What's Behind the Broadcast Reality Exec Purge? (Analysis)

5:00 AM PST 09/25/2013 by Lacey Rose
Illustration by: John Ueland

ABC's John Saade is the third out of four unscripted chiefs out as the network franchises age and desperation sets in for a new "Duck Dynasty"-size hit.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

On Sept. 20, it was ABC reality chief John Saade, not a Dancing With the Stars contestant, who was voted out.

In perhaps the most telling sign of the challenged state of the network reality business, Saade was the third of the Big Four's top unscripted executives to exit since May. He followed Fox's Mike Darnell (now at Warner Bros.) and CBS' Jennifer Bresnan (replaced by her No. 2, Chris Castallo), making NBC's Paul Telegdy the last man standing -- and, as The Voice Emmy winner Mark Burnett noted onstage Sept. 22, the singing competition saved Telegdy's job.

The hard reality of the reality TV business is that outside of the NBC juggernaut, which opened Sept. 23 to a still-vibrant 5.1 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic, the networks have failed to generate a new unscripted hit in years despite tens of millions of dollars spent.

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NBC's pricey new game show The Million Second Quiz fell below a 1.0 rating on two of its 10 nights, following recent failures Duets (ABC), The Job (CBS) and Take Me Out and The Choice (both Fox dating shows). Instead, the networks are relying on such graying franchises as American Idol (Fox), DWTS (ABC) and Survivor (CBS), which are down double digits year-over-year.

"We're in a stale cycle right now," said Fox chairman Kevin Reilly this summer. He and a headhunter have yet to find an executive to replace Darnell (and join David Hill, brought in to manage Idol and The X Factor), which evidences the genre's woes and lack of clarity with regard to the direction it is headed. Dozens of names, including Relativity Television's Tom Forman, Nat Geo's Howard Owens and former Shine Group exec Ben Hall, have been considered. An announcement is expected shortly.

Meanwhile, the mix of ratings and buzz has shifted to cable. A&E garnered a staggering 5.0 demo rating for a recent episode of the docudrama Duck Dynasty, which, at the time, beat every broadcast reality series since the 2012 Idol finale. Fittingly, Saade's job is expected to be filled by former E! chief Lisa Berger, who is responsible for Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its spinoffs.

While lining broadcast schedules with Duck or Kardashians clones would seem a simple reboot, unscripted veterans cite failed docudrama attempts including ABC's One Ocean View, CBS' Tuesday Night Book Club and The CW's Fly Girls. "The problem with docu in broadcast is that you can't repeat and build an audience, whereas E! can run a show 11 times in a row until [viewers] find it and fall in love with it," says one top reality agent. Echoes a network executive, "It's like you think at first you don't like that Nicki Minaj song, but you hear it over and over and eventually you get hooked."

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Where broadcast execs could stand to take a page from their cable counterparts is with regard to spending. Broadcast reality no longer is a cheap (and thus lucrative) alternative to scripted. NBC's MSQ, for instance, is believed to have cost nearly $30 million, or about $2.5 million an episode (with host Ryan Seacrest's salary factored in), on par with an original network drama. Voice launched with a per-episode budget between $2 million and $2.5 million, the latter of which is more than American Idol cost during its first 10 seasons, according to an informed source.

In contrast, an hourlong cable reality show typically costs in the $300,000-to-$450,000 range. Although scale arguably is the one thing that still distinguishes broadcast from cable, insiders warn that the genre's ballooning budgets are a worrisome trend because reality shows tend to lack the ancillary benefits that come with repeats and syndication.

But the genre's challenges don't end there. Insiders fret over the formerly fertile marketplace of international formats -- think such pre-proved successes as Idol, DWTS and CBS' Big Brother -- that can be imported and adapted for the U.S. audience. The pipeline seems to be drying at an alarming pace, and formats that were big overseas (like the celebrity diving genre) aren't working.

"A lot of very bright people around the world have been trying to [figure out] what that next thing is and haven't quite gotten it yet," says DWTS executive producer Conrad Green, adding that MSQ was particularly disappointing for the business at large: "Every time you get a show that doesn't work like that, it makes everybody scared of taking those risks. But frankly, broadcast television has to if it wants to still be the broad church that pulls in the big audience."

Michael O'Connell contributed to this report.

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