MIPTV: Drama Reigns as King of TV While Reality Goes Downmarket

Nick Briggs
'The Collection,' the first series from Amazon UK, was one of the most talked-about titles at the MIPTV market.

The big money was on period drama, while non-scripted shows aimed to be cost-concious and clever.

It seems appropriate that MIPTV, Cannes' international television market, wrapped on the same day American Idol aired its last show.

The shiny, primetime reality juggernauts that Idol exemplified used to reign supreme at MIPTV. No longer. Now drama series are king. The biggest buzz on the Croisette were for fictional series like A&E's Roots reboot, which had its world premiere here on Monday, BBC/AMC spy series The Night Manager or red-hot Korean drama Descendants of the Sun.

Reality TV has had to change its pitch. Instead of promising the next big thing, non-scripted producers are pushing the “cost effectiveness” of reality compared to big-budget drama.

“A lot of these drama series are expensive,” says Rob Clark, director of global entertainment at FremantleMedia. “Non-scripted offers a reasonably-priced alternative for broadcasters.”

Fremantle conquered the world, and pocketed millions in licensing fees, with its primetime Idol and X Factor formats. One of its top shows for this market, Football Nightmares, was decidedly less glamorous. The show, based on an Italian original, follows two ex-soccer stars as they, each week, take over a failing amateur team and try to whip them into shape.

Arguably the hottest non-scripted show this year wasn't even on offer. Carpool Karaoke, the planned spinoff of James Corden's celebrity sing-along segments on The Late Late Show, was attracting a lot of attention, even though it isn't (yet) being sold as a format. But the concept — cheap, easily adaptable and with major online viral potential — makes it an ideal fit for cost-conscious broadcasters.

The really big money, again this year, was being spent on drama. A flood of new series swamped MIPTV, but buyers don't seem to be complaining.

“In terms of linear television, it’s impossible to buy everything,” admitted Zelda Stewart, head of acquisitions at Mediaset Italy. “But I don’t think there is too much if it is good quality.”

And quality certainly doesn't seem to be lacking in this year's drama crop. Production values, and budgets, continue to climb. The by-the-numbers procedurals of days past have given way to period drama, sci-fi thrillers and historic epics.

With Downton Abbey ending its run this year, several costume-heavy shows are vying for its audience. Victoria, from Downton networks ITV and PBS, closed multiple deals across Europe at MIPTV. Netflix nabbed U.S. second-window rights for Versailles, Canal Plus' English-language series set during the time of the Sun King. And The Collection, an eight-part drama set in the fashion industry in late 1940s Paris and the first series commissioned by Amazon UK, was probably the most talked-about show this market.

The success of American real-crime series such as The Jinx and How to Make a Murderer is driving another trend, one that bridges drama and non-scripted reality TV. There were multiple nonfiction shows on offer promising a long dramatic arc with the binge-watching potential of a hit series.

Among the best were A+E's 60 Days In, in which seven innocent people are put in prison for two months, with no one — including the staff and the other inmates — aware it is for a TV show, and Talpa Global's The Innocence Project, a long-form documentary in which a lawyer takes the cases of people jailed for murders they claim they didn't commit and tries to uncover the evidence needed to free them.

It is telling that producers of the long-form docs are being careful not to label them "reality TV," preferring to see these shows as primetime dramas that happened to be real. It's a clear sign that drama is the big seller and reality TV, at least for now, has been shifted to the discount shelf.