Pointed Arrow: The fact-ent frenzy

With U.S. networks increasingly demanding outrageous characters and obscure subcultures, Arrow Media creative director John Smithson (pictured) asks whether producers should be ditching their staples to scour America for the next Pawn Stars.
June 5, 2012

With U.S. networks increasingly demanding outrageous characters and obscure subcultures, Arrow Media creative director John Smithson (pictured) asks whether producers should be ditching their staples to scour America for the next Pawn Stars.

Coming back from MIPTV in Cannes one message could not be clearer; the “fact-entification” of non-fiction is rampant.

Shows such as Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Gold Rush are pulling big ratings and transforming the fortunes of networks. It’s no surprise then that the search for the next hit series tops the shopping list for all the factual networks.

Already there are lots of new shows around – many, it seems, cut from the same cloth. It is such a powerful trend that the very center of gravity of non-fiction TV is shifting towards the entertainment end of factual.

The exasperation of a well-known indie producer I bumped into at MIP, at the end of a full-on day of network meetings, summed it up. “They’re all looking for the same thing.”

As delegates gather in Santa Monica, Banff, Sheffield and La Rochelle for the early summer round of conferences and markets, I think this is the biggest challenge yet that producers face.

The opportunity is clear. If you get a show that works it means big, returning orders that can be transformational – both to your balance sheet and reputation. The good news is that it is not just American producers cashing in; two of the biggest hits are from Canadian and British indies.

With the networks desperate for more, should we all be piling into this new genre, ditching the trusty staples of our business and scouring America for the next outrageous set of characters? Well, that’s the challenge.

The bar has been set high. These are well-made shows, highly produced to within an inch of their lives. The transactional element seems to be core to the DNA of their success. Developing these shows requires a different mindset and a different sort of person. The networks now expect quality sizzle reels and real people that leap out from the screen.

At a social event in Cannes it was fascinating to hear from Leftfield Pictures – the indie behind Pawn Stars – about how it approaches development; with a big team that has a sole focus of finding ordinary people who can sparkle on TV.

So if you take the plunge, you’ve got to do it properly. Thirty minutes on Google and a couple of phone calls are not likely to crack it. There’s also a significant risk that the bubble might burst, as with so many trends in factual.

This shift toward fact-ent does seem resilient, but the grim inevitably is that if too many lookalike shows get commissioned, standards will weaken, ratings will soften and audiences will get bored and start searching for the next new thing.

So far, this has been a U.S.-centered phenomenon. In the UK market, ‘rig’ shows such as One Born Every Minute and 24 Hours in A&E are riding high in the factual ratings.

Nor should we expect fact-entification to wipe out the staples. Occu-soaps such as Discovery’s Deadliest Catch continue to rate brilliantly. Genres such as disaster, survival, engineering, and popular science are still an essential part of the network mix. Big specials will still be made, so we’ve not seen the last of the likes of Dinosaurs or Pyramids.

A further factor is the impact of the international market. Evidence indicates that international audiences, especially in the key emerging markets, are thirsty for knowledge and have less of a need for it to be wrapped in a U.S.-centric and soft fact-ent package.

My hunch is that although the trend towards the fact-ent end of the scale is here to stay, the transactional reality shows are not going to be the only shows in town. If you are fine with the cost of development and associated risk, then take the plunge and track down those real-life characters that you’re about to turn into stars.

But if it is not for you, relax, as there’s still plenty of opportunity elsewhere.


John Smithson is creative director of Arrow Media, an indie he co-founded last year. Previously he was chief executive of Darlow Smithson Productions.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.