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If you’re looking to make a killing in television, unscripted might not be your thing. Margins are tight, huge hits can be infrequent and accolades are often rare. But now, for the first time in several years, a new wave of optimism is sweeping over the reality TV business. More buyers are in the marketplace as streaming services start bulking up on alternative fare. “In terms of the demand for unscripted and nonfiction reality, you can feel it,” says Tinopolis U.S. chairman and A. Smith & Co. Prods. CEO Arthur Smith. “More money is being spent on unscripted programming this year than any other year in history.”  Recent hits have injected fresh energy into the business, with shows like “The Masked Singer” and “Live PD” not only being massive draws but also inspiring more risk-taking. Even A-list stars are diving into reality, giving the entire genre more of a shine.

“We’re totally living in a golden age of unscripted content,” says All3Media America CEO Tim Pastore, whose company is behind series such as CBS’ “Undercover Boss” and CNN’s Emmy-winning “United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell.” “And I don’t think it’s going to hit the ceiling anytime soon.” Adds Sharon Levy, president of unscripted and scripted at Endemol Shine North America: “If you’re someone who can innovate and are a great storyteller, you will have no shortage of places to do this in.”

That’s a far cry from just three years ago, when Variety checked in with reality producers and found that angst and fear had swept in. At that point, the streamers hadn’t yet fully committed to unscripted projects the way they had dramas and comedies, and it had been a few years since the last breakout reality hit. Success stories like “Duck Dynasty” were starting to collapse, and the supersaturation of overly produced docu-series of the “Real Housewives” variety had made the whole genre feel stale. “A lot of people, little companies, didn’t survive that period,” says Industrial Media CEO and Intellectual Property Corp. CEO Eli Holzman.

Meanwhile, on the financial side, producers hadn’t yet adjusted to the reality of tightened budgets and an ownership squeeze, as buyers looked to own and control more of their own shows. 

Jonathan Van Ness leads cheers on Netflix’s “Queer Eye” (clockwise from top); Deputy Nick Carmack of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in Florida patrols with K9 Shep on A&E’s ”Live PD”; Nick Cannon goes bananas on Fox’s “The Masked Singer.”
Courtesy of Netflix/A&E/Fox

“You saw this kind of malaise — it was like the end of disco,” says Rob Eric, chief creative officer at Scout Prods. (“Queer Eye”). 

Streaming started slowly dipping its toes in the reality waters in the mid-2010s with high-end documentary series such as Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” But eventually it started programming shows that looked a lot more like traditional cable, such as a revival of “Queer Eye” and the comedic baking competition “Nailed It.” No one’s done a definitive count of the number of original unscripted series currently on television, but many estimates put it close to 2,000 (compared with 532 scripted original series in 2019, per FX Research). And that number might still be low.

“We watched a real learning curve and growth curve at Netflix and Amazon as they came online,” Holzman says. “But a few years in, they’re doing great and they’re great places to do business with. These streamers have direct access to their viewing data in a way that network programmers never had before. As a result, they change quick. Netflix set an interesting pace that I think the town has been getting used to in terms of their buying habits. They’re watching what’s working, and they’re pivoting constantly.”

CBS alternative programming senior VP Sharon Vuong says she’s struck by how competitive the marketplace has suddenly become. “It used to be the four networks and some great cable networks, and now the producers are developing for multiple platforms and streamers, things like Quibi and TikTok.”

Adds Bunim/Murray chairman-CEO Gil Goldschein: “Competition in the marketplace has really forced some of the more traditional players to take more risks today than they were a few years ago.”

This new boom reminds some long-timers of the early 2000s, when modern-day reality TV really took off. Back then, it seemed like a bit of the Wild West, as networks attempted to outdo each other with outlandish shows — and a good number of them became hits. 

The success of series like “The Masked Singer” has brought some of that early swagger back to the reality business, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Executive producer Craig Plestis says it was “scary” pitching “The Masked Singer.” “It’s still hard to convince every buyer to try something different,” he explains. “I’m going to put these celebrities in these wacky outfits, and no one’s going to know who they are? But when you do take these swings, it can work big time. The great thing about ‘Masked Singer’ is it did open the door up for not only Fox but all the networks and streamers to look at reality content a little differently — and not rely on just doing another version of ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Voice.’”

Even execs at rival networks have hailed the popularity of “The Masked Singer” as a boon for the biz. “No one’s not happy for its success,” says ABC senior VP of alternative, specials and late-night Rob Mills. “You’re seeing more swings now. It’s really exciting.” 

“Netflix set an interesting pace that I think the town has been getting used to in terms of their buying habits. They’re watching what’s working, and they’re pivoting constantly.”
Eli Holzman, Industrial Media and Intellectual Property Corp.

But with so much content out there, the reality world is also stealing a page from scripted’s reboot mania and dusting off plenty of old intellectual property. Recent remakes have included new versions of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on HGTV, “The Biggest Loser” and “Temptation Island” on USA, and “Punk’d” and “Singled Out” for Quibi.

