Reality Power: The Declining Clout of the Broadcast Unscripted Chief

Dieter Braun

Big gambles (and big failures) have led to more turnover in the executive ranks, leaving posts vacant for months on end: "It isn't a thankless job; it's a tough job. … You've really got to knock it out of the park every single time."

This story first appeared in the April 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Reality TV could use an Empire. Up until January, the genre was in good company, with scripted programming also lacking out-of-the-ballpark hits. But the unprecedented ascension of Fox's hip-hop drama has proved to be an eye-opener to sellers and buyers: Viewers still will schedule appointment TV — in droves — for the right series. Now the most pressing concern, at least at the broadcast networks, is who's going to crack that code for unscripted.

View The Hollywood Reporter's Reality TV Power List: The 30 Most Powerful Sellers of 2015

Since The Voice breathed new life into shiny floor shows in 2011, none of the Big Four has come close to duplicating its success. That's evidenced by the varyingly stable old guard (Survivor, Dancing With the Stars, American Idol) dominating the schedule — and the continued turnover among top reality execs. Only NBC's Paul Telegdy, whose singing competition has pushed his network to No. 1, has been at the same job for more than a year and a half. The latest exits, ABC's Lisa Berger and Fox's Simon Andreae, followed big swings and misses, Rising Star and Utopia. It was Fox that risked the most when the $50 million Utopia languished out of the gate, pulling in barely more than a million viewers by the time it was quietly euthanized after two months. ("It probably would have been safer to not make it my first big entree," Andreae joked at the time.)

Says one top unscripted agent: "Buyers aren't buying much because everything feels derivative … even Utopia was Temptation Island. A lot of these shows dance in the same area, partly because networks aren't seeing a lot of fresh ideas from our clients."

Everyone in the reality ecosystem acknowledges the paucity of new developments, but no one is ready to concede that the relatively young genre already may have exhausted original concepts — though that's certainly the fear. But no matter where the new (or not-so-new) shows are coming from, the power of the broad­cast reality exec to move them through the pipeline isn't what it used to be.

Gone are the days when guys like Mike Darnell, Fox's former reality czar turned Warner Bros. exec, had carte blanche to order something like plastic surgery competition The Swan or dating show Joe Millionaire to see what might have staying power. One formidable reality producer laments how he recently had to wait several weeks to hear back on a pitch because the reality exec, whose office was just 25 feet from the network chief, was unable to get an audience with the boss.

"It isn't a thankless job; it's a tough job," says producer Craig Piligian, CEO of Pilgrim Studios. "There is limited real estate in network TV, and shows are generally more expensive and produced on a larger scale. That's why there's a very small margin of error. Broadcast reality can reap huge rewards, but you've really got to knock it out of the park every single time. Working under that pressure has got to be draining."

At most networks, the top reality role increasingly is about maintaining current programming. And the reluctance to sign up for that gig has made for longer searches, leaving posts open for more than six months in some instances. "They made a lot of offers on those jobs, and a lot of people turned them down," says another unscripted agent of recently filled vacancies at Fox and ABC. "It's a rough time in the marketplace — shows aren't rating in network or cable."

Still, there are signs of hope. Most expect at least one of 2015's game shows — Fox has import Boom! and the revival of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, and ABC will premiere 500 Questions, blessed by the golden touch of Mark Burnett — to break through. And it's hardly a bad time to be a seller. Following a year that saw the nine-figure company sales of Magical Elves, Eyeworks Group, All3Media and Leftfield Entertainment, Voice creator John de Mol just unloaded his Talpa Media to ITV in a deal that could end up worth up to $1.2 billion.

Reality producers — from the big conglomerates (the newly formed Endemol Shine North America) to the smaller powerhouses such as RuPaul's Drag Race creators World of Wonder — will be the ones to ultimately find the next big thing. So for the 2015 iteration of THR's Reality Power List, editors again focused on sellers and the moves this increasingly cross-pollinating group has been making.

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