Diversity and Destiny

Reality TV as an art form

By:
Tim Vanderpool, Chris Richards photo
Suzanne Rauscher
Cats in the Corner Office webinar with Suzanne Rauscher, left, hosted by UA Alumni Association President Melinda Burke. The UAAA offers quarterly career interviews with successful alumni who share their career journeys.

It’s not surprising that Suzanne Rauscher’s most enduring University of Arizona memories come from the sheer variety of people she met on campus. Especially since her favorite thing about being a top-flight reality television producer — “Big Brother,” “The Last Resort,” “Toddlers in Tiaras” — is the fascinating cross-cut of humanity she encounters on the job.

Over more than 25 years in the business, she’s gotten up close and personal with child beauty pageant contestants (“Tiaras”), remarkably fertile families (“Sweet Home Sextuplets”) and modern-day homesteaders (“Alaska: The Last Frontier”). Each has an intriguing story to tell. 

“I’ve always had an interest in people who are not like me,” says Rauscher, a Phoenix native now based in Los Angeles. “I want to understand everyone, from the polygamist to the serial killer.” She stoked that passion (minus polygamists and serial killers) at the UA, where she graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s in media arts and a minor in psychology. 

“I was in awe of how many people there were — in the diversity and all the programs and interests that they had,” she says. “They really opened up the world for me.”

After college, she worked in public relations in Phoenix. Then a chance connection landed her a production assistant gig in Los Angeles on the hit show “Cybill.” She later helped create promos for “The Roseanne Show,” “The Martin Short Show” and “Hollywood Squares.”

But Rauscher truly hit her stride in producing a reality segment for Comedy Central’s “Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush.” “Scripted programs are all about the writing,” she says, “and that part of it didn’t appeal to me. There was something about a real person that appealed to me more.”

It also offered an alternative to traditional TV, she says, where in the late 1990s good jobs were scarce. “But reality television was booming. Shows were looking for people who had even a little bit of experience. So I got lucky in the timing.”

Since then, Rauscher has come to believe that the craft behind reality shows is too often underappreciated. “People think you just throw up a camera and shoot some people and it’s interesting,” she says. “But there’s actually a very large team of many producers and directors and story editors who cut up the footage into a concise story. There’s definitely an art form to it, and people who can craft the footage are really highly sought-after.”

In a sense, these television series are almost anthropological in the stories they tell, she says. “I’ve worked mainly in last decade with TLC, and we follow a lot of different subcultures that people don’t know about — polygamists and homesteaders who live off the land, morbidly obese people and little people. They all have their own cultures, their own belief systems and their own ways of looking at the world.

“It’s amazing, because we’re obviously all human, but we’re also very, very different, and have so many different ideas and points of view. I think it has made me very nonjudgmental. I’ve learned to accept people for who they are, and what they are, and what they do. I try to be very open-minded all the time, because I’ve been let into their worlds. You find little bits and pieces of all of them that are unique and different — and, yes, probably kind of weird but also endearing 
and relatable.”

Qualities that are right at home on the UA campus? Absolutely.