Melinda Cea

Producer, Author & Self-love Guru

The Reality of Reality TV

The Good, the Bad, the Questionable

I married reality TV. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had. It was there for me when nobody else was. It provided for me, took care of me. It was my love and life all in one.

But like many great relationships, you don’t often see the bad until you’re in deep.

One Ticket to Taradise

Trying to protect a wobbly, sweet Tara Reid from shameless, aggressive paparazzi as we left a nightclub in the French Riviera was my welcome into reality TV.

The first reality show I ever produced was Taradise for E! Entertainment in 2005. Reality television and I have been in bed together for 17 years now.

Tara set out on a European tour with her family as they hit the hottest clubs, beaches, parties, and restaurants with celebrity friends along the way — all in the name of adventure, good times, and reality TV’s I might regret this later feeling.

As a fresh-out-of-college twenty-two-year-old soul eager to land any job in television, I couldn’t pack my bags fast enough when the network offered me the position of associate producer. I was going to travel the world for the first time EVER, for the coolest network at the time, with Ms. American Pie herself.

From Monaco to Paris to St. Tropez, Greece to Spain to Sardinia, my job was to chase down anyone who interacted with Tara and beg them to sign an appearance release. I took this job very seriously.

When I wasn’t organizing my proudly obtained releases, I was scouting the next coolest location, helping the camera crew load gear into the vans, and thinking of storylines for us to track — all the while in awe of the female leaders on my team and ready to do just about any job they would let me tackle.

The crew and I worked partied around the clock with everyone from Paris Hilton to the Prince of Monaco. We even sipped champagne on Roberto Cavalli’s multimillion dollar yacht. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for this. Reality television production was a dream job.

This was the honeymoon phase of our decade-plus marriage.

TV producer Melinda Cea in the airport with Tara Reid, the team of producers, stylist, hair and make-up artist
At the airport with Tara Reid, the team of producers, stylist, and hair and make-up artist before taking off on our whirlwind adventure
(Pictured from left to right) Kelly Lee, Tara Reid, Natalee Watts and Melinda Cea in Biarritz, France, filming Taradise
(Pictured from left to right) Kelly Lee, Tara Reid, Natalee Watts and me in Biarritz, France, filming Taradise

The Reality TV World: Behind the Scenes

After my first world tour, I bounced from show to show and quickly expanded on my responsibilities. I fell in love with dreaming up fairytale scenarios, creating happy endings and elaborate entertainment — all in an effort to help audiences escape their own realities, even if just for one hour a week.

The art of bringing any story to life in a way that makes people want to tune in, laugh, or cry is definitely a skill to be mastered, especially when the stars of the show are not trained actors. Nothing was more fulfilling to me than getting a regular ol’ joe to tap into a place of deep confidence and find the courage to be their self on camera. Witnessing a breakthrough like that in someone made the long days and very odd jobs worth it.

Melinda Cea and producing partner, in full diving gear pose at the bottom of a tank with two large sharks behind
I had to take a scuba diving course in order to scout a “Swimming with Sharks” date for The Bachelor
Melinda Cea poses with a video camera in hand while filming a dance rehearsal for Dancing With the Stars
Filming a dance rehearsal for Dancing With the Stars

I say odd jobs because the skill-set requirements of a reality television producer are extremely layered.

It all starts with having a vision, then knowing how to execute and communicate that vision skillfully and strategically. Not only do we need to clearly convey that vision and its intention to our camera, lighting, sound, and wardrobe teams, we also have to be able to anticipate and communicate plans B, C…and D.

While producing, we’re often simultaneously stepping into the role of director, writer, event planner, business-builder, negotiator, lawyer, babysitter, therapist, travel agent, budget and project manager. We’re the masters of escapism and the captains of course-correcting.

In reality television production, nothing ever stays the course: not the schedules, the creative, the budgets, and definitely not the talent. We start most sentences with, “Here’s a solution.” Then we go sell the show like never before seen water to the already vast ocean of content.

As a producer, in short, I am the Make Shit Happen Girl.

I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for this part of my career. I am grateful for it. It taught me resilience, the art of politics, and all the C’s: community, connection, communication, creativity, clarity, and confidence as a woman in what was a very male world at the time. For many years, it gave me great value and purpose, and it hands-down honed my craft as a doer and a leader.

It also took me all around the world many times over and brought me together with some of my best friends today. In the trenches of a show on location, far away from family and the comforts of home, we created bonds unlike any I’ve ever experienced. We built lifelong relationships. Some even met their spouses.

That bond can go unattended for years after the show wraps, but when we reunite, it’s often like no time has passed — probably because we formed a trauma bond of some kind (lol).

A large crew from the TV series Flirty Dancing smiles and waves for the camera in a New York City street at night
A Crew Shot from the series Flirty Dancing. It truly takes a village. This was hands-down one of the best shows I ever worked on!

