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MTV's Catfish: Burning Questions Answered

With the Feb. 18 season finale of MTV’s hit ”Catfish: The TV Show” approaching, EW asked exec producer Tom Forman to explain what it takes to track down and expose those slippery online-only significant others.

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How do you find the people who suspect their online boyfriend/girlfriend is hiding something?

After Catfish the documentary, [host] Nev [Schulman] got overwhelmed with emails from people who said, ”I think I’m in the same situation.” So a lot of casting was reaching out to those people. We also reached out through online boards and Facebook.

Did you say, ”We’re looking for people in fake relationships”?

We went broader than that. It was ”If you are in a relationship and you haven’t met that person, we’d like to talk to you about appearing on television.”

These are tech-savvy people who use Facebook and Skype. Why can’t they figure out how to do an image search?

It’s easy for me as a married guy with kids to say this looks crazy. For the 23-year-olds living it — who often know their online friends better than their real-life friends — the idea that you would meet someone online and have a meaningful relationship just is not as strange.

How do you ensure that people aren’t making up their stories?

We have erected a complicated Chinese wall between the [production] office in L.A. and the team that’s out in the field. The office team tracks the person down. There is a private investigator who conducts a background check, and a psychologist who does some testing. That’s when we turn Nev and [host] Max [Joseph] loose, give them a name, and they start their journey from scratch.

So when you see Nev Googling someone, that’s actually the first time he’s doing it?

Nev and Max know absolutely nothing. The crew that’s following them, the producers around them, the travel coordinator — none of those people know anything.

But there’s one episode where Nev calls the ”catfish” and the guy says, ”Is this a prank?”

Why would he sound so surprised if he’d already been briefed? In season 1, no one had seen the show. They’ve talked to a producer who says, ”We’re doing a show on online relationships; I’m going to need you to fill out a questionnaire.” And the next time they hear from us, it’s Nev saying, ”Can I come over with a camera crew?” I don’t think he believed we were really doing it!

Some of the ”catfish” are kids. Do you worry about their welfare after the show airs?

Part of our job is to worry. We have a therapist reach out to them afterward, and there are a lot of stories we don’t shoot. If somebody’s got real emotional issues, it would be irresponsible for us to shoot that.

But all of these people have emotional issues!

If you think that way, then presumably you’d think that way about anyone on The Real World or Big Brother. By reality TV standards, the people on Catfish are remarkably grounded.

Next season, people will have seen the show, so I assume there will have to be a much more rigorous vetting process.

Getting to the bottom of what’s going on takes a lot of people poring over the Internet late into the night. That’s only going to get harder in season 2. Will somebody try to ”catfish” us and get on the show just to be TV-famous? Probably. It’s our job to make sure it doesn’t happen.

What did you make of the Manti Te’o situation?

One thing you learn producing Catfish is that these stories are twistier than you can possibly imagine. I’m certain that whatever we think we know about Te’o is wrong.

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