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Realscreen West ’15: U.S. broadcasters talk “Idol,” “The Island”

A Realscreen West session focusing on the state of unscripted programming in U.S. broadcast tackled what the end of American Idol means for the reality landscape and how regime change in broadcast alternative departments has impacted the genre. (Pictured: NBC's Meredith Ahr)
June 4, 2015

How do broadcast execs make the call on what shows are cancelled or picked up? What do producers really think about the end of American Idol? And just how much has the revolving door of regime change for alternative television at U.S broadcast nets impacted the unscripted production industry?

These were some of the topics discussed in a Realscreen West session focusing on the state of unscripted programming in U.S. broadcast. Moderated by Josh Pyatt - a partner in non-scripted television at WME – “Bringing Big Swings to Broadcast” assembled such network execs as The CW’s Justin Rosenblatt and NBC Entertainment’s Meredith Ahr (pictured), and – on the producing side – Endemol Shine USA’s Eden Gaha, FremantleMedia North America’s Toby Gorman and ITV Studios America’s Bruce Robertson.

“The unscripted audiences are way savvier than they ever were before, so the conventions and the devices we’ve often used on our shows do look a bit tired sometimes and we have to find ways to reinvent those …to really attract people and make them feel it’s a little bit more authentic than what they’ve seen in the past,” said Gaha, president of unscripted television for Endemol Shine USA.

The prodco most recently debuted the self-shot survival series The Island on NBC, branching out from its roster of franchises, which includes Big BrotherMasterChef and The Biggest Loser. Gaha said that while the prodco consulted with the team from the original Channel 4 series in the UK, NBC still took a real gamble in greenlighting the series.

“It’s quite a risk for a broadcast network to commission a show like that, particularly in a territory that has seen 30 seasons of Survivor,” said Gaha. “I think Bear Grylls is a very big part of that, but we also recognize that further development had to happen.”

Meanwhile, Meredith Ahr - executive VP of alternative programming for NBC Entertainment – said what attracted the broadcaster to the show was that it had a very young following and seemed like “the millennial version of Survivor.”

“It seemed like when The Voice first came out, it was like ‘Okay, this is our singing show,’” said Ahr. “To be honest with you, the pitch sounded really scary for lots of reasons. Number one: producers weren’t there on the island, and [neither were] cameramen and craft services and Standards and Practices.”

To reassure the network before it bought the show, Gaha set up a phone call with NBC Standards and Practices as well as the broadcaster’s legal department to see if it was possible – on a very basic level – for NBC to make the show. Ahr said that despite the logistical challenges, the broadcaster was keen on “breaking barriers” and went ahead with the series.

The real test following the first season of The Island, however, is the same one faced by many new series: will it be picked up for season two?

“I think patience is important with a show because we can’t expect [much] unless it’s that lightning in a bottle, which comes once every five years where the premiere is just massive and it’s undeniable,” said Ahr. “I think the last one in this market was probably The Voice, where it came out of the gate and became a thing right away.”

When asked about the impact of recent top level unscripted executive changes at U.S. broadcast upon producers and the genre itself, most panelists admitted that while such activity makes it necessary to build new relationships, it’s still business as usual when it comes to pitching and producing. But regime change does allow for a certain amount of opportunity, joked Gaha and ITV Studios America’s EVP of creative strategy, Bruce Robertson, in that pitches rejected by the old guard can always get dusted off for another try.

Pyatt also turned his attention to the cancellation of American Idol after its 15th season next year, and what that void in the singing competition space – and in Fox’s schedule – will mean for the industry.

“A lot of good shows – with the exception of The Voice – from Top Model to Survivor to Big Brother to The Amazing Race, it’s like these shows have been on since the dawn of reality so I guess it signifies a little bit of a change in the climate, but if anything, it’s seen as an opportunity for something new and fresh to come,” said Justin Rosenblatt, senior VP of alternative programming for The CW.

Toby Gorman, executive VP of alternative programming for FremantleMedia North America, agreed that Idol’s exit is an opportunity.

“It’s the only way for us to look at it: it’s a huge amount of real estate,” said Gorman. “Is there space for another singing show? Potentially yes. I’m not sure whether that would be the right thing to go for – I think we should look at all genres – but it’s a huge amount of real estate that we’re all going to be trying to get a hold of.”

Finally, in terms of what genres of unscripted programming are making the rounds in pitch meetings lately, Gorman said The People’s Couch-type shows have been popular, while Gaha said he’s been hearing a lot of pitches for game and quiz series. Meanwhile, Rosenblatt said he receives a variety of prank show and viral video show pitches, while Ahr said NBC was hearing pitches for more business-oriented programs, similar to the broadcaster’s series The Apprentice.

“It’s about understanding the networks, understanding what’s working, what isn’t working, understanding the benchmarks that are out there and also that the format is clean and simple,” said ITV Studios America’s Robertson. “If you have a number of different things that take a lot of time to understand the format, it’s just not going to work.”

(With files from Barry Walsh. Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

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