Forget the golden era of TV drama. For many of the broadcasters and online streamers shuttling through the halls of the Cannes Palais at international television market Mipcom this week, reality's the thing.
Non-scripted entertainment — from games shows, dating formats and shiny floor competitions to celebrity reality series — is enjoying a renaissance despite, or perhaps because of, the well-publicized boom in big-budget TV drama.
New primetime entertainment series such as The Masked Singer, dating reality shows like Love Island and new game formats such as Press Your Luck and Card Sharks are ratings hits for traditional linear networks, which are doubling down on lower-cost, non-scripted content as prices for drama explode, driven up by the unprecedented investment from streaming platforms.
At the same time, SVOD players like Netflix and Amazon have also discovered the appeal of reality TV. Netflix recently introduced international adaptations of its hit failed baking show Nailed It in France, Spain and Germany. Amazon Prime, which already produces a Japanese version of U.S. reality hit The Bachelor for its Japanese service, this summer unveiled its first unscripted original in Italy: a local-language adaptation of Endemol Shine's Celebrity Hunted.
"For production companies like us, this is quite a golden era," says Rob Clark, director of global entertainment at production giant Fremantle. "We have not lost any of our traditional markets in linear television, while we've gained new markets with the rise of the global platforms. That's never happened before."
Fremantle on Monday announced the first global commissions for its new reality dating format Five Guys a Week, with channels in Holland (RTL4) and Sweden (TV4) ordering local versions of the show, originally created for Britain's Channel 4, in which one single girl invites five guys who meet her exacting criteria for a boyfriend, to move into her home and live with her for a week, all at the same time, all under one roof.
"There are two very opposite trends in entertainment at the moment — the move towards extreme shows, shows that are complete fantasy, like Masked Singer and Love Island and, at the other end, shows like Five Guys that feel completely authentic and real," Clark said.
Clark as well noted a return of the game show, particularly in the U.S.
"Back in 2015, we didn't have a single game show in U.S. primetime, now we have seven," he said, noting the recent launches of Fremantle formats Card Sharks and Press Your Luck stateside.
But the brave new world of reality TV is online. Mike Beale, managing director, creative network at ITV Studios, notes that new commissions for non-scripted shows in the U.S. are now split "about 50-50" between traditional networks and online platforms. "Our U.S. business is pivoting towards producing for SVOD players," he noted.
Even for a linear network, Beale said, online traffic is key. He pointed to the U.S. version of ITV's Brit dating format Love Island. CBS re-upped the show for a second season despite soft ratings, because the show did huge numbers on Twitter and Instagram and was the network's most viewed show on its online platform CBS All Access.
"You are looking at a lot of different numbers now to judge success," Beale explained. "Besides overnight, three-day and seven-day ratings, you've got the AVOD and SVOD numbers and then their Twitter engagement, Instagram success, traffic on YouTube. It's both a blessing and a bit of a curse."
Lucas Green, head of content at reality TV specialist Banijay (Temptation Island, Wife Swap) noted that each online platform has their own metrics for what they judge a non-scripted success.
"Netflix are very focused on formats that appeal to a demographic that aren't already subscribing to Netflix — so a show like [glass-blowing reality format] Blown Away, something that will draw in new audiences," Green said. "Amazon, on the other hand, are absolutely about premium video content. About shows that people would be happy to pay for."
Amazon executives James Farrell and Georgia Brown — head of international originals and director of European originals, respectively, at Amazon — confirmed this take Monday. Brown said the main challenge for the streamer was to elevate reality TV formats "to make them work behind a pay wall. In many ways, it's more competitive than with scripted shows because the linear broadcasters do an incredible job of providing great non-scripted entertainment."
Farrell pointed to the success of its local-language remake of The Bachelor in drawing female viewers to the service in Japan and at another non-scripted original in the territory: LOL, a comedy competition format in which stand-up stars compete to make each other laugh first. The format has already been successfully adapted for the Mexican market and Amazon has ordered an Australian version as well, with Rebel Wilson hosting.
"Gone are the days when you can come to market with a new format and it goes into 25 territories overnight," said Beale. "The market has become more cautious and more time is being spent in development, in making sure your show is the exact right fit for whatever channel or streamer and whatever country. But if you make a show work in one place, you can build and build on that."
And, unlike drama, which is increasingly short-lived, with the likes of Netflix and Amazon more quick to cancel series if they don't perform, once a reality show is a hit, it can run and run. "Look at shows like [ITV's] Hell's Kitchen or [Banijay's] Come Dine with Me: They are still going strong 10-15 years after launch," Beale said.
And for even the biggest reality show, there can still be room in the world to grow. Talpa Media which is owned by ITV Studios, on Monday announced it had sold The Voice to Japan, marking the 70th territory for the spinning chairs singing competition format. Across the entire Voice franchise — including The Voice, The Voice Kids and The Voice Senior — Talpa said it now has a total of 121 adaptions on air across the globe, making the format the most successful of all time.