Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm’ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook.
Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on 2020, and looking onward to this year. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. In this latest edition, we speak to Corie Henson, head of unscripted for WarnerMedia-owned TBS, TNT and truTV.
Tell me a little bit about how 2020 was for TBS, TNT and truTV, with specific focus on the unscripted side?
Corie Henson: From the unscripted side, it’s been remarkably fruitful and really, really busy.
In the early stages of quarantine, when we didn’t know how long it was going to go on, I, in working really closely with our production folks, had targeted June or July to hopefully have some practices and some plans in place.
We had an opportunity to be really innovative. We actually put two shows on the air that we were shooting and editing and airing in real time, called Celebrity Show-Off and Tournament of Laughs with Jason Sudeikis and Mayim Bialik… I was really proud of how we pulled that off because we didn’t lower our standards and the shows weren’t Zoom boxes.
[There's] a ton going on and a ton in the pipeline for 2021 between Wipeout, The Go-Big Show, The Cube – which is a game show we just shot down in Atlanta with Dwayne Wade, based on the UK format — [and] Fast Foodies. We picked up another couple of series where we had shot pilots over the summer or in early fall.
So, in one word, other than stressful? It’s been super busy and it’s been exciting. In 2021, hopefully there will be a big payoff for us. We’re planting our flag in unscripted obviously in a bigger way than we ever have before with big tent-pole shows and formats that were carefully selected, some of them certainly even before COVID came along.
Could you share more about what’s in store for TBS, TNT and truTV this year in unscripted?
CH: The Go-Big Show, which is the extreme talent show… It feels really authentic in a time where everything is a little bit more contained.
I can’t think of anything that is more for the whole family and escapist and big and wild and fun than Wipeout… It’s giving people a few moments of joy, escape and fun and laughter.
The Cube is another great show. That format has been killing it in the UK for nine seasons.
Those are the headlines on TBS. At truTV, we’re doing Fast Foodies, which is a really clever cooking show based on fast food obsessions…. we just picked up a show called Big Trick Energy and I’m really, really excited about that one.
At TNT, the needle’s a little narrower to thread whereas I look at truTV sometimes, tonally, as TBS’s baby brother — meaning, TBS is very comedy driven but the shows are broadcast level. They don’t need to be comedies but they need some comedic perspective to them, some joy, some levity — that real entertainment factor. TruTV is driven by comedy as well but it’s more acerbic and irreverent.
TNT is a whole ‘nother piece, it’s driven by dramas and big ticket movies and sports.
It’s bonkers to think about how many people we’re reaching across all three networks. For me, it’s really fun creatively because I get to pick and choose all of these different disciplines. Having been at broadcast for so long, you’re sort of handcuffed to doing something broad, which can lead you a little bit down the middle of the path.
Over on TNT, we’re developing a series with Raw out of the UK, and they’re the guys that did Don’t F*** with Cats and Three Identical Strangers… It’s really the best of all worlds.
Do those shows reflect some of the trends that you’re seeing in unscripted content right now that will be at the forefront this year?
CH: We’re so distant now, obviously, from people that we are used to seeing, people that we’re missing, our loved ones, our friends and family. That feeling of wanting to be part of something is really important to people right now.
That’s the filter that we’re putting everything through. Of course, there will always be some outliers. Sometimes being part of something means just being part of some really good, juicy, soapy doc that’s going down because it gives you something to talk about with your friends.
Looking for shows that do that, where they give you an experience, they give you that camaraderie… That’s what drives me when I’m having creative conversations with my team when a new pitch comes in. It’s not enough to just be a strong format or a great piece of talent. It has to engage you.
Has your approach to how you commission and develop new content changed or evolved in the last year?
CH: For two or three months, every pitch was like, “It’s COVID-friendly.” And I’m like, “Well, I’m not buying a show in a box… ” I’m sitting staring at my cell phone or Zoom all day. The last thing I want to do is turn on my television and see another Zoom call.
The evolution has been that I’m truly holding people to the standard that existed before the world went sideways. I’m challenging people to come up with ways to do it, and to do it safely with our team, but… really push the boundaries creatively as much as possible. [When you] have three networks and all those people relying on you, there’s no time to be taking those pitches that are coming to you just because they’re COVID-safe. The creative will always lead the conversation.
In addition to the pandemic, something that’s been a big turning point this year has been the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations about diversity in front of and behind the camera. In what ways are TBS, TNT and truTV working to address those issues?
CH: [We're] launching some unscripted-focused development [with] new voices… [and] in doing so we’re basically creating outreach to a handful of production companies.
In some cases… it’s a scripted company where people of color are running the company and they’ve never done unscripted before, but they have really great talent relationships. So we’re having a conversation about what unscripted would look like to them. Some unscripted companies that have already established themselves and have a very specific and clear narrative for their programming and the stuff that they’ve sold we’re approaching to develop something exclusively for us.
Also, on several shows, we are committing to hiring — not a certain number of persons of color — but hiring [within] the senior editorial division, even if it means that we’re hiring redundantly.
When we did The Cube, we brought on a few people that didn’t necessarily have game experience, but they brought something really interesting to the table… so [it's about] giving really clever and experienced producers an opportunity in a genre that they may just not have been exposed to before. The hope is that on the next game show, they’ll be the person that we hire… We’re trying to do that across as many shows as we can.
We have a content group that focuses on this as well…. I feel like we have really good, solid and substantial guidance, and we’re having the right conversations. We just need to keep doing more of that.