Like a competition show, reality’s new guard faces steep challenges and elimination as this year’s big players talk scripted ventures, franchise reinvention and a dream docuseries on Donald Trump.
This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The faint whoosh heard around Los Angeles shortly after 8 a.m. on March 9 wasn't any Santa Ana wind. It was a collective sigh of relief from the reality TV community.
Little Big Shots, NBC's adorable alloy of Kids Say the Darndest Things and America's Got Talent, had premiered the previous night, and Nielsen overnight ratings dubbed it the biggest alternative launch in the last half-decade. Not since 2011, the year that brought The Voice and The X Factor, had a reality show gotten off to such an auspicious start. And the good news keeps coming for the Steve Harvey-hosted series, which grew with DVR stats and has maintained the bulk of its initial live draw (a 2.9 rating among adults 18-to-49 and 12.7 million viewers) with its move to Sundays.
Turns out reality is alive and well. Despite periodic headlines that read more like epitaphs, TV's most underestimated genre still is capable of spawning sleeper hits (HGTV's rising Fixer Upper), pop culture phenomena (Spike's viral Lip Sync Battle) and even the occasional bona fide success. These victories are enough to justify its overwhelming dominance on the dial, which makes the notion of peak scripted TV look downright modest in comparison. As National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courtney Monroe pointed out to TV critics in January, complete with a Landgrafian PowerPoint, a staggering 750 original reality series aired on U.S. cable alone in 2015, roughly 350 of them brand-new.
For this year's list of the genre's most powerful sellers and producers, THR has whittled the ranks down to 10 decidedly unique players — all of whom sound off in these pages on what's working, what isn't and what's next. Some even share thoughts on their recent skewering in Lifetime satire UnREAL. (Spoiler alert: They love it!)
One year after a megamerger minted Endemol Shine North America among the biggest sellers in all of unscripted, its recently re-upped co-CEOs Abrego and Corwin, both 43, have amassed one of the largest portfolios of both series and acquired production companies. The duo spoke with THR about their current stable (Big Brother, the MasterChef franchise), upcoming projects (a straight-to-series NBC dance competition featuring Channing and Jenna Dewan Tatum) and strategic partnerships (see the recent pact with fellow reality power Ryan Seacrest).
What would you bet is going to be the next big breakout in reality?
ABREGO I think you're going to see a big game-show format — game is going to make a strong comeback. You'll also see a reincarnation of the variety show.
CORWIN And it's not always about finding a new format. Sometimes it's really about keeping the ones that you have on the air fresh.
ABREGO Our first and foremost priority is focusing on our big [franchises].
CORWIN We're very realistic about where our profit centers lie. That's what affords us the ability to pivot into these growth sectors like scripted and digital.
How have all of the acquisitions, your own included, changed the landscape?
ABREGO The companies we do have had a lot of growth in the last couple of years in unscripted. A lot of the smaller guys, they're being squeezed out and they're shutting down.
CORWIN We're focused more on growing the subsidiaries that we have than we are in finding new acquisitions. We cover pretty much the entire buyer gaze, so we're capable of being incredibly specialized in the individual labels.
And what about international?
ABREGO We have 30-plus companies in 30-plus markets, so there's a lot. Charlie and I get first look and to bring them back to the U.S. [as formats]. It's not just walking in with a sizzle tape anymore. We're able to walk in with a pilot or even a series and with ratings history.
What formats are you excited about that you haven't placed in the U.S. yet?
CORWIN It's going to sound weird, but there's a spelling bee show in Australia called Spelling Star. They took a spelling bee, and they blew it out. It's amazing.
With seven unscripted series on the Big Four alone, Burnett boasts a reality catalog that remains unrivaled. In addition to top-rated The Voice on NBC, he oversees powerhouses Survivor (CBS) and Shark Tank (ABC) as well as his upcoming foray into dating series with Fox's Coupled. Assuming the role of president of MGM Television in 2015, Burnett, 55, also continues to move into scripted, adding critical heavyweight Fargo to his trophy case.
Biggest challenge in reality TV right now: To provide a truly cross-platform on-demand experience that still allows for a robust live television audience.
Most promising reality trend in the last year: The continued dominance of aspirational shows.
Move that most impressed me this year: A+E Networks buying into Vice.
Untapped talent who's ripe for a docuseries: Tim Tebow
The studio's unscripted and alternative president earned a unique distinction in March. Darnell, 53, launched the biggest reality hit in five years — alongside Ellen DeGeneres' A Very Good Production. NBC breakout Little Big Shots (a live-plus-three average 3.4 rating among adults 18-to-49) actually ranks as the network's No. 2 2015-16 launch across the board. Its speedy renewal means it will return to the schedule, with fellow Warner Bros. production The Voice, next year.
Biggest challenge in reality TV right now: Reality doesn't get nearly as many chances on network television as scripted. For every 10 new scripted shows, there is only one new reality show that gets a shot.
Worst reality trend of last year: Live shows that have no reason to be live.
Move that most impressed me this year: Taking the very successful daytime version of Family Feud and making it into an exceptionally successful primetime celebrity version.
