MIPTV: Can SVOD Save the Reality Star?

Amazon is reportedly investing up to $250 million in the new car-focused reality series from the talents behind 'Top Gear.'

Big hits like 'American Idol' are fading but Amazon is leading the way in online investment in reality TV programming.

When the final episode of American Idol airs April 7, it will seem an end of an era. Reality and entertainment shows were once the most dominant force in television and new reality formats were the hottest tickets for international buyers at MIPTV.

No longer. Now drama is king. Even non-scripted giants like FremantleMedia and Endemol Shine are shifting resources to fiction as reality's star appears to fade. 

But an unlikely savior could revive reality's fortunes. Over the past year, Amazon has quietly built up a reality division, Amazon Unscripted Series, for its online video operation, investing in a number of formats.

Just this year, Amazon announced a 10-episode order for The Fashion Fund, a Project Runway-style competition series featuring Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, which had previously aired on satellite network Ovation; a 8-part behind-the-scenes NFL reality show All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals and greenlit Endorsed, a new reality series starring supermodel Cindy Crawford about the world of celebrity product endorsements that has been pitched a a sort-of mash up of The Apprentice and America’s Next Top Model.

Then there is Amazon's massive investment in the new, still unnamed, car show from former Top Gear hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. Amazon's order for three, 12-episode seasons of the new show, set to launch later this year, has been valued at up to $250 million.

NBCUniversal International this month launched its reality TV-focused own subscription VOD service, called Hayu, in the U.K., Ireland and Australia, offering up episodes of hit reality series Top Chef, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and I Am Cait, among others, for subscribers willing to cough up around $5.75 a month. 

While Netflix has mostly stayed away from non-scripted programming, unless one includes hit docu-series Making of a Murderer, that could soon change. Netflix acquisition execs were spotted at BBC Worldwide's recent buyers showcase in London and are believed to be interested in acquiring global rights to the new season of Top Gear

“It's all very encouraging and I think we can all get excited about the idea of (online platforms) investing in reality TV,” says Rob Clark, director global entertainment at FremantleMedia. “As these companies expand and want to appeal to a vast audience, they need to have a balance between fiction and non-scripted. There's also going to be a need for entertainment shows.”

Clark notes that, in Asia, online platforms have been in the reality business “for some time now.” Fremantle recently signed a trio of big deals with Asian SVOD players, mainly for non-scripted shows including Project Runway, American Idol, Grand Designs and Simply Nigella.

“The next big question is whether we are going to begin developing programming specifically for online platforms and I suspect the answer is yes, because it would be foolish not to do so,” Clark says. 

Dutch reality TV group Talpa, creator of The Voice, is already there. Last year it launched its first online reality series on Chinese service Tencent. The show, The 15 of Us, is loosely based on Talpa's Utopia format, which flopped on most traditional television networks, including on Fox in the U.S..

Via email, The Voice creator, and Talpa boss, John de Mol told The Hollywood Reporter he sees new opportunities on SVOD for reality producers. But he says there's an inherent conflict between the business model of Netflix and co., which relies on targeting a global, binge watching audience, and and the core appeal of reality TV. 

“It is very difficult for reality TV to be a part of the current SVOD model,” said de Mol. “Their model works well with creating original scripted programming suitable for a worldwide audience — reality television is appealing mainly because it has local relevance, something a subscription business model isn’t able to offer yet to the same extent. SVOD services’ original scripted programming is aimed to be consumed for years, whereas reality television finds its strength in immediacy: it’s popular for a shorter amount of time, more focused on the here and now.”

De Mol points out that, until now, reality's biggest selling points have been live viewing and local adaptations, as seen with global hits like The Voice, Idol and Dancing with the Stars or, to a lesser degree, with a scripted reality show like MTV's Jersey Shore, which has found success via local-language remakes in England, Wales, Spain, Mexico, Poland and Russia. 

“The local part is key — having a pan-European version of a non-scripted format would lose its appeal with local audiences,” says de Mol. “At Talpa, our success is based on selecting the greatest local production companies to work together on localizing the format. That way, you create the ultimate connection with the audience’s experience. SVOD services will never invest in, for example, more than 60 local versions of a format, like Talpa did with The Voice, simply because they can never secure the amount of local viewers necessary to make this attractive for their business model.”

Paul Dempsey President Global Markets, BBC Worldwide, notes that Top Gear “is a case apart” because the show “works as a format and is also hugely popular as a finished show, so you would expect it to attract interest across the board.”

That's rare for reality TV. At least for now. But as Amazon and Netflix expand into the non-scripted business, that could change. 

“Talent with global appeal are important for non-scripted in the VOD space,” says Dempsey. “Without a linear schedule to rely on, recognizable brands or names that will attract viewers are more important than ever.”