The “Reality Refresh” panel at the 2022 Realscreen Summit looked at the evolution of unscripted television across both linear networks and streamers.
Moderated by Ample Entertainment co-founder Ari Mark (pictured left), the panel featured veteran producers and programmers like Rupert Dobson, EVP of development at Bunim/Murray Productions (pictured right); Nancy Glass, CEO of Glass Entertainment Group (pictured second from left); Donna Clark, managing director of DSP Productions (pictured second from right); and Lauren Frasca, SVP of content and strategy for Magnolia Network (pictured center).
Mark led a casual yet lively discussion about where the unscripted genre is going, touching on everything from the resuscitation of old franchises to the potential role that NFTs could play in unscripted and reality television.
Here are some takeaways from the discussion.
“All-new” but still familiar
Glass, who has worked on unscripted series across a range of genres and formats, said one of the challenges when it comes to selling series is that many networks and streamers can give what can seem like contradictory feedback, and parsing it for what they want isn’t always easy.
“The networks say things like ‘We want something fresh, but familiar. Smart, but not intelligent.’ So you have to learn how to listen to that,” she explained. “If you give them something that stands on something that viewers already know, you will have much more success. So you take a tried-and-true format, and give it a little bit of a twist.”
Glass provided an example of combining the old and the new, discussing that her company has acquired the IP to the iconic game show Let’s Make a Deal.
“We now own the IP for Let’s Make a Deal — talk about familiar. And now we’re going to NFTs for Let’s Make a Deal.”
NFTs and Web3 as alternative funding model
NFTs came up a few times in the discussion, with Bunim/Murray’s Dobson being particularly bullish on the crypto-adjacent technology.
“We’re experimenting at the moment with Web3, the NFT/crypto space,” he said. “We’re looking at alternate ways of funding shows. We’ve found a lot of the time with some of the buyers, they like the creative, they want to do the show, but funding is an issue.”
But with the monetization potential that NFTs represent, Dobson says it’s an opportunity to fund a project that might otherwise stall out.
“We’ve got a show at the moment that hit a roadblock [when] it came to the funding. Now we’re looking at the funding through tech, and then potentially taking it back to that platform at a fraction of the cost, so we [could] potentially license that show to the platform that wanted it in the first place. It’s going to be at a reduced cost, and then we get to retain a lot of the IP,” he explained.
“It’s not innovation in terms of the creative of the show, but it’s sort of innovation behind the scenes in terms of the model.”
Developing for streaming vs. linear networks
The rise of streaming platforms as a major outlet for unscripted content was another big point of discussion. Frasca, who represents the Magnolia Network, the joint venture between Discovery and Chip and Joanna Gaines, explained that the development process for each is different, using the example of episode length.
“We’re definitely developing for both spaces, and we do see that [streaming and linear] are different spaces. We think that viewer expectations when they come to those platforms are different,” Frasca said. “One thing that we have been playing with a lot is, when we started out, we were getting lots of pitches that we felt like ‘God, these are beautiful stories and we want to tell them, but they don’t feel like they would hold 24 minutes.’ And with a streaming-first mentality, we aren’t constrained by that.”
Dobson pointed out that issues still remain with streamers that drop full seasons of unscripted series onto their platforms, such as the difficulty in maintaining that all-important buzz, especially for a new show.
“It feels like the Netflix dating shows were the last big [thing], like everyone was talking about it. But I think the challenge is that people binge it across the weekend and they want the next thing,” he said. “So it’s a very intense conversation around the show, but that lasts for about a week and then it’s died. Do you get four seasons of that on something like Netflix, or is the model two seasons and then they just want the next big thing?”
The importance of innovation
DSP’s Clark stressed the importance of innovation when it comes to new formats and concepts, and lauded several European countries for their consistent search for new ideas rather than simply making more seasons of established, successful shows — in part due to government funding.
“Public broadcasters [in Europe] have innovation baked in. They have to innovate, that’s part of the deal. You can’t keep returning shows over and over again if you’re the BBC, or particularly if you’re European, you have to consistently try out new formats.
“You’ll get your government money, but always you innovate,” she continued. “So that means that they really aren’t risk-averse, the risks are taken there.”