'UnREAL' Expected to End With Season 4 as Hulu Gets First-Run From Lifetime (Exclusive)

In a rare move, the female-focused cable network will have the second window to air the drama from Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon.
Bettina Strauss/A+E Networks
"UnREAL"

UnREAL's likely end game is coming first to a different platform.

The drama from Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon will likely end with its previously announced fourth season, which, in a rare and surprising move, will first air on Hulu rather than on its original home at Lifetime. Hulu, Lifetime and producers A+E Studios declined to comment as deals are still being worked out.

Sources say the move to first run on Hulu — which has been the SVOD home for the Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby drama — comes as the streamer was eager to air seasons three and four of the series. (Season three, which ended in April on Lifetime, has yet to premiere on Hulu.)

Hulu is said to have paid producers A+E Studios a larger sum than normal for the show's SVOD rights in order to secure the first window to season four of the drama about the behind-the-scenes antics of a Bachelor-like reality show. Those familiar with the deal say UnREAL remains a popular binge-worthy show on Hulu, which, like fellow streamers Netflix and Amazon, does not release viewership information. A premiere date for seasons three and four on Hulu has not yet been determined, though it is expected to come far before its debut on Lifetime.

UnREAL, which remains 100 percent fully owned by A+E Studios, may still air on Lifetime, though it is not expected to return until potentially 2019 — if it airs on the female-focused cable network at all. The deal, which is reminiscent of DirecTV's pact to first air Friday Night Lights before the episodes ran on NBC, also helps A+E Studios generate additional revenue for its low-rated drama.  

Never a ratings breakout but a watercooler hit in its first season, UnREAL earned an early fourth-season renewal last year based on the creative of its third cycle. After wrapping work on season three in May 2017, UnREAL went back into production almost immediately, with filming on season four running from October 2017 to January 2018.

After the show was off the air for more than a year and a half, its season three debuted in February and averaged a mere 270,000 total viewers. (Viewership doubled with seven days of delayed viewing.)

It's worth noting that although UnREAL's season four will have its first window on Hulu, it does not mean that Lifetime is exiting the scripted space. The cable network, a joint effort between Hearst Communications and Disney, still has Greg Berlanti-produced drama You bowing Sept. 9, which will take Lifetime into its holiday-themed programming. Beyond You, Lifetime has Jenji Kohan-produced drama American Princess on tap for 2019. While You is a pricey co-production between A+E and Warner Bros. TV, Netflix boarded the series early on and helped offset those costs by securing SVOD rights to the Penn Badgley and Shay Mitchell series. As for American Princess, the drama is a co-production between A+E Studios and IM Global Television.   

Following its critically praised breakout first season — which earned co-creators Shapiro and Noxon a writing Emmy nomination and prestigious Peabody Award — season two proved more divisive, with Stacy Rukeyser being promoted to showrunner for season three. Rukeyser is UnREAL's third overall showrunner, following Noxon in season one and Carol Barbee in season two.

Shapiro's success with UnREAL led to her first-ever overall deal as she signed a multiple-year pact with A+E Studios that included writing and exec producing duties on the show as well as a development component.

The decision to likely end UnREAL comes as Shapiro and Rukeyser told THR ahead of season three that they would like to see the series go beyond four seasons. "We would love to keep doing the show as long as we can," Rukeyser said after Shapiro stressed her love of Zimmer's and Appleby's characters, Quinn and Rachel.