Realscreen West ’19: Five things to know about the state of unscripted

Mergers, margins, monetization. A growing stable of buyers, a troubling lack of hits. So what is the state of the union for the unscripted industry as it heads into 2020 ...
June 5, 2019

Mergers, margins, monetization. A growing stable of buyers, a troubling lack of hits. So what is the state of the union for the unscripted industry as it heads into 2020 and further?

Turns out that it depends who you ask. At the standing room only closing session of Realscreen West’s first day, a panel of various industry heavyweights gave their takes on the issues facing the industry today and going forward. And while the sentiments might not have been as rosy as they were in 2010, neither were they as dire as the “creative crisis in unscripted” days of 2014.

Here, Realscreen presents five main takeaways from yesterday’s state of the union session, moderated by Michael O’Connell from the Hollywood Reporter.

Margin compression is not going away
According to John Ford, general manager of industry trade body NPACT, the chief issue facing unscripted producers of all stripes today is margin compression, or having margins squeezed to the point of peril for producers who are already struggling to stay afloat. As the development process becomes more expensive and protracted, every bit of cash helps. But, says Ford, “The problem that develops in the long run is that you have less money, time and effort to spend on development.” Which leads us to…

In search of…. hits
Eli Lehrer, EVP and general manager at A+E’s History, points toward the dearth of new hits in unscripted as a key problem area, saying, “You can count the number of new hits on one hand. And that number is vastly different than it was five or six years ago.”

Coupled with the challenges in developing new content faced by producers, the SVOD explosion and the “deluge of content” currently available for consumers is exacerbating the problem. No longer are you just competing with what’s in your time slot on another network, says Lehrer. “You’re competing with the entire recorded history of television.”

Know and grow your brand
In response to the industry-wide issue of the flow of new hits slowing to a trickle, Lehrer says History is trying to diversify its slate with a number of shows that are “right down the middle” and then others that are “a little scary for us” and that bring an audience that doesn’t typically come to History.

Allison Page, president of the joint venture between Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines and Discovery Inc, says the network, set to launch in the summer of 2020 and probably with Magnolia somewhere in its title, will not be merely the “Fixer Upper network” but rather, will be more reflective of the variety of interests displayed via the Gaines’ Magnolia brand in general. There will be “family-friendly, G-rated” programming, doc-style storytelling and of course, content focused on design and construction, but also potential forays into food and gardening content, among other genres. The key element that will make it attractive to the Gaines’ huge fan base is curation, and that regardless of genre, the content will all be filtered through the Chip and Joanna lens.

Be afraid… be very afraid
In terms of unscripted genres on the way up, it looks like paranormal is gaining heat once again. Like true crime, there’s the element of danger that keeps audiences on the edges of their seats, and while there is the need for some element of journalistic integrity in producing the content (essentially “not lying,” according to Jodi Flynn, president of The Content Group) there is also room to stretch out and produce something captivating and original. Flynn, currently at work on an unnamed paranormal series, cited the “fun challenge” in balancing the two, saying, “I’m excited that it’s coming back.”

There are reasons to be cheerful, dammit
Despite the very real issues being faced by networks and producers of unscripted content, there are also real opportunities emerging, and silver linings to the clouds described above. Critical Content CEO Tom Forman — the main proponent of the optimism in the panel and by his own admission, an unlikely candidate for that post — cited the growth of new buyers with deep pockets (“They are open for business and they’re buying,” he said of such platforms as Disney+), emerging platforms with producer-friendly business models (Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi as the prime example) and the new appeal for the “mini franchise” on linear as signs that it’s not all doom and gloom out there.

The last word goes to Forman: “I think it’s a terrific time to be a content producer… I feel like I’m an arms dealer in an arms race.”

(Photo by Nelson Blanton)

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