How Netflix and Amazon Are Driving a Global Reality TV Renaissance

Queer Eye Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

Declared dead in the golden age of TV drama, unscripted formats are enjoying a resurgence thanks to global streaming hits like 'The Grand Tour' and and 'Queer Eye.'

Rumors of the death of reality TV have been greatly exaggerated.

Nonfiction formats, from game shows to makeover programs and guilty pleasures of the Keeping Up With the Kardashians sort, are finding new life online. Netflix and Amazon Prime, and to a lesser extent Apple and YouTube, after tip-toeing around reality for years, have fully embraced the genre, commissioning new or rebooted formats and bulking up their libraries with shows featuring shiny floors, baking competitions and people behaving badly.  

Netflix has ordered second seasons of five of its new unscripted series, including two break-out hits: comedy baking show Nailed It! and the popular reboot of male makeover show Queer Eye. Internal documents at Amazon, leaked earlier this year, showed its most successful original show to date has been British motoring series The Grand Tour, a nonfiction effort launched in 2016 from the team behind the BBC's wildly popular Top Gear. Apple scored a hit with its Carpool Karaoke series, a spinoff of the singing-in-your-car-with-stars format created on James Corden's Late Late Show, and YouTube has found success with Mind Field, a science show created and hosted by educator and YouTube star Michael Stevens.

On the licensing side, Amazon Prime's U.K. service did a ground-breaking deal with FremantleMedia to take British rights for the relaunched version of American Idol, screening episodes of the show two days after they air live in the U.S.. And sales outfit FilmRise recently uploaded a mountain of nonscripted TV to Amazon's Prime Video Direct self-publishing program, including 15 seasons of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, all seven seasons of Kitchen Nightmares and seasons one through 12 of Unsolved Mysteries.

All good news for reality show producers, who on Monday arrived in bulk in Cannes for international television market Mip TV. For the past few years, the explosion of original drama series — again driven by big spending on fiction by the likes of Amazon and Netflix — has dominated the conversation and buyer buzz.

The introduction this year of a new television festival — CannesSeries, which bookends the Mip TV market — is just another sign of how dominant fiction has become in the international industry.

Reality TV was born at Mip — with the launch of Swedish Survivor-style show Expedition Robinson back in 1997 and later with Dutch show Big Brother — and world-conquering nonfiction has come through Cannes over the years, including American Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Dancing With the Stars and The X Factor. But the last time a reality show got pulses racing at Mip was when John de Mol launched The Voice there back in 2010.

Now, thanks to Netflix et al., that's changing.

“In the past few months, for the first time, we've seen reality formats making it into our lists of most in-demand shows, notably Queer Eye and Nailed It!” says Karina Dixon senior industry analyst at Parrot Analytics, a group that crunches data from such sources as Google searches and social media chatter to measure online demand for television content. “Before this it was only The Grand Tour, which is still by far the most popular streamer-first reality show out there.”

This chart from Parrot Analytics ranks the top 6 digital original reality series worldwide in March 2018, measuring total demand within a market for the show in question. International aggregate demand includes Australia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. 

Online demand for reality TV is still relatively small compared to that for scripted series. According to Parrot Analytics, the top scripted original series on SVOD drove over 6 times the demand of that of original reality series internationally. In the U.S. it was over 7 times the demand. Stateside, however, online demand for non-scripted shows jumped 125 percent in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period last year.  Parrot Analytics hasn't seen a similar bounce internationally yet, perhaps because the bulk of new online reality shows have been American. And, unlike fiction, non-scripted TV in English has not tended to travel well.

But the fact that reality is showing up on Netflix is a surprise to many. It wasn't so long ago that the streaming giant dismissed reality TV as off-brand. In 2015, chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Netflix investors the “disposable nature of reality” made it less interesting for streamers, which were at the time banking on fictional shows or documentary-style TV with a long shelf life.

But that was then.

In 2016 Amazon paid an obscene amount of money — reportedly up to $250 million — for 3 seasons of The Grand Tour. In 2017 Netflix launched competition show Ultimate Beastmaster, its first foray into reality programming, which the streamer producing in six different versions for the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Germany, South Korea and Japan.

Over the past year, the streamers have ramped up their nonfiction production. Netflix in particular has gone all in with such nonscripted series as Dope, Drug Lords, The Toys That Made Us and Grand Tour competitor Fastest Car, which bowed April 6 and features underdog gearheads souping up their ordinary-looking vehicles to take on the supercars of the mega-rich. The company has also hired a number of reality-friendly executives, including former NBCUniversal's Bela Bajaria, now vp unscripted programming; Brandon Riegg, who shifted from NBC Entertainment to become director of  unscripted programming at Netflix; ex-Bravo exec Jenn Levy and Rob Smither, formerly of Endemol.

It's been a similar story internationally, with streamers poaching top TV execs, most with experience in reality TV, to run production and acquisition divisions worldwide. Most prominently, FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz last month announced, after successfully rebooting American Idol in the U.S., that she was leaving the company to head up European operations for YouTube.

“You see in the people they've been hiring, in the U.S. and internationally, that they are serious about reality TV,” says Henrik Pabst, president of Red Arrow Studios International, the production and sales outfit that counts such nonscripted hits as The Taste and Married at First Sight in its catalog. “These are people who have experience with nonscripted, who are used to commissioning and buying reality formats. We expect the streamers to be much more open to non-scripted in the future.”

For Pabst, the streamers shift to reality is a simple matter of economics.

