but minus the goal of trying to be true to what's going on in the subject's life.


Do you guys do storyboards at all?

Uhn-uh, no.

Obviously reality TV in general is still a huge success. Teen Mom is more documentary-style than other reality series, so maybe this format wouldn't work for a show like Real Housewives. But do you see it catching on as a trend?


I'm really curious to see how much of an appetite there's going to be for that. Certainly, the more popular reality TV is, the more audiences realize people are actually making it. And there's obviously some interest. Some shows have broken the fourth wall with success. But it's really going to depend. It's easy to make everything too Inside Baseball. I don't know that people just want to see shows about shows being made, so I think it'll depend on how people tackle it. I think the job of producers is ultimately to tell a good story. It's only when those two things coincide that you can really make an impact and have people connect with the stories.

What could the future of unscripted television look like? It could be anything. I think it's limitless where it could go. Showing the production side is one of them, but I can also imagine different versions. I can imagine things becoming more hybrid. Technology being interwoven into the fabric of the people or the stories. There's a lot that people are trying to experiment with and play with. Ultimately, someone's going to land on that and be telling a great story and that'll be what everything looks like.


Image via MTV

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Before everyone runs around disparaging all reality tv - hi, it's a relatively new genre of television. It's still in its infancy in terms of actually having budgets and big networks produce stuff. And guess what? It still has the potential to be really cool. I mean, first of all, it's a GIANT umbrella. Reality TV means the Kardashians but it also means Parts Unknown. There are tons of little subgenres growing, some still being created, but I seriously think there's so much potential. I mean, to go back to Anthony Bourdain's: Parts Unknown, the Libya episode is astounding. It is one of the most gripping episodes of TV I've seen, period. The Russia episode featured the, since murdered, Boris Nemstov! There are amazing shows tackling important topics. Just be patient please and let the genres and subgenres develop!

And, I beg of you, STOP IT WITH GUILTY PLEASURE TV. If you think a show is "beneath you" or something you feel like the creators should feel ashamed for making don't freaking watch it. Ratings aren't counted ironically. If there are a lot of viewers more of the same will get made. Most of the people who work in reality tv on the ground level don't get to create the programming, they just have to make what the network execs and production company owners decide is a safe enough business bet to invest in, and the safest bets are to duplicate what is already successful.

Anyway, as you may have guessed, I work in reality tv. I work in post production, mostly on adventure or adventure competition shows. I've never worked on a Kardashian esque show, partially because of choice (I can't stand that stuff) and partially because of luck. (A job is a job and I've just been lucky I've worked on fun, cool shows that I would and do watch on my own, mostly.)

Oh, and one more thing - as (presumably) feminist readers, I think it's important that people realize how progressive and diverse reality tv is, for the workers, compared to scripted TV and film. It's one of the few wings of the entertainment industry that you can break into without being rich or connected. You don't have to go to a 60k a year film school, you don't have to be the son or daughter of someone with connections, - you can just start as a PA and work your way up into making really great living for yourself and your family. There is a vibrant, thriving middle and upper class reality TV community here in LA. I should also mention, compared to scripted tv and film, leadership in reality is very diverse. Other than at the network level and production company owner level, which is tough to address because it's purely a money issue, it's very impressive. I've had bosses who were women, gay, Black, Latina, Persian and Asian. This is not typical in other places in the industry and it's awesome to work in a diverse, progressive environment.

Anyway, in closing, those of us who work in this field work difficult jobs with long hours and most of us would love to be making excellent, entertaining, ethical unscripted television. Support it when you find it! Turn it off if you think it's bad for tv or society! Thanks for listening to me ramble! :)