NATPE Preview: Conference Putting Unscripted TV in the Spotlight

phil_gurin_jonathan_murray_split - H 2015
Courtesy of Phil Gurin; Courtesy of Jonathan Murray

phil_gurin_jonathan_murray_split - H 2015

Front-loading its first day for the first time with unscripted programming (and pitch meetings!), the U.S. TV conference seeks to attract more buyers to a struggling global marketplace.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

What once was a marketplace focused on selling domestic syndicated television programming has been successfully rebooted in recent years to include international and digital businesses. And this year, NATPE (the National Association of Television Program Executives) will showcase like never before the arena of unscripted TV — both finished shows and new formats. "NATPE is not just about syndication anymore," says producer Phil Gurin (Shark Tank, The Singing Bee). "It's digital. It's advertising. It's scripted and nonscripted. It has a global presence. So why not coalesce them all into one whole strand?"

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Shows that previously would have lived on a single outlet today play across cable and home entertainment and, when successful, are sold worldwide. "This transformation has coincided with a huge burst in the globalization of content, formats, ideas and more," says CAA agent Hans Schiff, who focuses on reality TV. "It makes sense that an organization that provides a marketplace and forum finds new places to grow."

Jonathan Murray, chairman of Bunim/Murray Productions (Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Project Runway), helped to define reality TV in 1992 with The Real World on MTV. He sees this new emphasis on reality as an opportunity for syndication to expand into more unscripted shows, which is not currently the case. "We're exploring reality ideas for syndication," says Murray, "and certainly now with NATPE having such a big Latin element, there are big ideas happening in the Latin hemisphere." Showcasing raw show formats and allowing sellers to pitch directly to buyers — two trends previously seen mostly at MIP and MIPCOM in Europe — also are factors new to NATPE this year. "This is all outreach for us," says Murray. "NATPE isn't just about 'finished' content." One of six 2015 recipients of NATPE's Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, Murray will address these issues and more during the panel, "Secrets of Great Reality Casting and Storytelling," with Endemol USA co-CEO Cris Abrego, creator of The Surreal Life.

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The marketplace's reality expansion comes as many unscripted shows are suffering lower ratings and there are fewer breakthrough hits. Producer Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch, Monster Garage), who is also now CEO of FremantleMedia North America, sees NATPE's initiative as a way to help revitalize the genre before it is too late. "You're starting to see a lot of the great new talent being lost to digital," he says. "There is more opportunity for an individual to create a vision."

To spotlight the best work being done in reality TV, opening day for the first time will include the Reality Breakthrough Awards. They are being presented not to new shows but to existing programs that, says Gurin, "have broken through the clutter and become part of the cultural conversation."

Says Schiff: "There's a value in our industry and in our group in patting ourselves on the back a bit and saying, 'You know what? We are creating some great content.'"