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CANNES — At the MIPCOM market in 1997, broadcasters worldwide saw a vision of the future. It was there that the first modern reality series — the Swedish format Expedition Robinson — screened for TV executives from Burbank to Berlin. A decade and a half later, nonfiction, in all its forms, has come to dominate programming around the globe.
Big-budget dramas like MRC’s Netflix series House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher or FX’s Cold War drama The Americans — both of which premiered at MIPCOM this year — continue to generate hype and global sales. But the market has shifted. Event formats such as Idol, X Factor or The Voice and reality series from Jersey Shore to Ice Road Truckers are increasingly taking over primetime slots and nudging drama and comedy to the sidelines.
“Nonfiction is the biggest threat to the success of U.S. fiction series internationally,” says one veteran European acquisitions exec. “Reality and event shows draw the ratings you used to only get with a big drama series and often for a fraction of the cost.”
The cost faction is a significant one, particularly in Europe, where the Euro crisis is making itself felt across several of the continent’s biggest territories, including Spain and Italy. Italy’s ad market slipped nearly 10 percent in the first half of this year. Spain’s is in a similar downward spiral. The pressure on local channels to trim acquisition budgets is obvious.
On the sales side of the equation, nonfiction formats have been a bonanza for independent producers — forming the basis for the global production empires of European giants such as FremantleMedia, Endemol and Shine. A recent report found that U.K. independent TV producers have trebled their international revenues to just over $1 billion (£652 million) annually largely by focusing on factual entertainment formats such as Got Talent or Dancing With the Stars instead of riskier drama or comedy.
In the past few years, several pan-national production operations have emerged — think France’s Banijay and Zodiak, Germany’s Red Arrow or All3Media in the U.K. — which see nonfiction formats as an engine for global growth.
Speaking to THR‘s Elizabeth Guider at MIPCOM’s Mastermind Keynote on Monday, Nancy Dubuc, president of entertainment and media at A&E, acknowledged that reality TV has conquered the world. A&E Networks has practically cornered the market on work-place reality hits (think Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and America Pickers). At MIPCOM, its team at the History Channel inked their first deal for a foreign version of Pawn Stars (in the U.K.).
Dubac, however, warned that while nonfiction seems entrenched, no genre stays fresh — or unbeatable in the ratings — forever. Nonfiction will have to keep being “reinvented,” she explained, or eventually audiences will tire and move on to other fare.
Trying to keep it fresh is one explanation for why producers and channels are searching farther afield for the next breakout reality hit. While the U.K., U.S. and The Netherlands (home to Big Brother and The Voice) remain nonfiction mainstays, Scandinavia, Israel Japan and South America are the new reality hot spots. At MIPCOM, Syfy announced a deal to take U.S. format rights to Chilean reality series Opposite Worlds from Banijay, while Brit production group ITV acquired Tarinatalo, a Finnish production company specializing in factual entertainment and lifestyle programming.
But Mark Burnett, the uber-producer of Survivor, Shark Tank and The Voice who arguably has done more than anyone to establish the reality genre in the U.S., said it’s time to stop making the distinction between reality and regular TV.
“I hate the word reality, by the way. It’s a lame-duck word. It means nothing,” Burnett told MIPCOM attendees during a keynote address, saying he prefers the term “nonfiction storytelling” to describe what he does. Pointing to his latest project — History Channel’s 10-hour scripted docu-drama The Bible — Burnett highlighted the blurred lines between “drama” and “reality” on television these days.
“All the great shows have to connect you with people,” Burnett said.
Fifteen years after reality TV hit MIPCOM, it seems the genre has finally grown up.
Elizabeth Guider and Etan Vlessing contributed to this report.
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