Summit ’16: Uncovering unscripted’s growing pains

A group of top industry executives gathered on the "What Just Happened?" panel at the 2016 Realscreen Summit on Sunday (January 31) to discuss the key trends that impacted the realm of unscripted in 2015 and the ones set for the year ahead.
February 1, 2016

The world of unscripted television is currently undergoing a transformative period in its life cycle and it’s all about disruption.

A group of top producers, distributors and network executives gathered on a panel called “What Just Happened?” at the Realscreen Summit on Sunday (January 31) to discuss the key trends that impacted the industry in 2015, and the ones set to provide the business with a “deeper voice” in the year ahead.

When unscripted initially launched, it set out with a blast of easy to produce and cost effective series that were easy to sell to networks chomping at the bit. Now, as the industry approaches what panelists termed as its “puberty” phase, network executives like A&E’s Amy Savitsky are looking to the exploratory strategies of nets such as MTV in its early days for inspiration.

“When they were first getting [MTV] started, their wanted ads were ‘Looking for people with no TV experience’… We’re looking to break the model, somehow,” the A&E senior VP of development and programming explained to a room full of delegates. “MTV was looking to break things, and that’s what we’re looking to do.

“When a producer comes to us with something – even when the idea’s great – the next challenge is how are we going to surprise the viewers? We’re putting that challenge back on the production community, as well as ourselves, to really raise that bar.”

Michael Kagan, partner and head of international TV and media at ICM Partners, agreed with Savitsky’s assessment, adding: “If the networks aren’t able to market shows and really roll out the red carpet year one, you need to have an element that gets the public to say ‘I’ve got to go see that.’”

Kagan said one such idea is the forthcoming Little Big Shots, which sees host Steve Harvey going head-to-head with young wunderkinds from around the globe, from executive producers Ellen DeGeneres and Harvey – an idea Kagan says was sold to NBC “in under two minutes.”

Howard Lee, executive VP of development and production at TLC and GM at Discovery Life Channel, challenged the idea that recent years have seen fewer unscripted hits, insisting instead that content quality has improved and viewership numbers are still strong, if not massive. As proof, he cited the solid performances of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, E!’s Hollywood Medium and Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise.

“These are bona-fide major breakout hits,” Lee said, “so to me, this industry is not dead, these hits are just quieter.”

All3Media CEO Jane Turton accentuated the need for cooperation between networks and producers in an era where more platforms, and more competition, is emerging.

“If we’ve got a chance to maintain the success of this extraordinary thing called television, it’s got to be about collaboration between buyer and seller because we’re in it together completely.”

The panel’s focus would then be shifted toward the topic of linear vs. video on demand where Leftfield Entertainment’s David George noted that the New York-based prodco was beginning to dive into the OTT business with new series and deals in development with Netflix, Amazon, Red Bull and GoPro.

“These places are all trying to create content to accentuate their brand and I think the interesting thing of working with these platforms in particular is the creative autonomy they give you, and as a content creator that is so refreshing,” the Leftfield CEO stated.

Sky Vision MD Jane Millichip, meanwhile, explained that she’s worried about how programs are being funded as linear and digital platforms begin to diversify and thereby forcing the industry into a concentration of rights.

“We’re going to have to find new ways of funding programming [due to situations] where you have partial funding for a program with an entity that isn’t prepared to pay for the full budget but want all the rights,” the distributor said.

While Sky Vision is still receiving 90% of its revenue from traditional TV and OTT platforms, the distribution arm of the UK satcaster now carries more digital assets on the OnDemand and Sky+ services than either Netflix or Amazon.

The inaugural session of the 2016 Realscreen Summit, which was moderated by Matt Gould, executive VP at Pact U.S., closed out with remarks from Leftfield’s George and All3Media’s Turton who collectively agreed that for every creative program maker there should be one creative dealmaker employed at small independents and big-time producers alike.

“It’s that balance between both that dictates the success of any company,” George said.

“The execution is just as much about deals now as program making,” Turton added. “That makes a fascinating challenge.”

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