The Darker Side of Reality TV Shows

When I first started in the business, the culture of producing reality TV shows often involved various strategies to get the cast to forget the cameras were rolling and, if needed, to stir the pot of drama in the name of a ratings scorcher. On one show, I used to dress up like a waitress to blend in while the cameras were rolling as I walked around handing out champagne and strongly suggesting to various cast members what they should say and do next — wink!

Often, I would conduct an interview with a naive interviewee and get them to make wild statements (that would be edited into something different later) and do the most absurd things that they’d never live down, like rap about how much they loved someone, just to be acknowledged as a “good producer” by my boss, who would be watching on a monitor in another room.

That was often the measure of a “good” job.

I would drive around sitting in the backseat of a limo with a heartbroken rejected cast member and my cameraman for hours if that’s how long it took to get them to cry about leaving. The me today would be like, Fuck this! You’re so much better than this. Here’s the number for my therapist.

As the years went by, though, suicide rates of reality TV contestants soared, and I became hyper aware of how one interaction, even the smallest hello, could have an impact — good or bad — on someone else’s life and my own. Manipulating people for television ratings was quickly becoming not my thing.

I realized I had been so busy producing other realities that I had forgotten my own. I had no clue about the importance of work-life balance, mental health, setting boundaries, having sovereignty over my time, and nurturing the most important relationships in my own life. I had given all that up for many years.

When the job called, I went…and often left a mess behind me.

Reality TV and I Go Our Separate Ways

Then the seven-year itch happened (more like 10-year), and I started to move away from those house reality-type shows and work on ones that seemed to be more positive in scope.

I thought about the mark I wanted to leave on the world, how I wanted to interact with it, and the souls I shared it with. I came to care deeply about every single interaction and every second I was producing. I saw how those moments had an energy and life all on their own.

We decided to separate, reality TV and me.

I thought with time and space I could pivot and start creating my own shows that I’d feel much better about. I sold my first show that was hopeful and feel-good with a positive message. It was a down-home, full of love, adrenaline- and adventure-pumping hour.

It BOMBED!

Melinda Cea and camera operator film on a boat in the bayou of Louisiana for the show Food Explorer
Filming my show Food Explorer in Louisiana

But there was nothing like seeing my own idea come to life and bonding with people who changed my life for the better. That is the sweet center in the sour of this business.

However, getting to that finished product was a very similar experience to many shows in my past: Do it as fast as you can, with as little money as possible; work around the clock, and don’t even think about a sick day. These are the concessions you make for the “dream job.”

I started to wonder why my success had to be dependent on the approval of a self-serving corporation that cared so little about my overall health. For the first time, I felt like a cog in a wheel. It may have been my own television show, but I had no control over the culture as a whole and that reality was tough to accept.

Working myself to the bone, turning my life upside down for a culture that was wearing on me and my integrity quickly became a reality I didn’t want to be in.

Sure, there is a producers guild. But there is NO protection for reality TV producers: no overtime, time-and-a-half, meal penalties (payment in exchange for a missed meal break), turn-around time, or sixth- or seventh-day pay. And rarely is the food healthy or the lunch an actual sit-down. I once stayed in a house with four other producers because hotels were limited, and we were expected to buy our own toilet paper.

This is a culture where you are always replaceable, and if you let it, it will run you into the ground for the bottom line.

Questioning My Own Reality

If the business of reality TV wasn’t going to change, I knew I had to. If I was part of the problem, then I could also be part of the solution. Instead of just working in the business, I became one and created my own culture.

I learned how to set — and hold — boundaries and how to ask the right questions before taking a job. Once I realized that the right questions for me had nothing to do with my title and rate, it was a total paradigm shift. I came to know a very different reality, one filled with empowerment, passion, purpose, peace, and easy-to-hand-out No thank yous.

(Read my blog about my spiritual journey to learn how I reached this new reality.)

The quality of my life and my marriage with reality TV drastically improved once I knew how to properly vet a job to see if it aligned with my overall value system — period. And we got back together.

What Is Your Reality?

Whether you’re producing a show or your life, remember that where and how you direct your time and energy has more of an impact than you can imagine.

You have to get clear on what you value most. These values are where the real dividends come into play.

Once you get clear on how you want to make people feel and what you value most — what your calling is — I promise it’ll never be easier to walk away from a reality you don’t want to create the one you do.

It’s a process, though. Every step of that process is perfectly timed, so be patient with yourself.

What does experiencing your reality today feel like? I hope it’s epically real.

If it’s not, here’s the solution — YOU!

xo melinda

Melinda Cea takes call on her cell while sitting on bench in front of large painting of colored hearts on white canvas
“A true love story never ends.” Making film and television will always be my first love!