Reality TV's Next Frontier: Networks' Push to Own Shows

NBC and CBS are joining cable rivals in developing their own unscripted projects to avoid seeing the spoils of success go elsewhere.
NBC/Photofest
'Better Late Than Never'

The value of The Voice to NBC cannot be overstated. TV’s most popular reality show has made its network the most consistently top-rated on the dial, sparked an unscripted buying spree that the Big Four networks hadn’t seen since the early 2000s and continues to serve as the go-to launchpad for NBC’s most promising dramas, including fall breakout This Is Us. But much to NBC executives’ chagrin, The Voice, like most alternative programming from Big Brother to Dancing With the Stars, is a borrowed property.

Future hits may not present the same obstacle. Media companies increasingly are looking to own the unscripted series they air, much as they do the scripted ones. In fact, 2016 saw NBCUniversal and CBS Studios form their own alternative operations in an effort to get in on the selling side — improving profitability with streaming deals and international sales and often lowering the pressure to generate ratings in an era of waning linear tune-in. (In the best-case scenario, a successful format can generate hundreds of millions of dollars.)

“We’ve seen the business and economics on the other side, so we said, ‘Let’s double down and really invest in the content business,’ ” notes NBC Entertainment alternative group president Paul Telegdy, who already handed out series orders from his studio to a performance show from Jennifer Lopez (World of Dance), an entrepreneurial competition from Tyra Banks (Funded) and projects from LeBron James and Amy Poehler. "We had to take more control of the intellectual-property-creation process."

Adds Telegdy’s former NBC deputy, Universal Television Alternative Studio president Meredith Ahr, “Forming the studio allowed us to shift certain members of our team away from their current responsibilities and to focus on the creative.”

A quick look at the top reality franchises on broadcast shows that the networks, at the moment, have virtually zero ownership. American Ninja Warrior, The Bachelor, MasterChef and America's Got Talent all belong to outside studios and producers. Aside from younger NBC entries such as summer stand-out Better Late Than Never and perennial schedule spackle Hollywood Game Night, only CBS' Survivor and Amazing Race hail from in-house. (Both are co-productions.) 
 
New formats, however lofty that goal may be, are the priority for both Universal Television's and CBS TV Studios' new alternative departments. The latter tapped former network reality boss Ghen Maynard, the man who brought Survivor to CBS, after a conversation with longtime mentor Leslie Moonves about the network's desire to own more reality content. Ahr, who acknowledges how truly rare an exportable format hit is, says she's optimistic that her team's familiarity with network needs will aid in their quest. "We're solving problems before they even get to the network, thinking globally and about scaling from the beginning," says Ahr. "Let's set up these formats so they're not too expensive for multiple countries to produce."

NBCU and CBS by no means are alone.

Sources say 20th TV, which hasn’t launched a reality show since Paris Hilton’s 2003 docuseries The Simple Life, is open to finding its own alternative executive. Cable reality houses A&E and Discovery are creating in-house but to thus far modest results. And the industry’s current top spender, Netflix, recently tapped NBC alum Brandon Riegg to head an alternative division that is poised to expand beyond its current trio of execs. Some say Netflix’s push in part is a response to losing its library of Scripps shows — Food Network fare like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and HGTV binge bait such as Fixer Upper — at year’s end. Whatever the motivation, some believe the streamer soon will take things in-house as well.

But in that bid to land an increasingly elusive hit, network executives are not yet willing to turn away potential breakouts that come from unaffiliated studios such as Warner Bros. (The Voice) or Sony (Shark Tank) either. Even NBC, which is making the biggest charge, is still eagerly doing co-productions. As one reality agent acknowledges: "In the end, 90 percent of the stuff we do fails, [so] there's pressure on everyone."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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