“It certainly does help you crack through when you’re trying to launch a new show and you have title recognition,” says Heather Olander, senior VP of alternative series for USA Network and Syfy. “The tricky part is the number of titles you can reboot. I don’t think there’s as big an unscripted library to go back and look at. It still has to have some kind of relevance and connectivity to 2020.”

ITV America CEO David George calls known IP “the most valuable commodity in all of media. … There’s nothing harder than breaking new IP. It’s so difficult because there is so much content.” 

A big star can help. While reality was perhaps once seen as beneath A-list talent, now they’re diving right in. Jamie Foxx on “Beat Shazam,” Will Arnett on “Lego Masters,” Dwayne Johnson on “The Titan Games” and Ellen DeGeneres (who has several shows) are all wearing dual caps as hosts and executive producers. “I don’t think every project needs to have an A-lister attached,” Smith says. “But sometimes it’s essential to have them.”

Coming to the table with top-tier talent or a known, well-tested franchise can help a reality producer maintain some clout in negotiations. The increase in buyers has also given producers more leverage. “We’ve already started seeing deal terms change with the streamers because Netflix is no longer the only game in town,” George says.

But for the most part, sellers are still adjusting to a marketplace where back-end profits are shrinking and it’s tougher to maintain ownership. Streamers often buy up global rights to a show, limiting the ability to make money by selling a format to multiple territories. And networks like NBC and Fox have launched in-house unscripted production arms, which allow them more oversight and control of the shows on their schedule (one reason Fox brought “The Masked Singer” in-house). But it means independent producers must now compete with those units.

“I don’t think it’s tougher; I think it’s damn near impossible,” Holzman says of holding on to ownership. “And I think it’s bad for the ecosystem. When these companies come along, hellbent on owning everything and very reluctant to part with a penny or to reward the people helping make the success, it makes it very difficult for an independent business to thrive and flourish.”

Producers are also seeing their fee — usually at 10% — reduced as networks force them to split that money with the A-list star they’ve partnered with. “That fee was sacrosanct, and it was understood that you pay your entire company out of it,” Holzman says. “And the network would be grateful to have an A-list star involved and happily pay their non-writing EP fee. Today, the networks are very reluctant to pay those people, and instead they say, ‘Split your fee with them.’ They don’t pay Ryan Murphy less money when a movie star appears in one of his shows. I’m not sure why the same wouldn’t be true for nonfiction.”

Says George: “The people that you’re not going to want to work with are going to be people clinging to a business model that’s no longer relevant. Deal terms that are so unfavorable that you would prefer not to sell your idea to them. I’m not going to name names, but I think business models are going to have to continue to adapt.”

Many producers were taken aback when Discovery began asking them to borrow money from Citibank to fund their projects rather than paying for the production up front. Discovery pays the loan back upon delivery, but initially it wouldn’t cover Citibank’s loan fees. After an intervention by Npact, the industry organization made up of reality producers, Discovery agreed to reimburse that fee as well. Producers say they support Discovery finding a way to maintain a healthy cash flow — as long as it doesn’t come at their expense.

The sheer volume of content has also made it tougher to staff some of these shows. “We’re seeing at the moment a war for talent with respect to producers and behind-the-camera talent such as cinematographers, editors, all of the above,” Pastore says. “And as most platforms start to build internal studios, we’re seeing an increase in overall deals again being made in the unscripted space — deals you would have traditionally seen in the scripted genres.”

Producers are making up for some of these shortcomings by focusing on volume while still holding on to rights when they can. And truly entrepreneurial producers are looking at other ways to leverage brands and IP. Reality veteran Brent Montgomery says he launched his shingle Wheelhouse to build businesses out of his shows — inspired by examples such as how “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines have grown their Magnolia empire, and “Cake Boss” turned Carlo’s Bakery into a huge operation.  

“The cost of programming has gone up, and the ad sales revenue has gone down,” Montgomery says, “so for us, participating in the money we’re bringing in through big brands or the actual businesses we’re building with our talent partners is the big win.”

Montgomery adds that although he recognizes the challenges and the high bar for success in unscripted, he can’t help being energized by the current marketplace: “As far as opportunity and players in the space, it’s unrivaled in the history of unscripted. As far as breaking through, it’s harder in most respects than it ever has been.”

Like Montgomery, Industrial Media’s Holzman has his reservations about the business but is excited by the possibilities. “There are buyers for your outlandish ideas. There are buyers for your more traditional ideas,” he says. “If you want to make a show that’s a hybrid between nonfiction and fiction, I can tell you a number of places interested in that. You want to play around with running times? There’s a whole platform dedicated to short form. It’s booming out there. There’s a big, surging swell of commissioning surf. And if you’ve got a good production company, that’s your surfboard and you should be riding it.” 

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