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Reality report: HBO Max, Banijay, Leftfield execs on what’s next for competitions

More buyers, more opportunities – but also more challenges in the current climate. In anticipation of Realscreen Live, running June 7 to 11, we present the Reality Report, examining the ...
June 1, 2021

More buyers, more opportunities – but also more challenges in the current climate. In anticipation of Realscreen Live, running June 7 to 11, we present the Reality Report, examining the top trends and issues impacting the unscripted production community today across three genres: reality competition, shiny floor and travel. The thread tying these features together is experimentation. More than ever, producers and buyers are venturing into new territory, blending genres and taking risks to cut through and meet an ever-increasing appetite for unscripted. First up: a look at what’s next for reality competition. 

Reality competition, an unscripted television mainstay, is changing shape.

The genre had its own particular set of hurdles to cross since March of last year. Specifically, those include a higher number of crew and participants, meaning more logistical challenges and increased costs, explains Shawn Witt, co-president of ITV America’s Leftfield Pictures, producer of History’s survival competition series Alone.

Still, he says the demand “couldn’t be higher.”

“I can’t remember a time in my career on this side, the selling side, where every single network, broadcaster, streamer, linear — they all want big competition series,” Witt says. “That said, to justify the COVID costs associated with such large productions, the creative has to be worth it. I don’t think anyone is looking to greenlight the kind of competition series that were on air even four years ago, three years ago. They’re really pushing us as sellers and creatives to evolve the way we think and push the boundaries of the genre, to make them loud.”

That means producers are taking bigger swings without sacrificing the familiarity of the competition format.

“It’s more mashups. It’s more hybrid,” Witt explains. “It’s more unexpected, louder, more promotable hooks. I don’t necessarily know that a celebrity attachment is enough anymore to get a buyer on board. The idea really needs to be loud and special.

“What is that unexpected hook, that loud filter that’s going to make people tune in when otherwise they wouldn’t? How do you drive subscribers via a logline?”

EXPERIMENTING

Some streaming services are working to perfect that formula.

Lucas Green, global head of content operations at producer-distributor Banijay — the Paris-headquartered superindie behind such formats as Lego Masters and Domino Effect — says the pandemic changed the way competition formats are commissioned.

“If you’re going to put together a bubble and do the testing, you want to make sure that, once you’ve got safe space to produce that show, how can you maximize the content you get from it? So, whether that’s spin offs and after-shows and digital extensions, it’s maximizing the setup that you’ve all worked so hard to put together,” he says.

“We know that the streaming platforms — Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ — are absolutely commissioning in a different way where they try things out and, if it works, they want to do more of it. They are still experimenting and we’ve all known for a long time that unscripted would have its day on streaming platforms and over the last couple of years that has absolutely started to come to fruition where those streaming platforms recognize that you can deliver great content in volume without the risks.”

Netflix, for one, has scored with competitions such as Talkback’s Too Hot to Handle and Studio Lambert’s The Circle. In March, the streamer announced it would be shaking up the release format for the latter two series to more closely resemble the linear model, with just several episodes released at a time so viewers could “dissect and dish on every step of the competition as it unfolds.”

“I think we’ll see them commissioning a wider spread of reality shows because they clearly work for their audience. What all of those streamers have in common is they want shows which are bingeable,” Green says. “Competition reality has a very natural series arc, rather than being standalone episodes, which don’t fit the mold as much for the streamers.”

Another streaming service investing heavily in the reality competition space is HBO Max. From Baketopia to The Big Shot with Bethenny, Full Bloom (pictured), 12 Dates of Christmas and The Great Pottery Throwdown, the WarnerMedia platform’s unscripted fare is among the more niche.

“We are not afraid to take deep dives into specialized territories,” Jennifer O’Connell, executive vice president of non-fiction and kids and family programming at HBO Max, says. “In fact, when someone brings us an idea that feels special, like no one’s done that before in this way, we get really excited about that, if we can be the first to try this. We also really support our producers and want them to experiment and encourage them to continue to surprise us.”

One fresh format heading to HBO Max is The Real Magic Mike (w/t), an unscripted competition series based on Warner Bros.’ Magic Mike franchise, from Eureka Productions and Warner Bros. Unscripted Television in association with Warner Horizon, set to premiere later this year.

“It’s always finding what is going to make the audience intrigued and interested because it feels like it’s a unique angle or world, but then, how do we also give it to them in a way that makes them feel comfortable watching it too?” O’Connell says. “We love the world of experimentation, and we’ll continue to do that.”

And like Netflix, O’Connell says the streaming space offers flexibility when it comes to delivering competition content to viewers.

“It’s also great for co-viewing. Competition is just one of those show [genres] that can also bring families together,” she explains. “We play around with how we deliver the episodes to the audience… On streaming, we can allow people to binge everything or we can roll it out weekly. On the competition side, rolling it out over several weeks has been great. We love to see the audience build but it’s also amazing to have that option. Some of the closed ended shows like Baketopia and Craftopia and Haute Dog, our dog grooming competition show — those are fun to put out as a binge because you’re going to gobble it up.”

RESPONSIBILITY

For some of the world, the end of the pandemic is on the horizon, though it’s not over yet. Thus, producers and buyers are still navigating the challenges of keeping crew and contestants safe without sacrificing creativity.

“Everyone has the hope that at some point, we’ll go back to normal and we can just make shows as we used to,” Witt says. “Shows are so much more expensive to make because of COVID. I’m sure networks want nothing more than to go back to the way it was and not resort to any of these policies and procedures. But at the end of the day, the safety of the crew and the cast is first and foremost for everybody — for networks, for production companies. We’re all feeling a heightened sense of responsibility to keep everyone safe, forever, no matter whether it’s COVID or not.”

That sense of responsibility has extended to other areas, too. As protests over police brutality against Black communities erupted globally just over a year ago, the entertainment industry — including the unscripted business — was forced to reckon with long standing issues around racial inequity.

Buyers, producers, distributors and other stakeholders laid out internal plans intended to address those issues. Survivor and Big Brother network CBS, for instance, outlined a target in November requiring at least half of the contestants featured on its future unscripted programs to be Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) beginning in the 2021-2022 broadcast season.

At HBO Max, O’Connell says the streamer is working to create content with diversity at its core, pointing to shows such as voguing competition Legendary and House of Ho, a reality series about a Vietnamese-American family living in Houston, Texas.

“We’re also really committed to hiring behind the scenes and making sure that we are very inclusive across the board on every show,” she says. “We’re also trying to meet more production companies that are driven by and led by underrepresented groups. That means women, that means Black-owned businesses… We’re really trying to meet as many people as we can who we may not have been in business with before.”

Banijay’s Green echoes O’Connell.

“It’s important within the context of Black Lives Matter that we are doing everything we can to make sure that these shows feel representative of modern society,” he says.

“We have to make sure that we are supporting different voices and new voices and previously marginalized groups to be able to work in the industry and get a foothold in the industry… and that we’re training up lots of producers, directors, and key members of our teams who come from very diverse backgrounds to make sure that in five, 10, 20 years time, we have a truly reflective creative community both on and off camera.”

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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