RS West ’17: Challenges and opportunities in unscripted

At the closing panel at Realscreen West, Thursday (June 8) industry leaders shared their views on opportunities in the unscripted and non-fiction space. Hosted Phil Fairclough (pictured, left), managing director, Earth Touch USA, ...
June 9, 2017

At the closing panel at Realscreen West, Thursday (June 8) industry leaders shared their views on opportunities in the unscripted and non-fiction space.

Hosted Phil Fairclough (pictured, left), managing director, Earth Touch USA, posed questions to nine panelists about the changing industry and how to capitalize on the changes in a rapid-fire session. Those who took part include Fenton Bailey, co-founder, World of Wonder; Mary Donahue, SVP, non-fiction programming, Lifetime; Scott Feeley, SVP, programming, High Noon Entertainment; Ari Mark, co-founder, AMPLE; Amber Mazzola, president, Machete Productions; D’Angela Proctor (pictured, right), SVP, programming and production, TV One; Eric Schotz, president and CEO, Anvil 1893 Entertainment; and Nick Catliff, managing director, Lion TV.

Here are the take-aways from the session:

It’s about brand, story and audience

In a world that is constantly changing, Lifetime’s Donahue says network should look to their own brand and stick to it to find stability.

“Once we were able to figure out what we wanted our brand to stand for, we were able to align stories to fall within that,” she said.

Of course, find fresh, new stories that are well done are always critical to success.

“But it’s super hard to figure out what they are, but that is one area we can control,” she said.

“One thing that doesn’t really change is people. People are always driven by the same thing: the need to escape, the need to be entertained, that need to connect. There are needs that people to come with that don’t shift with everything that is going on in the industry.”

Content doesn’t have to be defined by screen 

While some might hold the view that the unscripted world is unsteady, World of Wonder’s Bailey sees new opportunities to tell stories – notably by the emergence of digital distribution options.

“I think media is changing so dramatically it doesn’t have to be defined by on a TV screen,” he said.

For him, technology offers the opportunity to tell stories in any number of ways or genres. That’s why World of Wonder is ‘screen agnostic’ when it comes to content creation.

“It’s not the size of the screen that matters, but it’s the dimensions of the story,” he said.

Challenge force innovation

TV One’s Proctor said her niche network, which caters to a primarily African American female audience, is under pressure from bigger entities that have now realized this demographic is powerful.

“And they have more resources than we. I don’t have a whole lot to be happy about,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Proctor sees the positive: She is forced to be more innovative, resulting in high volume, low-cost programming to offer unique entry points for its audience.

Proctor says the company has re-evaluated what has worked for them in the past to see if they can apply those successes to other areas, such as making movies from series like For My Man.

It also means working with smaller production companies or taking the talent from one show and putting into other content.

Untapped talent is hard to find…but worth the effort it takes

When it comes to finding the right talent for the job, High Noon’s Feeley focuses on undiscovered stars.

The unscripted prodco found home renovators Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper fame through an internet search that led them to a mommy blog in Texas that featured Joanna.

No other studio had contacted the family until then, he said.

Similarly, when internet search came up empty for finding talent for Flip or Flop Vegas, prodco staff pulled out the okd telephone white pages and began cold calling contractors and renovators.

Putting people on the ground and targeting areas and send in casting producers to knock on doors has also yielded positive results.

“A lot of people that we are looking for now, someone of them don’t want to be found. You have to go out there and convince them to be on television. A lot of networks are not looking for those who want to be on TV. Those people are already out there and made themselves known. It’s the ones who are unknown that haven’t thought about being on TV for us are the most interesting people and make for the most interesting programs,” he said.

Sometimes the gamble pays off 

As head of a newbie prodco AMPLE, Mark is not afraid to take chances.

“You know if you have it in you or not to be a producer. I had plenty of people said not to do it, and I said I don’t give a shit,” he said of the decision to launch the prodco with partner Phil Lott.

The move has so far paid off: The company is behind A&E’s reboot of the true crime series Cold Case Files and Discovery’s docuseries Cooper’s Treasure.

Mark said that, unlike other prodcos, when he’s in development, he and his team tend not to think about the buyers, and instead focus on what they want to make and spend their time and energy working on.

“I think that we are saying to ourselves on a white board what do we want to spend our time doing? It’s our lives. As a young company, rightly there isn’t a lot of money coming in and if we are taking the risk and the gamble I better be able to stand by those gambles or I’m not doing it. It’s not worth it,” he said.


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