With 250 hours of unscripted content in its books annually, Burbank-based Original Productions is one of the unscripted industry’s biggest success stories, with such series as Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, History’s Ax Men and Ice Road Truckers, and relatively new hit Jay Leno’s Garage for CNBC in its roster.
But even the biggest fishes in the pond have to skillfully navigate changing currents. As 2016 begins, producers and networks across the unscripted industry – big and small – are examining the trends that present challenges (lower cable ratings, with few exceptions, across the board) and opportunities (new platforms taking tentative steps into unscripted).
For Original Productions (OP), while a notable change came in the form of the departure of one of its long-time executives – president and EP Jeff Conroy exited from the company in November of last year – opportunity has also emerged both for the prodco and for several execs within.
Sarah Whalen, appointed as EVP or programming and development in June of last year, has been given oversight of OP’s entire programming slate as well as its two development teams. Promoted to VP of programming in 2011 and DVP of that department in 2014, she has overseen such series as Appalachian Outlaws, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, Shelby the Swamp Man, and Wild Justice.
Upcoming series from OP, including Quit Your Day Job for Oxygen and a new entry in the prodco’s most successful franchise, Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove, illustrate the brand’s penchant for high-stakes content, while also pointing towards a broadening of scope. In advance of appearing at the Realscreen Summit next week, OP CEO and executive producer Philip D. Segal spoke to realscreen about these and other developments ahead for 2016.
There’s been a lot of commentary over the course of the past year concerning the health of the unscripted content industry – the lack of a breakout hit, falling ratings, et cetera. What’s your take on the situation?
It is cyclical. There are signposts over decades where we see the ebb and flow of all kinds of genres. Reality is on a different trajectory because it has buttressed economic downturns and has helped networks through periods of uncertainty. In some ways, I look at reality TV as still having growing pains. I don’t look at it as a genre on the rise or on a downturn, I look at it as a genre that’s evolving. And that’s healthy.
I think there is the tendency amongst some to want to confuse the adjustment the market is making in terms of distribution systems changing, with the success or failure of reality as a genre. It’s not that – it’s a combination of growing pains and a learning curve as we figure out what the next evolution of the genre is. And that’s terribly exciting.
You’re starting the new year by promoting some of your long-time executives, such as Sarah Whalen.
We’ve had so many people come in and go from show to show, and kind of grow up in our system and become incredibly successful producers in their own right. So this was the natural progression of things and Sarah is one of those incredibly talented producers who have worn many hats in our company and it’s her time to shine.
And you’re creating a VP of talent post. Does this signal confidence on your part that character-led reality will still be a cable TV staple in the immediate future?
We always hear words like authenticity thrown around all the time, but I think what’s key to the success of all reality programming is a great story, and I don’t know how you have that without great characters. We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in finding great characters through a casting process that allows us to have a larger net to go fish with. It’s focused us in terms of our development process as well, so we’ve recognized [Susan] in terms of her contribution in finding these great characters.
It seems that prodcos known for certain kinds of content are diversifying their offerings as the cable net widens. What are your plans in that area?
In terms of branching out, there’s a show we’re doing for Oxygen now [Quit Your Day Job]. We recognize the need for more 50/50 content. We’ll always be a male-driven brand – it’s in our DNA and we know how to do that content very well. But there is a tremendous demand for more 50/50 viewing, so you’ll see more from us in terms of having more diversity and strong female characters as part of the next cycle of shows that we work on.
How about working with the emerging platforms that are aiming to move further into unscripted content?
We are talking to them and of course it’s critical that we provide content for them. But I think that for us, we will be anxiously awaiting the next 18 months to see how some of these things play out.
Our question is how we’re going to afford to produce that content, and what it’s going to look like… We have to reduce the urge to dumb it down or create our own self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, if we don’t fight to make sure that we keep producing great content in forms that we know are successful. The big question is going to be how it all gets monetized, but storytelling devolves as it gets shorter and shorter. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for it, but great storytelling needs to be the mandate.