American Greed opens its thirteenth season on CNBC tonight with a show I mixed. It got me thinking about the evolution of the show’s soundscape. Kurtis Productions started in 2007. Andrew and I have been working with the Chicago based team since 2012. At first listen, Greed seems straightforward, sonically. It’s a reality show exploring business cons and scams. The Emmy and Golden Globe award winner Stacy Keach narrates the story, sometimes lending his own wry sarcasm to the telling.
There are often archive bytes from TV news or police surveillance video, and sometimes a tapped phone call. These are all front and center sounds. But reality shows aren’t just real sounds. We add audio of all kinds to make the scenes real and each Greed episode more compelling. Over the years, the editors – and the audience – have become even more sophisticated. And the audio more complicated.
It’s true, the show follows a formula; the cold open teases us in, Act 1 gives us background on the people, places, and predicaments. From there the crime is told in an organic way with interviews of the victims, and investigating detectives, and journalists. The video editor provides us with as much Nat sound and ambience as possible, often including sound effects from their bins to help, like car pass-bys or planes landing. We fill in the rest. The surprise is how much filling is needed to help bring ‘reality’ to life. Our first mix session for this season’s premiere was one of our smaller ones with just 71 channels. 30 of those dedicated to SFX.
While some Greed cons are white collar crimes, some are more violent crimes. Kurtis Production’s team always includes some re-creation sequences. We try to match the tone with our sound design. There are the usual layers of foley (gunshots, door slams, running footsteps), added ambiences (crowds and traffic). Often, we add more abstract drones, sweeps, and ‘music’ design elements – filtering sound with delays and added subtones. Throughout 43 min show, there’s nearly continuous music. These mixes are dense and yet, somehow they have to seem ‘real.’
170 episodes, 3 specials, and a number of spinoffs later (American Greed: The Fugitive, and American Greed: Deadly Rich), it’s clear there’s an audience and enough con artists and scammers to keep on going. As Bill Kurtis said after the series passed 100 episodes, “For us, greed has been good.”**
So yes. Though it’s not easy being Greed, 13 is a lucky number.