Summit ’15: Reality TV enters a fast-paced but uncertain future

During the closing panel at the 2015 Realscreen Summit, a group of producers and one network exec considered how short attention spans, lower budgets, and the rise of digital platforms will shape their business five years from now.
January 30, 2015

The fast pace at which cable networks must turnaround unscripted programming makes it challenging to prognosticate beyond a few months.

That was the key take away from the closing ‘Unscripted 2020′ panel at the 2015 Realscreen Summit on Friday (January 30), at which a group of producers and one network executive considered how short attention spans, lower budgets, and the rise of digital platforms will shape their business five years from – and seven months – from now.

“It’s hard sometimes to look five years in the future when we’re trying to fill up the schedule in August,” said Howard Lee (pictured above, left), the exec VP of development and production for U.S. cable network TLC, before gesturing to the delegates seated in the room. “We look to you guys to figure out what the trends are.”

Elsewhere, Rick Feldman, the executive director of the Nonfiction Producers Association, told the panel – which was moderated by Ardaban CEO Chachi Senior – that “there is going to be more creative video produced over the next five years than in the history of all mankind.

“We are going from a world of exclusivity to a world of ubiquity,” he added. “Figuring out the proper business model will continue to go on for a while.”

In the meantime, cable ratings are in a slump, budgets are lower and reality television has been the subject of a succession of articles heralding the genre’s creative decline into a morass of derivatives and contrivance. Throughout much of the hour-long panel, the speakers grappled with the speed with which they must turnaround programming.

As a result, there is a trend towards reality producers sending talent out armed with their own cameras to shoot without producers or story editors. That approach is designed to convey a greater sense of authenticity.

However, Sirens Media CEO and The Real Housewives of New Jersey producer Rebecca Toth Diefenbach does not see it as viable in the long-run. “There are hundreds of hours of footage that someone has to go through,” she said. “And you don’t have a story yet.”

Ultimately, the quick turnarounds are a reaction to demands from commissioners who under pressure from viewers that are reading the latest news about reality stars via gossip blogs before they see it on TV.

“We want to get this stuff on the air quicker,” explained Lee. “I greenlit something two days ago that has to be on the air in two weeks. We want it scrappier. We want it down and dirty.”

“And transgender,” quipped Feldman.

“Transgender is the new redneck,” joked Lee, referencing the wave of transgender-themed pitches at Realscreen Summit meetings in the wake of Amazon’s scripted hit Transparent.

Sam Maynard, head of U.S. factual at Raw TV, noted that faster turnarounds will require producers to train their juniors accordingly. “Anyone can shoot with a GoPro but it takes time to shoot and plan and organize,” he said. “The people who can think quickly and produce will be at the top of the tree.”

Lee also said that he has been talking internally at TLC about airing programs that are 15 minutes or 40 minutes in length. Whereas VOD services such as Amazon and Netflix can tailor program length to a story, cable nets face the reality of commercial breaks but the metrics he reads shows many viewers tuning out after 15 minutes.

“Does it always have to be a half hour or an hour?” he asked, adding that, regardless of length, audience won’t buy into a show without a long narrative arc and a feeling that its world is self-contained. “You don’t get the investment from the audience without that.”

Feldman sees the rise of VOD services as changing the fundamental relationships between talent and network executives. “OTT channels are going to be an opportunity for new unscripted talent,” he said. “And put pressure on networks to act more as partners.”

Toth Diefenbach added that one of the networks she works with is more concerned with social media than ratings. While networks are interested in social media buzz, online trending does not equate to ratings and since ratings attract ad dollars, Lee pointed out that they still matter a lot.

“There is only so much I can push on social in terms of a signal of how much money is coming into our pockets,” he said. “The ratings part is critical because that’s what is paying for the product.”

The panel ended with a few predictions. Maynard said VOD services will have more power because of the data and analytics they can gather and monetize. Lee argued that television is over-saturated with scripted programs and execs will start ordering cheaper unscripted shows as expensive scripted shows stop delivering ROI.

Attendees walked away with the message – hammered home by Toth Diefenbach – that if they want to make money off of a TV show right now, the best way to do that is to get a greenlight from a network.

“If you want work now, and you have great characters now and you want to get a show on TV now, that’s what you have to do,” she said.

Although some of her peers are retaining the rights to their programming and making some money by airing it on their own digital channels, the real money is still in selling a show to a network such as TLC.

Although, “that might change in five years,” she admitted.

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