Netflix Preps Reality TV Push: Rivals "Should Be Scared Out of Their Minds"

Netflix_Alien_Illo - THR - H 2017
Illustration by: Wren McDonald

The streamer already has upended the original series, stand-up and film businesses; now, with a key new hire and a lofty budget, it's taking on unscripted. Warns one producer, "These guys are monsters — they're coming in to play and play hard."

Netflix doesn't enter a genre quietly.

Its first foray into scripted TV famously was a $100 million political drama from David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. One series quickly expanded to four, then 16 and now more than 30. Then it was stand-up, and before long that roster included Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. Then docs (from Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay), big-budget films (starring Brad Pitt, Will Smith) and now reality. By year's end, Netflix's unscripted output, which includes docusoaps, competition series and talk shows, will be in the double digits. It's expected to explode from there.

The timing, says reality TV vet David Lyle, couldn't be better. Netflix's aggressive push — which will ramp up considerably after the late 2016 hiring of director of alternative Brandon Riegg — comes as the unscripted community has seen profit margins squeezed and linear ratings decimated. By contrast, the streaming service promises a big appetite for programming (part of its $6 billion-plus content budget) along with a light touch on notes and a model that could prove significantly more producer-friendly than those offered by Amazon or the myriad traditional buyers.

The biggest allure is Netflix's focus on straight-to-series orders, bypassing what has increasingly led to a challenging development process elsewhere. "What too often happens at the cable networks is you get a first development step that might lead to a second development step, which might lead to a pilot, and then, guess what? In that six- to nine-month period, the mandate and the exec team have changed," bemoans ITV America CEO Brent Montgomery, who sold a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reboot (with a new Fab Five) to Netflix. Lyle, now president of production company trade group PactUS, echoes that frustration: "Netflix isn't going to demand a year option while they give you $20K and tell you to make a sizzle reel that they expect you to spend $60K putting together, the way too many cable networks do."

A greenlight process that vows to be quicker and more transparent has producers excited as well. "You can sit there and f—ing talk to a guy who will say yes or no because he doesn't have to go through four steps and then wait a month for a bunch of executives to go to Cancun or wherever so they can all sit around singing 'Kumbaya' and looking at tape together like the networks have to do," says Dirty Jobs' Craig Piligian, who recently pitched a competition/elimination show to Riegg. "It's not done by committee at Netflix; it's done by gut."

Though it's still early days — until recently, Netflix merely had dabbled with such shows as Chef's Table, Ultimate Beastmaster and breakout Making a Murderer — Riegg's team of five is casting a wide net, with ambitions in every reality category. (Lisa Nishimura's documentary division will continue seeking Murderer-style docuseries.) "It's about the diversity," Riegg tells THR. "We'd love to get a couple shows in some key genres that are smaller cable-size swings, a few in the middle range and then a couple of really big swings [like Beastmaster]." Speaking to the latter at January's Realscreen Summit, Netflix vp original content Cindy Holland said, "If you can have [international singing contest] Eurovision, why not Globalvision? And why not dream to have the scale of the Olympics for other kinds of contests?"

Of course, there are challenges, too. Rivals insist pilots are fruitful and making must-see reality is harder than it looks, pointing to cable networks like AMC that tried and failed to enter the space. And representatives worry about everything from the all-at-once rollout (will someone watch 10 episodes of a competition series if the finale is available right away?) to the uncertainty around backends, a frequent complaint on the scripted side as well. "The idea of, 'Oh, you've got 30 percent participation in the backend of your Netflix show' doesn't mean anything unless Netflix is willing to exploit it off the service," says one top dealmaker, noting that Netflix is focused on keeping international rights for its roughly 94 million subscribers around the world. But other reps are less concerned about the latter, particularly with cable-style projects. Says one, "Ninety-nine times out of 100, nonscripted backends are worthless anyway."

And though Netflix is not outspending the competition the way it often does in scripted, it is willing to be competitive with upfront fees. Multiple sources peg the cable-tier range at $400,000 to $550,000 an episode, with the network tier soaring to seven figures. Moreover, Netflix is said to be amenable to producers' needs — at least for now. "If you compare Netflix to, say, Scripps [home to Food Network and HGTV], Netflix says, 'We're flexible; what sorts of deal can we do?' and Scripps says, 'This is our template, take it or leave it,' " says Lyle, with another producer warning: "The competition should be scared out of their minds. These guys are monsters — they're coming in to play and play hard."

This story first appeared in the March 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.