“They have to keep growing their audience,” he says, “as Netflix and Amazon get bigger and broader, they have to give their audience what it wants. And, ratings around the world show, what the broad audience wants is reality TV.”

“There's a huge unserved demand for reality TV,” agrees Danny Fisher, CEO of Film Rise. “That's something we've seen for a long time but now the streamers are starting to see that too. It's a bit like the Roseanne revival: Nobody in New York or L.A. understood why you'd want to bring that show back but if you looked at the demand online, you could see everyone between the coasts loved it. And the ratings (for the new show) proved it.”

Amazon Prime's The Grand Tour is the digital original reality series to regularly rank among the top ten most in-demand series online.

Seen this way, the SVOD shift towards more nonfiction is a natural consequence of their success. While Netflix and Amazon once targeted the elites, their growing subscriber numbers mean they are now pushing into network territory, and their programming is beginning to reflect that.

“What Amazon did with The Grand Tour was to reach an audience that wasn't that interested in drama series, they expanded their total audience,” says Lisa Perrin, CEO of the Creative Networks Division of production/sales giant Endemol Shine (The Biggest Loser, Big Brother). She sees an even greater convergence between programming on linear and online networks as subscribers change the way they use SVODs.

“We are starting to use Netflix like we do linear TV,” she says. “You come home, turn on Netflix and lean back. It makes sense that the audience is starting to want content that resembles that on linear TV.”

Pointing to the successful revival of Queer Eye, Perrin notes that reality production giants like hers are particularly interested in “exploiting our library of titles, working with the SVODs to bring back beloved shows and reinvent them for a new audience.”

How much nonscripted TV on Netflix or Amazon resembles traditional reality TV, however, is a matter of debate. In typical self-promotional fashion, Netflix has claimed its move into nonscripted will revolutionize the genre. So Queer Eye isn't just a retread of a hit format from the early 2000s, it's a woke celebration of LGBTQ rights (although that definition fits the original just as well). Nailed It! — produced by Magical Elves, the same group behind Top Chef — is billed as a reinvention of the cooking competition show because it finds the funny in home baking disasters, rather than celebrating near-professional amateurs. Ultimate Beastmaster breaks the rules of reality TV production by making six different versions of the show simultaneously, not following the standard industry practice of rolling local adaptions piecemeal.

"These series are indicative of what we're trying to accomplish for Netflix unscripted: working with world-class producers to create the best unscripted shows on television," Netflix's Bajaria said in a statement following the launch of Queer Eye. “These series elevate the genre with innovative takes on familiar formats. They deliver immersive and nuanced stories. They elicit so many emotions from viewers, from tears of laughter to tears of joy — and that's just Queer Eye."

Veteran producers welcome that ambition.

“The want to push the envelope of what reality is, how far you can go, and that's exciting,” says David Granger, creative director of British-based Monkey Kingdom Producers, makers of Brit reality soaps Made in Chelsea and Real Housewives of Cheshire

The deep pockets of Netflix, Amazon and Co. are also appealing, particularly as reality producers find their profit margins squeezed by traditional broadcasters as linear TV ratings decline. A three-season order for a reality show of the kind Amazon gave The Grand Tour is virtually unheard of in the linear TV space.

For international producers, the global reach of the streamers also opens up opportunities. Netflix has been active in snatching up global rights for foreign reality formats, turning quirky nonscripted content like Japan's Terrace House (think Big Brother but where everyone is nice and there's no sex) into cult viewing worldwide.

“This is the first Japanese reality format to leave the country,” says Taka Hayakawa, director of worldwide production and business development at Fuji Television Network, which produces Terrance House. “Netflix is opening up a whole new market for us.”

Terrace House is the first Japanese reality show to screen outside the country, going out worldwide on Netflix.

Ahead of Mip TV, Netflix announced its latest foreign reality show: The Korean variety format Busted! I Know Who You Are, in which seven K-Pop stars play amateur detectives, trying each show to solve a different “fun-filled mystery.” Starting May 4, Netflix will bow two episodes a week of the 10-episode first season of Busted! on its service worldwide.

Of course there are challenges too. Reality producers and sales outfits note there are advantages to the traditional approach: Test a format in a single territory, perfect the show and they take it out territory by territory, adjusting as you go.

“It's a numbers question: If you have a promising format, that you think will sell to several big territories, you might be better going the traditional route and not doing a Netflix or Amazon deal,” says Ed Louwerse, co-founder of Dutch-based sales group Lineup Industries. “Often when you do a traditional deal, you not only retain rights to the original but also can take sales rights for the new local version outside the territory. So we can license a show in the U.K. and take rights to resell the British version to, say, Australia. With a streamer, they like to do global buyouts.”

Many producers are also skeptical that viewers will want to binge watch their favorite reality show as they would the new season of Stranger Things. While Netflix dropped Queer Eye in one go — all eight episodes of the first season went online Feb. 7 — early figures suggest a more staggered release is more effective. 

“We definitely see the appeal of a weekly release schedule with The Grand Tour, compared to a binge-watching strategy,” says Dixon from Parrot Analytics. “When each new episode is released, the demand spikes again.”

But, Dixon cautions, reality TV on SVOD is still a repetitively new phenomenon. The streamers have produced a handful of hits — The Grand Tour, Nailed It!, Queer Eye — but no real industry trends.

“You have individual shows doing well but they're are no patterns,” she says. “It's not like all car shows, or all baking shows, are doing well. At the moment it is very scattered.”

Just what shape reality TV will take in the online world is something the business will figure out in the coming years. But the first glimpses of that future may be taking form in Cannes this week.