Unscripted

Summit ’21: Reality execs on “golden age” for producers, new buyers

A panel of programmers and producers gathered virtually Thursday (Feb. 4) at the Realscreen Summit to discuss the immediate future of reality television, and share a mix of practical advice ...
February 5, 2021

A panel of programmers and producers gathered virtually Thursday (Feb. 4) at the Realscreen Summit to discuss the immediate future of reality television, and share a mix of practical advice and guarded optimism for the genre with those viewing.

The session was moderated by Wayfarer Entertainment CEO D’Angela Proctor (pictured, top left) and featured Jim Casey (top center), president, Painless Productions; Patrick Reardon (bottom left), president, Jupiter Holdings; Cat Rodriguez (bottom center), VP, unscripted development and programming, Lifetime; Joe Sungkur (top right), SVP, Fox Alternative Entertainment; and Karrie Wolfe (bottom right), EVP and co-head of development, Kinetic Content.

“It’s a golden age right now for producers because there’s so many buyers,” Reardon said. “There’s such a need for content and people are taking a lot more creative risks… Things that we never could have gotten on air three, four or five years ago have a chance now.”

Below, Realscreen compiled a few key takeaways from the session, where executives talked niche unscripted, new buyers and diversity.

“THERE’S NO ROOM FOR MEDIOCRITY”

For a few panelists, the growth of unscripted TV, particularly in 2020, has meant leaving the “middle ground” behind in favor of more niche content.

“In television, there’s really no room in the middle, there’s no room for mediocrity — it’s either got to be huge or really small and personal,” Casey said. “Those extremes are going to get more and more separated. I also think that’s going to be a function of COVID budgets. It’s going to be harder to budget mid-range shows. They’re either going to have to be big enough to absorb the COVID costs, or they’re going to have to be small enough to fly under the radar.”

Wolfe agreed, adding the word “extreme” can mean different things for different shows across all genres.

“If it’s a big new studio show, the perfect example of extreme is The Masked Singer, but then there’s 90 Day Fiance, which is a pure doc-follow around couples who are fascinating to watch. And there’s a real ticking clock embedded within the show which ups the stakes,” she said. “‘Extreme’ means so much.”

Those extremes, Reardon said, have made the barrier to entry higher than ever before.

“It’s part of this constant escalation of like, ‘What’s next? What more can you do?’” he said. “Which, from a producer standpoint, is daunting. We want to have something that’s somewhat grounded in reality, that’s not so ridiculous that people can’t relate to it. But we’re also competing for eyeballs. So it’s a constant battle.”

Reardon pointed to Kinetic Content’s Love is Blind, which airs on Netflix, as one unscripted format that cut through with a buzzy concept and “great execution.”

For Fox Alternative Entertainment’s Sungkur, audiences continue to gravitate towards unscripted formats.

“For us, formats are always going to be huge,” Sungkur said. “There’s a lot to be made financially in terms of a great format that travels the world, but I think our audiences are looking for the hooks and formats and shows they can come back to week after week, and where we can build on that format.”

“THERE’S POTENTIAL EVERYWHERE”

The proliferation of platforms has led to more competition for some, and opportunity for others.

“For a minute there Netflix was the Holy Grail,” Reardon said. “They’re still exciting, but now we’re starting to see that there’s potential everywhere.”

Still, wildly different budgets and scheduling strategies between buyers present other challenges. As for whether the success of streaming services benefits all buyers, Casey said the industry isn’t there yet.

“What I’m excited about with the streamers is they’re going into other areas that other people had a monopoly on before. So it gets everybody on their toes, and it makes everybody work harder,” he said.

One platform of note, Quibi – Jeffrey Katzenberg’s shuttered short-form mobile streaming experiment – prompted discussion among panelists on the future of unscripted short-form.

“I don’t see it going anywhere. I just feel like — and maybe this is me personally — short form is for YouTube videos of kids riding their bikes into the side of the garage, or short form is to get a job as a feature director,” Casey said. “It doesn’t mean that I think that it’s impossible. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a dead genre. I just think it hasn’t been done right yet.”

For Reardon, short form isn’t a “genre,” adding Quibi’s demise wasn’t due to the quality of the content.

“That’s like saying an hour-long thing is a genre,” he said. “I think it’s just trying to monetize something that already exists for free. It’s like trying to sell people passes to a premium park that’s right across the street from a free park that has all the same stuff.”

“GIVE THEM A SHOT”

Lifetime’s Rodriguez said diversity was a “main priority” for the network after the events of 2020, namely the killing of George Floyd and the attention brought to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It already was on the agenda. But now even more so. And that’s in front of the camera and behind, I think it’s crucial. And I think that people are paying attention now more,” she said.

Wolfe pointed to CBS’s requirement, announced in November, that at least half of the contestants featured on its future unscripted programs must be Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“It says something. It says, ‘Okay, people are actually going to begin to take this seriously,’ and actually implement it — not just talk about it, but actually make sure that we’re starting to see different races and cultures on screen,” she said.

Reardon added reality TV casting is making strides to reflect the “natural diversity” of the world.

“We’re catching up in that [but] I think scripted television has actually done a better job of it. We’re starting to place a lot more emphasis on it and see it spilling over on the unscripted side as well,” he added.

Sungkur added that while conversations around diversity have been happening for a decade, problems persisted across the industry.

“There was a huge lack of diversity,” he said. “Internally on shows, we’d be looking around the room, seeing the same types of faces, quite often people who got jobs because of connections that they know from other people who were established in the industry, and you started to realize it was hurting your show.”

Proctor offered some advice to panelists looking to recruit and train diverse talent behind the camera.

“I grew up in this business on the Black media side. So, everything that I was a showrunner of, or a creator of, or the production company of record for, were all shows for BET or TV One because that’s where my relationships were to get things sold. This is a relationship business,” she said. “So, a lot of times when I was a showrunner, I didn’t get the opportunity to go over to mainstream shows because a lot of the mainstream production companies weren’t aware that Sunday Best is the same thing as American Idol, just on a smaller scale. It’s a gospel competition show. So, why couldn’t I work on the bigger show, on a broadcast show? So, I would offer up [the advice] to look in other places.

“Talent, showrunners and producers — African American, which I’m speaking from the shoes of — we tend to get stuck in one area. A lot of times we get stuck in the talent area…. Give them a shot at a supervisory position, give them a shot in the edit bay. That’s where the stories are really, really crafted so that they can increase their skill set and be valuable on shows other than the ones that they’re currently working on.”

The 2021 Realscreen Summit concluded Feb. 4. To see our coverage of the event, click here

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 HMV.com. 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.

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