RealTalk: Lifetime, Content Group, IPC execs on the outlook for unscripted

Realscreen presents the first edition of its RealTalk Video Roundtable series, examining what the prognosis is for unscripted entertainment in the months and years ahead, following the impact of the ...
May 4, 2020

Realscreen presents the first edition of its RealTalk Video Roundtable series, examining what the prognosis is for unscripted entertainment in the months and years ahead, following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hosted by Realscreen editor and content director Barry Walsh, this edition of RealTalk features Jodi Flynn, president of The Content Group; Gena McCarthy, EVP and head of programming for Lifetime unscripted, and head of programming for FYI; and Aaron Saidman, president of Industrial Media and president and co-founder of The Intellectual Property Corporation.

In the discussion, the executives reveal what their day-to-day business looks like now, in the midst of the pandemic, and what they see as the outlook for the unscripted genre going forward, as production companies and broadcasters worldwide come to grips with what the content production model might look like in the months and years ahead. Will unscripted programming, lower in cost and often quicker to produce than its scripted counterpart, bounce back quicker, and perhaps undergo a “boom” akin to its explosion in popularity following the 2008 financial crisis? What will production teams and processes look like when restrictions ease around the world, and what subject matter and sub-genres will be most attractive to viewers as they emerge from the stress of the global pandemic?

Making safe sets
Networks and prodcos are, by now, relatively adept at working remotely and handling practically every aspect of their businesses accordingly. In some cases, talent have been outfitted with fixed rig set-ups to self-shoot, and remote editing and post solutions have kept shows on air, ranging from docuseries to competition shows such as American Idol. But the day will come — although no one knows when — in which productions can begin in earnest once again. What will that look like, and what genres will find it harder to get off the ground?

aaron saidman headshot“We’re putting a lot of thought into what might the new normal be and what might those new production protocols have to be,” says Industrial Media’s Aaron Saidman (pictured left). “When we’re in the middle of that production that we haven’t yet sold but that we think we’ll be shooting in October of this year, and someone on the crew comes down with a fever, what do you do?”

What will we want to watch?
jodi flynnOur panelists see demand, naturally, for feel-good, escapist fare. More specifically, Saidman sees potential for game shows and comedic unscripted to strike a chord amongst viewers needing a lift from the 24/7 news cycle, while Lifetime’s Gena McCarthy thinks character-led docuseries and docusoaps will also flourish. The Content Group’s Jodi Flynn (pictured above) thinks the restaurant space could be fertile ground to explore. “I think people really feel for that community, and how devastated they have been in particular,” she says. Family-friendly is also key, she adds: “Stuff that you’re not going to worry about if your kids walk in the room.”

What will budgets look like?
Squeezed margins and budget concerns were hot-button topics before COVID-19, and now, with advertising revenue becoming a huge question mark for broadcasters, it’s to be expected that the financial pressures will be felt by the production sector as well. Saidman thinks some things will remain the same — bidding wars for top content, for example — while Flynn believes the budgeting process will need to be substantially redrawn on all sides.

gena mccarthy“It’s a great time for established producers, newer producers, for new talent and boutique production companies to be pitching us,” offers Lifetime’s Gena McCarthy (pictured right), “because the best ideas and not the biggest budgets will win.”

Importantly, the panelists agree that the crisis has brought networks and their production partners into a deeper spirit of collaboration, with the aim to ride out the challenges together, and maintain the resilience of the industry itself.

“This was our origin — after the writer’s strike and the financial crisis we saw a big boom,” says Flynn. “Unscripted is able to respond to changes like this, and tragedies like this, in a way that other programming can’t.” – BW

Watch the first episode of RealTalk here:

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