Summit ’15: Reality producers ponder a quiet future

With ratings in a slump, a group of top producers and network execs gathered at the Realscreen Summit to discuss storytelling devices that could breathe new life into unscripted - and make money in the process.
January 29, 2015

Is quiet the new loud in reality TV?

When networks tell producers what they are looking for at TV markets such as the Realscreen Summit, “loud” characters – i.e. individuals unopposed to flipping the odd table or hurling a prosthetic leg – are a staple of many a brief.

With ratings in a slump and the genre flooded with derivatives of hits such as Pawn Stars, a group of top producers and network execs gathered on a panel called “The Innovation Conversation” at the Realscreen Summit on Wednesday (January 28) to discuss innovative storytelling devices that could to breathe new life into unscripted (and make money in the process).

Ironically, the hour-long discussion, which was moderated by veteran cable exec and M&C Media founder Michael Cascio, was loud and lively, even as a shared interest in slow-paced, vérité, and narrator-led programs emerged as a theme.

At first, the panelists debated the market conditions that have led to the current need to innovate.

“What platform do you put the content on and what is the price point to do it?” asked Philip Segal (pictured above, left), the CEO and executive producer for Original Productions, the company behind Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch. “That seems to be a swirling mist at the moment.”

Segal explained that younger viewers expect that if a program is innovative, it will “find me.” He put the onus on networks to step up and put marketing dollars behind potentially risky programming to ensure that happens. “The ideas are out there,” he said. “How are you gonna find the audience?”

“There’s room for both derivative and innovative ideas,” insisted Creative Differences president Erik Nelson (pictured above, center). “More people are inclined to take chances because the surefire things aren’t working anymore.”

“Flat is the new up,” added Cascio of ratings.

When Nutopia CEO Jane Root called the popular podcast Serial the most “innovative media experience I’ve had in a number of months,” the panelists were quick to point out precedents.

Produced by the makers of This American Life, Serial follows host Sarah Koenig as she delves into the 1999 murder of Maryland teen Hae Min Lee over the course of 12 episodes. Viewers listen as the amateur sleuth methodically re-examines evidence and chases leads, sometimes to dead ends. “She is a narrator who is trying to make up her mind,” said Root.

History’s VP of scripted and non-fiction development and programming Julian Hobbs (pictured above, right) compared it to classic true-crime serials such as Sherlock Holmes and In Cold Blood, and suggested “long-durational formats” may be the next trend.

“It is about a creator who is amateur and it felt real,” said Nelson of Serial‘s quiet style. He called it emblematic of natural, minimal and immersive storytelling that does not hinge on contrived plot devices. “With docusoaps, people feel lied to. Ultimately, the country is vomiting that up in some way.”

ITV Studios America president Orly Adelson likened Serial to the ITV-produced A&E series The First 48. “It’s one core story and we’ve been doing it for 10 years,” she said.

“These are genres that are waiting around to be re-discovered,” added National Geographic Channel president of programming and production Tim Pastore added. “You can find inspiration in other mediums.”

Each of the examples the execs showed reflected similarly methodical storytelling or narrators with distinct points of view.

Pastore showed a teaser of The Watch, a fixed-rig series inspired by The Shining that follows people who live and work in solitude. The lasting image from the sizzle was of a wall of surveillance cameras reminiscent of the voyeuristic Sharon Stone thriller Sliver. As ominous music plays, an all-seeing overlord narrator casts a pall of suspicion over the loners’ seemingly banal activities. “I am the house-guest that never leaves,” he says.

Nelson played a reel for an upcoming show called Final Hours, an example of what he called “slow television.” Similarly dark in tone, the program is set on September 10, 2001, and looks back at the day before the 9/11 from the point of view of people unexpectedly connected to the event, such as a Pizza Hut attendant who served hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari.

Nutopia’s Root presented My Deal with the Devil, a show for Esquire Network about people who confess to illegal or immoral acts. The reel featured a former Bearn Sterns exec incredulously explaining how he spent US$250 on Internet software that promised to help him pass a lie detector test (only to fail).

Hobbs chose a languidly paced clip from the recently renewed, Original-produced reality series Appalachian Outlaws that showed a ginseng digger rooting around in dirt for the valuable plant.

He also noted the mood among buyers was quieter at this year’s Summit, perhaps due to a networks being tired of derivative pitches: “It’s been a quieter year, but a more innovative year.”

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