NATPE 2016: Dealmakers Hail Digital-to-Linear Path for Unscripted Content

Complete Coverage: NATPE 2016

The unscripted sector in the U.S. is facing oversaturation and ratings erosion. Even so, it still has plenty of upside due to the largest ongoing focus group in existence—the Internet—which creates marketing and distribution efficiencies only just being explored.

That was one of the main takeaways from Wednesday's panel on “rights, deals and negotiation” in NATPE’s reality conference track.

John Pollak, president of global distribution and Electus Studios for Electus International, said a number of the company’s recent sales have involved translation of Internet-native properties. A recent example is Adam Ruins Everything, 18 episodes of which have aired on truTV but hundreds of which exists online.

“If you’re an independent trying to launch a show internationally, you have buyers around the world saying, ‘What’s the track record? I don’t want to be the first one to do this,’” he said. “With non-traditional television development, there’s a huge opportunity to use digital platforms as an incubator [as long as] you have a great idea and you have the creative idea for how it would work on television.” Billy on the Street, he added, is another YouTube-to-truTV pickup. Recently renewed by the Turner net, the show’s Will Ferrell episode, racked up almost 2 million views.

Moderator David Lyle, currently president of producer trade group PactUS and former CEO of National Geographic Channels U.S., asked the panel if there are markers of likely success beyond YouTube subscribers or social-media likes.

“One of the first questions that we would ask when we get into a negotiation is, ‘What is the previous life of this format?’” said Lee Straus, senior VP of business affairs at NBC Entertainment and Universal Television.” The outcome “becomes a very complicated formula for us. We’ve done it a zillion different ways.” Throughout the process, he added, “It’s important to look at the life of a show and that will dictate a lot about the way a deal is structured.”

Brands have been a key part of the reality landscape since the first Toyota drove through the underbrush on Survivor, but the panelists said integration has been getting increasingly subtle and multilayered. Pollak, citing Electus’ work on the MasterChef franchise, noted that show’s major deal with Olive Garden as an example. Asked by Lyle about the financial responsibility for managing those pivotal brand relationships, he said, “We look at the networks as our partners. Producers on the ground have the relationships with brands. … Networks want to control everything. They don’t want anybody back-dooring on a show.”

Speaking from the network point of view, Straus averred, “We try to get into a 50-50 situation so we’re both incentivized to maximize” revenue.

Flexibility rules the day when it comes to making the right deal in the unscripted world, panelists agreed.

As Formatzone CEO Mark Rowaland put it,  “Any deal that’s worked, it’s done in a way that people said, ‘You’re breaking all the rules.’ Any deal that hasn’t worked, it’s worked as it’s ‘supposed to.’”