Reality TV's Growing Pains: What Will It Take to Find The Next Big Hit?
Phil Robertson | Photo Credits: Karolina Wojtasik/A&E
It's time for a reality-TV reality check. Even top executives and producers admit that the genre has become tired — an overload of singing battles, food challenges, screaming housewives and dating competitions. "We've been in a huge reality drought," says Greg Goldman, the new president of Studio Lambert USA, which produces Undercover Boss.
The broadcast networks continue to coast on the enduring success of veteran franchises like Survivor, but they're not minting many new hits. In cable, the success of docuseries like the Real Housewives franchise and Love & Hip Hop has led to a glut of such shows.
But a shake-up may finally be on the way. CBS recently named a new head of reality TV, Chris Castallo, while Fox is looking to fill the top job in its alternative department (which infamous reality kingpin Mike Darnell vacated at the end of July). There's also a new head of unscripted TV at AMC, while TruTV and A&E, both big reality networks, have new bosses.
On the production side, companies such as FremantleMedia North America (American Idol), A. Smith and Co. (Hell's Kitchen) and Studio Lambert have also undergone management changes or brought in new execs. Other outfits, including Thinkfactory Media (Gene Simmons' Family Jewels) and Gurney Productions (Duck Dynasty), have sold controlling stakes in their companies to larger conglomerates.
Reality insiders hope all of that fresh blood will naturally spur an overdue genre shakeup. "This is the great opportunity time, when something comes along and lights it back up again," says Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly.
The appetite is there, particularly as new cable channels like Esquire Network, Pivot and a rebranded TVGN look for fresh programming to define their brand, and major cable networks like USA and TNT aim for their first reality smashes. And it's only a matter of time before streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, both of which have begun creating original content, make a play in the unscripted world. Says Goldman: "We need to step up our game in a huge way." Here are four ideas how to do that.
Unleash the outrageous
During the early days of reality TV's 21st-century renaissance, big, loud, obnoxious shows like Fox's Joe Millionaire were huge hits. Those shows were quick burns (The Next Joe Millionaire flopped), but they briefly ignited a passion among viewers and brought crowds to the TV screen. "What all those shows had was this unpredictability, that anything could happen," Goldman says. "Viewers were craving it because the comedies and dramas at that point were so staid and predictable. When these reality shows first hit, it was raw human emotion. People were fascinated by it."
As TV entered a new Golden Age of Drama, reality began to feel tired — and, ironically, too scripted. "Most of what's on the air right now is predictable stuff," Goldman says. "You know what's going to happen. You know what the cliché sound bites are going to be. How do you get back to creating a format that's going to be so distinct, loud and different that people will find it?"
Viewers are still hungry for that kind of communal, raw unscripted experience. Witness the buzz surrounding Discovery Channel's recent live coverage of Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk across a gorge near the Grand Canyon. "We're in the second decade of big reality on network TV," says Paul Telegdy, NBC's president of alternative and late-night programming. "The challenge is to come up with content that is either tonally different or try to tell different stories."
There's hope for a return to the kind of showmanship that was a hallmark of reality TV's infancy: Darnell, the executive behind much of that loud early fare (Temptation Island, Man Vs. Beast), is now producing at Warner Bros. TV, where he's expected to resume his outlandish ways.
Back at Fox, Darnell's replacement will also want to quickly put their own stamp on the network — perhaps ushering in a new era of outlandish reality TV at the network that once dominated the space. At least Fox's next reality chief won't be distracted by American Idol and The X-Factor (both of which are now overseen by veteran Fox exec David Hill). Rumored frontrunners for the Fox job include National Geographic Channel's Howard T. Owens, RelativityReal's Tom Forman and former NBC alternative series executive vice president Craig Plestis.
Make room for newcomers
"There's no shelf space," says All3Media America president Eli Holzman. Successful shows like Survivor, American Idol and Dancing With the Stars are still hits, but they've been hogging airtime for close to a decade, leaving little room for new shows. "It's been tough to crack a new format," says FremantleMedia North America CEO Thom Beers, who previously ran his own company (which produced Deadliest Catch). "Look at the ratings of, say, The Amazing Race. It's still kicking some serious butt."
But as some reality staples decline, it might be time to give them a rest. Already, ABC has canceled its DWTS results show and may consider not airing the dance competition at all in the spring. Beers believes there's still room on the networks for "two or three big swings every year. People are looking for something unique and different." Patience is key: Witness the steady rise of ABC's Shark Tank. "The good stuff rises, stays on the air and finds an audience," says Bunim-Murray Productions co-founder Jonathan Murray.
Develop more homegrown formats
The networks traditionally look overseas for ideas: Survivor, American Idol and The Voice are all based on shows that originated in Europe. But executives and producers now admit that that well is running dry. "We have to get back to creating some new ideas ourselves," Reilly says. "We'll still buy formats, but it got a little too predictable."
Murray says he doesn't "see anything in Europe working right now." But he says creating an in-house format presents its own economic challenges, as networks usually demand a piece of ownership in an original show. "They're going to say, 'If we're going to make this a hit, we want to own it.' Like a painter with a canvas, our canvas is provided by the network so we have no choice."
Resist the urge to copy Duck Dynasty
The reality comedy, which stars Louisiana-based duck call moguls the Robertson family, broke cable viewership records on Aug. 14 with 11.8 million total viewers — making it the most-watched unscripted series telecast in cable history. The temptation to find another quirky family with long beards is there, but A&E general manager and executive vice president David McKillop warns that it's tough to duplicate the Robertsons' authenticity. (Discovery's new Porter Ridge, from the producers of Duck Dynasty, premiered Aug. 13 with just 1.4 million viewers.)
"They broke the mold when they made the Robertsons," McKillop says. "It's not like Pawn Stars, where you could take the format and copy it 13 times. This is a family show with one family."
Those copycat ideas like the multiple pawnshop and storage-unit shows are what helped bring about this current reality malaise. "The 'me too' formats are not going to work [in the future]," Reilly says.
Bring back the limited-run event
The modern reality explosion really began in 1999 with the Regis Philbin-hosted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which started as a multinight summer event. NBC hopes to recapture some of that magic with The Million Second Quiz, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, which will air for 10 nights over the course of 12 days starting Sept. 9. "This is the most ambitious thing we've ever sold," says Holzman, whose All3Media is producing the show. NBC will also again air The Sing-Off as a limited run during the winter holidays.
Goldman says a tentpole event, perhaps one like The Million Second Quiz, may be the answer to refreshing the genre. "There needs to be a massive blowout hit that will reignite everybody to think it's possible again," he says. "I think half of the people in the TV community don't even think it's possible. They're resigned to diminishing returns at this point. But the other half are incredibly charged and excited. You want to create the huge, epic thing that everybody's talking about. That's what gets me going in the morning."
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