RS West ’17: Conrad Riggs talks Amazon’s unscripted focus

Business strategy, streaming and podcasts were topics of interest at the first keynote conversation of Realscreen West. On Wednesday (June 7) Conrad Riggs, head of unscripted programming for Amazon Originals, chatted about ...
June 8, 2017

Business strategy, streaming and podcasts were topics of interest at the first keynote conversation of Realscreen West.

On Wednesday (June 7) Conrad Riggs, head of unscripted programming for Amazon Originals, chatted about his extensive career in unscripted, as well as Amazon’s growth strategy going forward.

Based at Amazon Studios’ Los Angeles headquarters, Riggs and his team have created and overseen such series as The Grand Tour, the global motoring series; All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals, coproduced with NFL Films; and American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a 10-hour docuseries exploring the life and achievements of the American cultural icon.

“For our brand, we really want engaging content we’ll tell our friends about and will give you a reason to subscribe,” said Riggs of Amazon’s stable of programming, adding that it tends to be elevated, premium storytelling.

Riggs is a veteran of the unscripted community, and recounted the days when he was told Survivor — which has now been on air for 17 years — was greenlit.

Prior to Amazon Studios, Riggs headed his own prodco after serving as a partner in Mark Burnett Productions, the company behind Survivor, Apprentice and The VoiceThe challenge during that time in his career, said Riggs, was the same he now faces at Amazon: having a lot of opportunity and picking the best in-class partners.

Riggs said Top Model, Project Runway and Dancing With the Stars were all ideas he was toying with before someone beat him to the pitch. “It taught me to move pretty quickly,” he said, which is also a key leadership principal for Amazon.

When it comes to longevity, Riggs said he doesn’t see Survivor as just another format. “It’s not really about the money, per se,” he said. “It’s a social experiment and it gives insight into basic human values and the human condition.”

Programs which involve social experimentation (which is near and dear to Riggs’s heart) are something subscribers to the streaming service could expect to see on Amazon going forward.

“We’re looking for something that sparks conversation,” he said, adding that it’s not about the format, but about the journey and why people are doing something and what they learn.

Le Mans: Racing is Everything and The Grand Tour fit the bill. Also on the horizon for Amazon is Lore, a horror anthology series based on the popular podcast of the same name and another upcoming untitled McLaren racing docuseries.

Riggs called podcasts the “R&D lab for formats” at the moment. Generally speaking, the people producing podcasts are doing them as passion projects rather than profit, which speaks to their quality. And they can be developed into both scripted and unscripted shows, he said, adding, “There are ideas there that are ripe for the picking.”

Having just finished the first season of The Bachelor in Japan, Amazon is looking into other formats as well. The digital streaming giant is developing talk shows, and also has a variety show in Japan, Documental, which Riggs says is performing well. There are a few large-format music series that haven’t been announced yet, and casting has begun on a global K-pop series that will begin and end at KCON — an annual Korean wave convention.

Along with Japan, Riggs said Amazon is ramping up to produce a slate of localized unscripted and scripted shows in India, and he is always on the lookout for shows in Latin America and Europe.

Streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix are creating more opportunities for creators to take more risks and be more experimental, Riggs said. Producers don’t necessarily have to follow a set formula.


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 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.