Reality Survivors: Not Going Anywhere SoonWhy are so few new unscripted shows touted at the upfronts? Because many advertisers are still skittish about the genre, and the broadcast networks' top franchises refuse to die. 4/25/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
This upfront season, expect to see the broadcast networks
highlighting their expensive new comedies and dramas as usual, with new
unscripted fare taking its customary back seat. But perhaps more than ever,
that equation just doesn't add up as the relatively cheap world of reality
programming only grows in importance every year. However, that doesn't mean
Madison Avenue is buying in. Especially in May, and especially to concepts with
which they aren't familiar.
"For the upfront process, the media buyers still seem to prefer scripted
content on broadcast in terms of what they'll value it as," says Ben Silverman, CEO of Electus and former co-chairman of
NBC Entertainment, who recently sold unscripted project Fashion Star to his old
Buyers say the driving force behind that disconnect is that advertisers equate
quality with scripted programming, preferring to associate their brands with
something that has a story.
"They equate a higher value because there's a higher production cost to a
scripted show than a reality show," says Brad Adgate,
senior VP of research at Horizon Media.
Gary Carr, senior VP and executive director for national broadcast at
media agency TargetCast tcm, says that scripted in general draws better CPMs
than reality, but it does depend on the concept.
"American Idol, you throw the book out with that"" that gets high ratings and
high CPMs," Carr says. "There are reality shows
that get an audience, like Dancing With the Stars, and then there are
other dumb reality shows like Wipeout," that aren't as
valuable to advertisers.
In fact, that has led some to note that the "reality" genre itself is really a misnomer, as it represents such a wide
variety""and level of quality""of programming.
"It's not really accurate to even call this a single genre," Shari Anne Brill
and Steve Sternberg write in their report, "Primetime TV Insight: 2011
It's especially hard to get advertisers to buy into a new reality show, because
it's not clear at upfront time what the ! nal product will look like. The
notable exception this year is The X Factor, which boasts a proven
hitmaker in Simon Cowell, a known format with major international traction and
a ton of prelaunch buzz. But most new unscripted entries aren't so lucky.
"You get a push-back from advertisers," Adgate says. "They
don't really know what it is, [they think] sometimes the content may not
So that often causes some advertisers to take a waitand- see approach,
especially for fall unscripted launches.
"I think people err on the side of caution, and if you're worried about
it, you don't put your clients in there until you're sure that it's OK," says Amy Sotiridy, Initiative senior VP of national broadcast.
One of the biggest reasons reality doesn't get the upfront love is that simple,
powerful element that is so harmful to the television industry: inertia.
After experimenting more and more in recent years, the broadcast networks are
for the most part sticking with their traditional development cycles, even
though most execs admit it's a broken model. But as long as Madison Avenue
ponies up billions every spring, there is no impetus for change.
"I think that development is inefficient in general," says one
network reality chief. "If you compare it to any other manufacturing process,
it's a predesigned system for excess failure. It is inherently
inefficient. I think that reality has a better conversion ratio, but I think
that is extrinsic to the efficiencies of the process."
But the irony is reality programming is front and center in every network's
strategy. And it is also front and center when the final Nielsen ratings come
out at the end of every season, with unscripted an invaluable fallback when
something else on the schedule tanks.
"Alternative television is super-mainstream "the biggest shows on TV are
reality shows. The No. 1 franchise on ABC, NBC, Fox and The CW are reality
shows,"says Silverman. "You're seeing a lot more
equivalent interest from the networks, and it not being as much a reality 'ghetto'
On a recent Sunday, a crucial night for advertisers, four of the top
10-rated series with the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demo were reality
shows. American Idol, in its 10th season, continues to be a ratings juggernaut,
easily trouncing its competition after shifting back a night. This doesn't
sound like a genre from which advertisers should be ignoring new entrants.
"There used to be an argument that a more intelligent viewer watched scripted
shows like Grey's Anatomy than unscripted shows like Dancing With the Stars. Is
that really true?" says TargetCast's Carr. "I know a lot
of people who watch Dancing With the Stars. American Idol, everybody
watches that. It's got really broad appeal."
But unlike scripted development, which has clearly defined seasons for
pitching, developing, piloting and picking up series, reality development has,
by design, always operated outside the traditional development cycle. By
nomenclature, alternative programming is meant as an alternative to scripted,
heavily populating the summer months and midseason when there's a lack of
scripted originals, and being ready to go when a bigger-budget drama or comedy
"For good economic reasons, [the broadcast networks] must continue to launch
scripted shows that will have long-term downstream value," says the major broadcast-network reality chief. "That's still the
priority of a network like this. So you need things that will just be able to
pop on air without much song and dance or much of a launch."
The result is a development cycle that is truly yearround, with programming
that is often quicker to get on its feet than scripted fare. NBC bought the
format for The Voice, the upcoming vocal competition series premiering April
26, in November, making it an ambitious five-month production schedule from
negotiation to air.
"There are times of the year that it feels a little more robust than other
times, but it really is a 12-month business in terms of selling and developing," says Arthur Smith, CEO and founder of A. Smith & Co.
Productions, which produces Hell's Kitchen. "When you have a hot show, you don't
wait to take it out. If I develop something that's great and it's July 4, I'm
going to try and sell it on July 7, because it's one of those businesses where
when you're thinking of something, someone else is probably thinking of it."
And it's a development cycle that has found a much greater ratio of success
than that of scripted, operating outside of the confines of traditional
seasons. A recent report from Horizon Media showed the five broadcast networks
ordered 88 scripted pilots compared to 13 alternative programs in development;
the latter number will most certainly grow while the former will learn their
fate in May.
"That's the way we would like to see the business run," says
Silverman of how reality is developed and scheduled. "I think that the scripted
cycle is a bit archaic."
When networks do tout unscripted programming at upfront time, more often than
not it tends to be the massive franchises like American Idol, Dancing
With the Stars, The Biggest Loser and Survivor.
"For us it's just as important to put the creative power behind the enduring
brands as it is to develop new stuff," says another
broadcast-network reality chief.
And the success of shows like Survivor, American Idol and The Bachelor in
evolving over their long runs means it is harder for new shows to find prime
spots on the schedules unless something else falls apart.
"It's very hard to break in, and really there's no end in sight because the
shows reinvent themselves," says Smith. "The
dilemma is that there isn't a lot of real estate. There are not a lot of
opportunities, because the network reality tentpoles are so strong that
they're holding time periods. And they're only going to launch so many, because
they have a commitment to doing the other things that they do."
But network execs say that doesn't mean they are resting on their laurels.
"Even though schedules can be strong and networks can be stable, that
doesn't mean we're not looking and not fighting for new material," the exec adds.
Just don't expect to see too much of it on display on upfront stages this May
in New York. --with Jon Lafayette