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Behind The Scenes of Reality TV with Special Collections

Guest Posts, University Archives

Alexander Rodriguez, undergraduate student from the University of Chicago, takes a look at records from a reality TV show filmed at the University of Houston.

Screenshot from "Freshmen On Campus".

Still from Freshmen On Campus end credits, showing the five students and series iconography (UH Marketing and Communications, University of Houston Special Collections)

During the 2005 spring term, amongst our Cougar ranks walked five TV stars- well, reality TV stars, at least. As part of an acquisition from the University of Houston’s Division of Marketing and Communications, Special Collections has obtained archival materials relating to a reality TV show called Freshmen On Campus. Filmed by Princess Productions in 2005, the program follows five British students as they study at the University of Houston for a few weeks. Aside from the requisite teen drama, the show provides glimpses of American university life for viewers back in Britain, such as a fraternity pledge ceremony. The stars also check out things to do near Houston, visiting Galveston Beach and the Texas Prison Museum, excursions a UH student could reasonably make. Through participation in the show, these five get a taste of the University of Houston and experience college life in America. The university has tapes for Episodes 11 through 15 in the collection.

Scan of an email.

From a producer’s email, detailing the planning for the show (UH Marketing and Communications, University of Houston Special Collections)

However, equally exciting are the paper records that accompany the series in the archives. Consisting mostly of correspondence between the production company and the UH administration, these records depict all the planning and permissions needed to make the program happen. The documents include a wealth of information related to the logistics of filming a television series, from crew housing to food costs- even including the parking tickets issued to some of the filming crew for overrunning their parking meters. Reading through emails to UH staff, a sales pitch emerges: producers suggest that the show will put the University of Houston into the awareness of British teens and convince those looking to study in America to choose Houston. (Apparently, it also used to be normal for academic professionals to email each other in all lowercase.)

Viewing the finished episodes alongside the artifacts of its production provides a deeper understanding of the show and the medium in general. By seeing the presented product as well as the private effort that came before, archival research allows us to get past the surface and build a picture of what the experience was like for everyone involved. Reality TV is infamous for the ways it hides the real means of its creation, and in the early 2000s, the format was still unironically claiming to document real life. Now, in an era where we think more critically about reality TV shows and their real-world effects on people, it is fascinating to look back in time and get a peek behind the scenes of one such show that took the format away from Beverly Hills to a place more of us are familiar with.

The videotapes of the episodes, as well as the paper documents, are both in the UH Marketing and Communication Records at Special Collections.