Reality TV's Format Forecast? "A Shocking Amount of S—"

Courtesy of Des Willie; Love Productions
'The Great British Bake Off,' a rare exception to reality's format fatigue

Reality TV is dead. Long live reality TV.

There's a discernible catharsis when peers huddle to talk out their shared problems. Perhaps that's why several of the reality TV caucuses during NATPE's opening sessions had a certain group therapy quality.

After all, no one is more aware that there hasn't been a reality breakout in years than the people who make reality. The lack of big, broad hits in TV's cheapest genre has been blamed for the cable's depressing ratings narrative and the broadcast networks' increase in empty real estate. "We saw a hit come every year or every couple of years, starting with Survivor and working all the way through The Voice," summed up Mike Beale, ITV Studios' EVP global development and formats. "We haven't seen one since."

The absence of new formats, those powerhouse reality properties that successfully transition to multiple markets and boost the global TV ecosystem, was the problem of the hour at the annual TV industry gathering where so many reality projects are bought and sold. And no one appeared interested in tip-toeing around the reality — pun intended — of the crisis.

"I think there's a shocking amount of shit out there," admitted BBC Worldwide creative director of formats Kate Phillips. "There's some terrible formats."

It's not that all of the new formats themselves are bad, others suggested, but that they aren't being adapted properly. (That echoed the sentiments in an earlier reality panel where Jersey Shore producer SallyAnn Salsano called out the proliferation of unqualified production companies.) And, to be sure, no one pretended to have any idea of why the better-produced ones haven't been hitting. Most of those — see recent failed Israeli imports Rising Star or Boom — have been in a space that others consider a presently tapped genre. "One thing I believe is we shouldn't be looking at shiny floor shows," Phillips said of arena occupied by series such as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars. "If you look at the Great British Bake Off, it was the highest-rated series in the U.K. last year. It beat X Factor and The Voice. It's about baking in a tent for God's sake. It's now in 20 countries."

One of those countries is the U.S. ABC recently launched a spin on the format, after CBS made a first failed attempt in 2013. And while it did not exactly light ratings on fire, ABC reality chief Robert Mills said he was optimistic about its future. "We saw it grow," he said of the four-week December run. "It started with 2.5 million [viewers] on BBC2 and got to more than 12 million."

American networks have not been as patient. The trend in reality, as it is for scripted, is that shows get one season to prove ratings prowess. "One and done" has been the shared trajectory of most big reality show gambles in the post-Voice era. "We have channels that can act as nurseries," Phillips noted of the biggest difference between the U.K. and U.S. models. "We're losing a lot of shows by not giving them a second chance."

To be sure, there's nothing despondent about this commiseration. Everyone praised slow builders American Ninja Warrior and Shark Tank as proof that success isn't exclusively out of the gate. And, cribbing that shared reality mantra of "wait and see," everyone seems to agree that another unscripted ratings juggernaut is around the corner — the waiting game is just taking longer than expected.

"They're all out there, they're just taking a bit longer," Phillips said. "Fingers have been burned. People are waiting to see a more proven track record before buying."