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This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Television’s most prolific genre is in the middle of an awkward adolescence. Nearly 15 years after Survivor launched the phrase “reality TV,” unscripted series are the lower-cost fuel powering broadcast and cable networks. But at the same time, franchises like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars are showing their age as many producers and networks increasingly are concerned with identifying the next big thing.
Evidence of a reality crossroads is everywhere. Onscreen, game-changer Duck Dynasty wanes from record highs (down 60 percent in eight months), and NBC’s The Voice stands as the only Big Four flagship to still command big ratings (an average 4.7 rating in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic), though nothing near Idol‘s heyday. Behind the scenes, executive turnover is the norm — ABC, CBS and Fox each installed a new reality czar in the past year — while cable throws everything against the wall to see what sticks (naked survivalists!?) and huge media companies buy up smaller production shingles. But the reality of reality: It arguably is TV’s most resilient commodity. “I believe it’s no harder to launch a reality show now than it was in 2000,” says Survivor‘s Mark Burnett, who boasts the strongest unscripted portfolio on broadcast TV. “The entire nonfiction community is looking to provide an American television network with the next thing.”
If history is any indication, more big swings will come, either launching subgenres — see the bearded brethren who followed Duck Dynasty — or putting a concept into hibernation (the big-budgeted flop of NBC’s The Million Second Quiz wiped game shows off most development slates). Previously bankable arenas seem unlikely to be abandoned, which explains why ABC this summer will try another singing competition (Rising Star) despite the ratings dive that prompted Fox to cancel The X Factor.
Cable, for its part, has become a wild, wild west. Bartering is still a safe bet (History’s Pawn Stars nabbed a huge 104-episode pickup in December), and series starring African-American casts are delivering impressive numbers (see Bravo’s recent Real Housewives record). Another popular bet: “event” programming. The 13 million viewers who tuned in to Nik Wallenda‘s 2013 Grand Canyon tightrope walk on Discovery set off a new wave of stunt specials. “Not only is there room to be wild and inventive, there is a need,” says Warner Bros. TV’s unscripted chief Mike Darnell. Having left Fox in 2013 after 18 years, he’s now a seller for the first time in nearly two decades. “There’s a new hunger for social experiments and anything innovative. Everyone is willing to go a little more dangerous than they were five or six years ago.”
For the 2014 installment of THR‘s Reality Power List, editors zeroed in on those who know this climate best: the sellers. These are the U.S.-based individuals hearing yes and no on a daily basis. There’s little agreement on what could reignite the industry — some bank on interactive while others call that play hokey — but most are unanimous in whom they’d follow with a camera (Chris Christie, Rob Ford) and where they see the next big thing arriving: where nobody expects it.
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