Reality Survivors: Not Going Anywhere Soon

Why 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.

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 network.

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 Upfront Edition."

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 be suitable."

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' anymore."

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 flops.

"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

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito