Commentary: Unscripted genre taking off on cable

Reality TV growing at a breakneck pace in U.S., overseas

When an Iraqi TV crew was killed recently by gunmen while filming a local hit reality program, it made headlines for the brazen brutality of the crime. But for some there was a second revelation: the fact that ordinary Iraqi families were gathering in front of their TVs to enjoy a feel-good, light entertainment program, just like many London or New York families do on any given evening.

The Al-Sharqiya television show "Futurqum Alena" (Dinner on Us) set out to make people's lives better by giving away appliances and meals at top restaurants.

"It is interesting that the reaction of some people to the story was, 'They have reality TV in Iraq?' " says David Lyle, president and COO of Fox Reality Channel. "But the fact is that whether it's Iraq or London, France, Germany, wherever, they have been making what we call reality or unscripted TV overseas since the beginning. In many cases it's a way to get programs on air in the local language."

Lyle contends that we forgot how to make unscripted, light entertainment TV here after the golden age of television with its Milton Berles, Perry Comos and Sid Caesars. But that quickly changed after British import "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" arrived and got U.S. broadcasters and producers to sit up swiftly.

"Reality television has gone from being an alternative oddity to an established cornerstone of U.S. network and cable television in less than 10 years. But it has pretty much always been a staple for international broadcasters," Lyle says. "Today in the U.S. I can say with statistical accuracy that for network and cable, more viewers are watching more minutes of more reality TV than ever before."

Lyle, an Aussie based in Los Angeles who has worked on three continents in his 25 years in the business, recently returned from presenting a keynote address at Berlin's Medienwoche (Media Week), where he laid out some sit-up-and-listen data, including the contention that the worldwide reality format business now generates revenue of about $7.5 billion annually. His conclusion is based in part upon research from the Format Recognition and Protection Assn., of which Lyle is a founding member.

The statistic highlights the fact that reality TV is growing at a breakneck pace in terms of hours of programming and revenue, he says.

Clearly, Lyle has a torch to carry, but he makes a good case when he points out that "MTV barely plays" music anymore, A&E's "arts and entertainment is a distant memory" while "Dog the Bounty Hunter" rules there and that History's biggest program is the contemporary "Ice Road Truckers."

The increase in reality programming on cable is eye-catching, with about 280 million cable viewers in the U.S. in 2007, according to data Lyle presented in Berlin.

And on traditional networks in the States?

"The cold hard facts are that reality TV has taken an increasing percentage of the network primetime schedule since 2000," he says. "The proportion has stabilized somewhat over the last few years during the September-to-May seasons, but at the same time summer network schedules have leaned more heavily on reality for their originals.

"In the 2001-02 season, scripted accounted for 69% of the primetime schedule, reality 20% and news/sports/other 11%. In the 2006-07 season (the last before the WGA strike), the proportions in primetime were scripted 57%, reality 35% and news/sports/other 9%."

Defining just what "reality TV" is can be tough in the U.S. as it often includes what most consider game shows, or what others would call light entertainment.

Here's Lyle's take: "It covers everything from the big documentary-style competition shows like 'Survivor' and 'Big Brother' through the talent shows like 'Idol,' 'Last Comic Standing' and 'So You Think You Can Dance' -- quite frankly, modern variety shows," he says. "It includes quiz and game shows like 'Millionaire,' 'Don't Forget the Lyrics,' 'Moment of Truth' and 'Wipeout.' Also part of the genre are docu soaps or obdocs such as 'Real World,' 'Flavor of Love' and 'The Hills.' "

Lyle pulled no punches in his keynote, arguing that reality TV is a better deal money-wise for the networks, a contention with which many would disagree when costs against backend profit from syndication and other ancillaries are extrapolated over a decade or more.

"By my calculation, the real cost to a network of an episode of a successful scripted TV series, taking all the hidden costs into account, is something like $11.5 million. The cost of an episode of a successful reality series with much smaller hidden charges is more like $3.4 million," he said. "The cost efficiency of reality TV makes it a necessary and essential part of U.S. network and cable television now and into the foreseeable future."

And then there's the Hollywood dream factor for would-be producers. "Reality TV gives an opportunity for small local producers to create the next big reality hit that could whiz around the world in 18 months," he says.

Now that sounds like a good pitch for a reality show.