U.S. Producers Find Their Own Reality


In the 1940s and 1950s, America pioneered the reality entertainment genre with groundbreaking broadcasts like Allen Funt's Candid Camera and competition shows like Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. In the 50 years that followed, reality grew bigger and bigger, yet America's role as an unscripted pioneer diminished.

Today, U.S. networks are dominated by overseas reality formats such as American Idol (U.K.), Dancing With the Stars (U.K.), Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (U.K.) and Big Brother (Netherlands). Their path to success was paved when CBS took a gamble on Endemol's Big Brother and Charlie Parsons' Survivor. The success of these foreign reality formats broke down the door, prompting other U.S. buyers to continue looking to Europe for unscripted inspiration.

It's easy to see why European formats were so attractive to U.S. buyers. Previous track records of success overseas helped mitigate risk. The fact networks were buying existing formats helped save development and pilot costs, and in some instances initial episodes of shows could even be shot on existing European sets to help further reduce production overheads.

These European shows were innovative, inventive and unique. They broke down existing TV boundaries and pushed the entertainment envelope, giving viewers a new experience. Game shows were also invigorated by European formats. It had been years since game shows had been broadcast in U.S. network primetime until Celador's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? broke through. Unscripted European fare also made its way into daytime programming with shows like TLC's Trading Spaces (U.K.) and Antiques Roadshow (U.K.) on PBS.

As European unscripted formats dominated network primetime, their success afforded U.S. producers opportunities in the cable space.

Networks like MTV, TLC and A&E allowed U.S. producers to develop formats of their own. Given the opportunity, American producers helped pioneer their own celebrity reality genre with shows like The Simple Life, Newlyweds and Tommy Lee Goes to College. Other networks also made their mark with reality shows based around professions, such as American Chopper, Project Runway, Miami Ink and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

This cable success proved that U.S. reality formats could work, and overseas buyers started to look beyond American scripted series, which had long dominated U.S. exports, to American unscripted programming. The overseas sales of The Anna Nicole Smith Show, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, The Bachelor and The Apprentice showed that despite the European invasion, America could still pioneer reality formats.

In years to come, more international boundaries will come tumbling down in the unscripted world. Hits like Idol and Big Brother demonstrate the power unscripted entertainment has to transcend territorial borders. And just as American viewers will be tuning in to more shows that originated in France, Germany or Japan, so, too, will overseas viewers tune into more American formats.

Producers must seize this opportunity and be sure to look overseas when developing unscripted concepts. Not only will they find buyers seeking innovative formats, but their search is also likely to turn up obscure formats that, when Americanized, become the next big hit.

I encourage U.S. producers to seek out partnerships with their European counterparts. These relationships offer tremendous opportunities to all involved; obscure formats can be exchanged, knowledge of countries' respective buyers shared and ideas can collide. This internationalization of production creates inspiration and encourages thinking outside the box, ultimately leading to more interesting and innovative programming.

In the 1990s, we were caught short by a European unscripted invasion that dominated U.S. network primetime. Now the stakes are even higher as the Web has created a global viewing platform in which everyone is starting from the bottom. If America is not producing cutting-edge programming, we will quickly fall behind, and the Web offers little to those in second place.

TV's evolution has shown that nationality means little in terms of viewing allegiance, and the Web will tear down what few barriers remain. Europe led the charge to the tube in the '90s, but today that tube is showing signs of fragility and the future of distribution may lie elsewhere.

Ironically, in the dawn of the new millennium we must follow the example of past U.S. producers like Funt and Godfrey. Shake up the status quo. Ignore the box. Experiment! These are the watchwords of good programming, American or foreign, 2.0 or otherwise, and if we don't heed them today, U.S. producers may encounter another invasion, one from which we cannot recover.