If I had to pick a song for Lip Sync Battle, it would be: "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred
And I would challenge: Mark Burnett
As the struggle over bankrupt Relativity wears on, TV offshoot Critical Content emerged unscathed with $75 million in capital and series on more than 30 networks. CEO Forman, 42, and president/ CCO Andrew Marcus, who admittedly have upped their interest in scripted, are expanding pod deals with smaller producers in the unscripted sphere.
Biggest challenge in reality TV right now: Fear. Networks see declining ad revenues, increased digital competition, impending unbundling, and they've responded to all of it by growing more creatively risk-averse than ever.
International format that could hit it big in the U.S.: We snapped up rights to a crazy Danish thing called, no joke, Male Childbirth Live!, a primetime event that features two male comics hooked up to electrodes, receiving shocks that simulate contractions and labor pains.
What UnREAL gets wrong about reality producers: We're significantly less attractive than that cast. By, like, a lot.
As their shingle's moniker suggests, Lipsitz, 46, and Cutforth, 48, are getting things done. Marketing behemoth Top Chef soon enters its 14th season, they recently helped revive HBO's equally highbrow Project Greenlight and have secured their status as Dick Wolf's unscripted partners. Up next: NBC's live courtroom gamble Law & Order: You the Jury.
Biggest challenge in reality TV right now:
LIPSITZ The pace at which things are moving. It seems like the looming specter of the digital world is causing some paralysis in linear TV development and production.
Worst reality trend of last year:
CUTFORTH The preponderance of spinoffs as opposed to taking a risk on new ideas — however, if you want to spin off one of our shows, feel free!
What UnREAL gets right about reality producers:
LIPSITZ We actually met with one of the actors prior to the start of the series to give them advice — so anything that UnREAL gets right is our doing, and anything they get wrong is not our fault.
His Leftfield Entertainment shingle still trucking (431 Pawn Star episodes and counting) and now fully acquired by ITV, Montgomery, 41, assumed the role of ITV America CEO at the end of 2015. Together with COO Adam Sher, he is increasing the company's massive yearly output of 800-plus hours of original content. Next up? Fox competition series American Grit with WWE crossover John Cena.
Biggest challenge in reality TV right now: The development cycle is slower than scripted.
Move that most impressed me this year: Actually, it was a non-move. Tom Forman and Andrew Marcus coming through the other side [of the Relativity bankruptcy]. Congrats, Critical [Content].
What UnREAL gets right about reality producers: They're creative as hell.
Untapped talent who's ripe for a docuseries: Ronda Rousey
Taking the unscripted reins from departed topper Thom Beers, Mullin, 51, assumed co-CEO status at the U.S. arm of the U.K. giant and responsibility for filling the void left by Idol. An ABC reboot of classic panel show To Tell the Truth, hosted by Anthony Anderson, soon hits the air. And Simon Cowell will join the panel of America's Got Talent when it returns for its 11th season on NBC in May.
Most promising reality trend in the last year: Despite the surge in scripted commissions this past year, the appetite for nonscripted programming hasn't seemed to diminish.
Move that most impressed me this year: I think it's cool that a fun segment on late night grew into a series [Lip Sync Battle] and a pop culture phenomenon.
One of the last big indies in the reality market, Piligian, 58, sold a 50 percent stake to Lionsgate for a cool $200 million in 2015. Now operating as Pilgrim Media Group, his company has added a digital platform (1620 Media — Piligian has been particularly aggressive in the space), a talk format (FYI's Kocktails With Khloe) and A-list partnerships (a competition play with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Pearl Street) to his 30-plus series on the air.
Move that most impressed me this year: Digital platforms, such as go90, making a major content play by greenlighting a range of shows from reality and docs to the kind of big competition series you'd expect to find on a broadcast net.
International format that could hit it big in the U.S.: Norway's National Firewood Night
Untapped talent who's ripe for a docuseries: Amal Clooney
As of March 2016, Ramsay has shot 529 episodes of Fox primetime. Between Hell's Kitchen, Hotel Hell, MasterChef, MasterChef Junior and the specials MasterChef Celebrity Showdown, Ramsay, 49, remains the No. 3 network's primary source of unscripted entertainment — all the more valuable as it braces for the post-American Idol era.
Worst reality trend of last year: Junior shows. We blazed a trail with MasterChef Junior, but unlike lip syncing along to songs, doing Bruce Lee impressions and designing clothes, cooking is a fundamental life skill that all kids should learn.
If I could do a docuseries following the Donald Trump campaign: It would show how he's pulling this off while pissing off the whole world. It's been fascinating to watch.
Most promising reality trend in the last year: High-quality documentary-style programming. Shows like Chef's Table and Making a Murderer from Netflix are brilliant.
TV's consummate host, with extended deals at both E! for red carpet and NBC for the Olympics, Seacrest will soon be without his 14-year Idol gig. The 41-year-old is said to be actively pursuing his next on-camera role — in addition to growing his unscripted (Keeping Up With the Kardashians) slate, now under Endemol Shine, as well as his scripted efforts (Shades of Blue).
Biggest challenge in reality TV right now: Capturing audience mind-share with a new and original idea.
International format that could hit it big in the U.S.: PBS' decision to broadcast two seasons of The Great British Bake Off was charming.
What UnREAL gets right about reality producers: Our obsessiveness with details.
If I had to pick a song for Lip Sync Battle, it would be: "Ignition Remix" by R. Kelly
And I would challenge: J.Lo