Reality shows on cable, once looked at by advertisers as the ugly stepchild of broadcast primetime scripted programming, have become the darlings of national marketers, with networks such as Bravo, TLC, E! and VH1 rubbing their hands in anticipation of this year's upfront buying.
Shows like Bravo's Top Chef and its Real Housewives series, TLC's Cake Boss and Police Women series, VH1's Mob Wives, and E!'s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, just to name a few, are putting these networks in play for big time upfront ad dollars.
And the ad clients list is anything but second rate. While Fox's male-skewing reality show Cops is shied away from by some advertisers for its gritty content, TLC's Police Women of Broward County is loaded with advertisers wanting to reach its primarily female audience. Among Police Women advertisers are big TV spenders like Discover, Lowe's, Staples and Reebok.
Real Housewives' advertisers include Verizon, Sprint, Allstate, Macy's, Revlon, Hyndai and Ford. And the Mob Wives slate includes Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King, JCPenney, Geico, Outback, Jeep and Unilever, among others. And VH1's new series Saddle Ranch boasts AT&T, Kia, Chrysler, Starbuck's, Ralph Lauren, Verizon, Burger King and Gillette, among others.
"The debate over reality vs. scripted programming is long over," says Ethan Heftman, VP, director of national broadcast at Initiative. "You really can't say anymore that one is better than the other. They both can be valuable to advertisers."
Another media buyer, who did not want to speak for attribution, went as far as to say, "It is very likely in this upfront that you will see cable network reality shows getting higher cost per thousand increases than many broadcast primetime shows. Bravo, for example, is likely to do better than NBC [both owned by NBCUniversal] as far as primetime CPM increases go."
Why has reality programming gained parity with the long-running scripted genre shows, or in some instances even surpassed them in viewer popularity?
Heftman believes the shift is a reflection of today's society as a whole. "In 2011, we are a reality driven society with social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. People are all their own walking reality shows and that's the kind of TV content they are going to watch," he says.
Bravo had its best April ratings month in history, albeit on a smaller audience base than broadcast, but an impressive jump nonetheless. The network averaged 770,000 total viewers per night in primetime and 498,000 adults 18-49, up 13% over last year.
The network's flagship show, Top Chef, averaged 1.3 million viewers and 861,000 in the 18-49 demo, while Top Chef Masters produced viewer gains of 19% and an 18-49 gain of 26%.
Not to be outdone, VH1's premiere of Mob Wives last month drew 1.4 million, and an encore presentation immediately following drew another 800,000 for an opening night audience of 2.2 million in primetime, and a 1.5 rating among adults 18-34.
And its two companion shows, the new series Saddle Ranch and Audrina, both drew over 1 million viewers with their same-night combined premiere and encore shows.
These are numbers that are getting the attention of national advertisers across all product categories.
"Reality programming is accepted by advertisers and is here to stay," says Francois Lee, VP and activation director at MediaVest. "When we approach the upfront, every network is relevant to us. There is a lot of crossover by advertisers between broadcast and cable. All dollars are up for grabs. Reality is a genre that has allowed many cable networks to reinvent themselves. These shows generate conversation and the viewers have accepted them."
And while advertisers make no distinction between reality programming on broadcast networks and cable, the types of series are a bit different.
Most of the broadcast network reality shows are competition based, while cable reality is more docudrama. And even among cable networks, not all reality shows are the same. Some do have more of a comfort zone for advertisers, or lend themselves to specific categories or even to product integrations, and because each of the networks has so many different reality series during the course of a year, a lot of these integration deals need to be worked out during upfront negotiations. This can be a reason why some of the cable deals for the reality based networks take a bit longer to do than their scripted cable competitors.
And what message will the reality based cable networks be sending out to media buyers in the upfront buying season?
Susan Malfa, senior VP for national sales for Bravo and Oxygen, says Bravo will be stressing its programming themes of food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture. She adds that Bravo's core audience is adults 18-49 with a heavy female skew and an upscale income level. And she says while Bravo is still getting the bulk of its revenue from traditional commercials, "the amount of integrations that we are doing has been growing."
Among the new shows Bravo will be touting in the upfront is Platinum Hit, its version of a music competition show, starring former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, and Jewel. But unlike the broadcast network competition shows, this show will also go behind the scenes and follow the contestants' personal lives. Another new Bravo show, Rocco's Dinner Party, hosted by renowned chef Rocco Dispirito, is set to premiere in June.
Chris Ledwith, VP of ad sales at E!, says the network's flagship reality shows have been running in the 10-11 p.m. time period, where they have been dominant in the women 18-34 demo with shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim and Kourtney Take New York and Khloe & Lamar. The network will be premiering a new reality show on June 12, Ice Loves Coco, which will follow the lives of actor Ice -T and his wife.
"Our reality shows are about relationships that are relatable to viewers," Ledwith says. "They are about real people living [ordinary] lives, but those lives become extraordinary to our viewers."
Ledwith says that while the network offers more than 700 hours of original programming a year, and has some popular shows in non primetime hours such as Talk Soup and Chelsea Lately, he concedes that advertisers who do business with the network are seeking out reality show inventory first.
Ledwith believes an added bonus for advertisers is that because most of E!'s reality shows are about celebrities, many of them are mentioned by the show's stars in tweets and on Facebook. "Viewers and the show's stars use content from our network as social currency," he says.
While the Bravo audience is targeting 18-49, big city, upscale audiences, and E! is reaching out to 18-34 Hollywood interested viewers, TLC is aiming its reality programming at adults 25-54 from middle America.
A spokesperson for the network points out that, "in five of the seven nights a week, we are in the Top 10 among all cable networks in the women 25-54 demo." However, on Fridays, TLC's primetime lineup of Say Yes to The Dress, What Not to Wear and Cake Boss is No. 1 among women 18-34.
"TLC shows target Middle America, the Heartland, viewers living in the middle of the country, not necessarily on the coasts," the spokesperson says, adding that most of the advertisers in the network's reality shows are hawking products aimed at family needs.
TLC's new show Extreme Couponing has been placing third among cable networks on Wednesday nights among women 18-34 and has averaged 2.2 million viewers with its weekly episodes.
Until recently, VH1 has been airing more urban and younger targeted reality with shows such as Basketball Wives, Brandi and Ray J: A Family Business, What Chilli Wants, Mario Lopez: Saved by the Baby and Love and Hip Hop.
But with its latest crop of reality shows-Mob Wives, Saddle Ranch and Audrina-VH1 is proving that you can still target a younger audience while also bringing in an older and broader-range audience.
Media buyers say that because of the vast choices of reality programming on cable, upfront buying is no longer a simple task. "We do audits for each client by content, ratings, demos and possibilities for integrations," one media buyer says. "It is a detailed and time consuming process."
But one thing dichotomy seems assured: Despite the mass amount of different reality series on cable, there doesn't seem to be an issue with over saturation. So each network is going to earn a decent share of the ad dollar pie in the upcoming upfront, and at increasing prices, the numbers could surprise even the network execs themselves.