Reality TV has been waiting for a new hit show to conquer the world. And waiting. And waiting.
The Voice, which launched in 2011, was the last blockbuster to follow the likes of Idol, Got Talent, Dancing With The Stars and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and become a global ratings phenomenon. Every year since, the people who make, and buy, reality TV gather in Cannes for the MIPTV market, hoping to find the next big thing in so-called non-scripted TV.
NBCUniversal's World of Dance, a dancing competition show featuring Jennifer Lopez, and Lionsgate's Candy Crush - a game show based on the hugely popular mobile videogame - are two of the most promising candidates for 2017. The Wall, the hit NBC game show also shows breakout promise. Endemol Shine, which is selling the format globally, just announced a commission with RTL in Germany to produce 7 episodes of the show for the local audience. But the buzz is nothing compared with years past, where the latest hot reality format was the talk of Cannes and multimillion-dollar deals quickly followed.
"Scripted series are the sexy thing right now. That's what everybody is talking about, because there's been a renaissance in TV drama," admits Phil Gurin, the veteran reality TV producer (Shark Tank) and the head of the newly created unscripted division at American film and TV production company IM Global. "You still have reality TV hits, but instead of selling to 120 countries, like Idol or The Voice, you sell to 10 to 15 countries."
"The [reality TV] business has actually grown in terms of revenue in the last five years, but instead of home runs like The Voice, you are getting a lot more singles and doubles," says Tim Crescenti of independent production house Small World. "I think a lot of time gets lost trying to find the next big thing."
Crescenti notes that Small World's Better Late Than Never, a non-scripted comedy that follows older celebrities on their "bucket list" adventures, was a ratings hit for NBC (which has renewed the show for a second season) and has been optioned for local adaptations in 17 countries.
"It's a solid success, and a good business, even if it isn't on the level of The Voice," he adds.
In fact, MIPTV is full of these reality TV "singles and doubles": shows like Red Arrow's Married at First Sight, All3Media's Gogglebox or Ninja Warrior for Japan's Dentsu. All are money makers, but none command the instant global recognition - or the millions in revenue - of previous reality juggernauts.
"Part of it is the audience has more choice now, with so many channels, including digital and on streaming services, which goes some way to explain why you aren't getting one or two formats going to everyone. It's more evenly shared now," says Nick Smith, svp of international format production at All3Media International. Smith argues that reality shows with a niche appeal are more in fashion now among channels with a smaller but more precisely defined audience.
Sneakers, one of All3Media's new shows at MIPTV, is a Pimp My Ride for sports shoes that targets sneaker heads the world round. A+E's new reality show Bride & Prejudice follows gay couples about to get married and their conflicts with their disapproving straight parents. The latter is also an example of what Smith sees as a new trend in reality TV toward "more socially responsible and life-improving shows. Gone are the days of reality TV being about horrible people fighting one another for our amusement."
One of the best of these new "socially responsible" reality shows is The Homeless Experiment, a format from Scandinavia's Nordic World that Banijay Rights acquired for the Netherlands and Belgium The show sees local celebrity live rough on the street, finding out firsthand what being homeless really means.
"It's done very well for us because it feels relevant," says Carlotta Rossi Spencer, head of global formats acquisitions at Banijay Rights. "That's what the reality TV business has become: you have to find what is socially relevant, and that can vary widely from country to country."
Spencer, however, warns not to write off reality TV just yet.
"Every time something is declared 'dead' in the TV business, it means something new is about to happen, and I think that's true when we talk about the death of reality TV," she says. She notes how both Amazon and Netflix are moving into non-scripted formats with the likes of The Grand Tour (Amazon) and Ultimate Beastmaster (Netflix).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon Studios head Roy Price said reality TV is one of the company's priorities, particularly in international markets. One of Amazon's most successful shows in Japan is local version of The Bachelor, a reality show in which women compete for the affections of an eligible single guy.
The economics, and more recently, the politics, of television drama could also work in reality TV's favor. The boom in drama series has driven up production costs as studios bid for the same limited pool of top acting and showrunner talent. While U.S. series on many international channels are drawing smaller audiences than ever before - as more eyeballs move to Netflix, Amazon and company - prices for the best American series keep going up. International broadcasters, seeing their profit margins squeezed, may begin to turn to more cost-effective reality shows.
Then there's the looming threat of a writer's strike. If Hollywood's Writers Guild and the AMPTP studio alliance aren't able to reach agreement on a new union deal for writers when talks resume on April 10, the new season of scripted shows could be in danger.
"If there's a strike, reality becomes a lot more appealing," says one major European buyer. "At least you know you'll have something to put on air."
April 4, 2017 9:43 am: Amended to correct reference to The Homeless Experiment. The original show was Scandinavian, not Dutch.
April 5, 2017 3:16 am: Amended to add details of the sale of The Wall to Germany.