RS West ’12: AMC, USA Networks talk unscripted

Heads of non-fiction programming from new kids on the reality block, AMC and USA Networks, joined CMT, Syfy and Lifetime Networks at a Realscreen West panel, and revealed how new producers actually get shows on their networks.
June 1, 2012

(photo: Rahoul Ghose)

Heads of non-fiction programming from new kids on the reality block AMC and USA Networks joined CMT, Syfy and Lifetime Networks at a Realscreen West panel, and revealed how new producers actually get shows on their networks.

At the ‘Amping Up Unscripted’ session, Heather Olander, SVP of alternative programming for USA Networks, gave three reasons as to why the cable net moved into unscripted: to service USA’s audience that watches reality on other networks, to expand its reach to audiences not currently coming to USA, and to increase the number of original hours in primetime.

USA’s first unscripted show, a 9 x 60-minutes series, will launch in the fall. Olander said that with the string of successes the number one cable net has had in scripted, there is a bit of trepidation in entering the unscripted realm: “In a sea of massive success, I don’t want to be the first to go down.”

AMC, meanwhile, has been dipping its toe in unscripted because of an enthusiasm to explore great characters and worlds. “By and large, we have a belief we can bring something new to unscripted,” said EVP of original programming and production Joel Stillerman.

The more seasoned network execs then shared how you can gamble on seemingly sure-fire hits that, for various reasons, just don’t land.

“It’s experimentation, like calibrating the artillery and seeing what hits,” said Gena McCarthy, SVP of alternative and reality programming for Lifetime Networks, which has tripled its amount of unscripted hours in the last few years.

Roseanne’s Nuts, a series from session moderator JD Roth’s 3 Ball Productions/Eyeworks USA, arrived on Lifetime with a flurry of press, but according to McCarthy, it wasn’t loud enough for a second season.

“If you had to lay down bets, the money was on Roseanne’s Nuts, but it was Dance Moms that broke through,” she said.

CMT’s EVP of development, Jayson Dinsmore, added that the premiere of Jennie Garth: A Little Bit Country had a wave of press coinciding with the separation of Garth from her husband, but it did little to catch on with the network’s audience. “They didn’t know why it was on CMT,” he said.

For producers pitching to the assembled networks, Olander suggested that USA isn’t a niche network, that it is focused on formats with strong characters, and that the series has to be optimistic to work.

Dinsmore said that for CMT, it will “ultimately try to lead with humor,” while Tim Krubsack, SVP of alternative programming for Syfy, said the network needed gender-balanced shows that have broad appeal.

To an audience question of how new producers with no track record land deals with the networks, Dinsmore replied: “The first one you’ve got to give away,” meaning an inexperienced producer should work with a trusted producer on their idea, even if they have to make some concessions with the deal.

He added that the most common scenario is that someone would have a great idea and then take it to a trusted production company, because as Stillerman put it: “It’s hard to get through that door.”

Roth admitted that was how his first production deal happened, and that since the big prodco he’d partnered with got such a great deal from the buyer, his deal was still better than if he’d tried to go it alone.

“Get a hit on the air and the rest is easy,” he advised.

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 HMV.com. 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.