This is being called the golden age of TV programming for scripted shows, in particular.
More shows than ever are being produced, viewers are binge watching them hours at a time through video on demand and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. And media companies are making piles of cash licensing shows to streaming services, or using them to build their own subscription businesses.
Nonfiction programming has always been a bit of a stepchild in the programming world. People watch, sure. But even the best reality doesn’t get the same acclaim. Nor is it seeing the same kind of demand in this era of peak TV.
All of which leads to the question: What is reality programming’s value in an increasingly on-demand world?
While some nonfiction programming appears on Netflix and Hulu, the opportunities have been more limited.
“With respect to the subscription video-on-demand space, there has been no interest at this particular time in any of the reality types of programming,” one studio executive said.
Unlike networks, which need to fill a programming grid, buyers in an on-demand world are looking for shows that will give their services cachet and recruit and retain subscribers. “Reality is popular on networks, but it’s still viewed as voyeuristic. It’s not necessarily high-end programming,” the studio executive said.
Finding Viewers on SVOD
But as subscription services proliferate and mature, their attitude toward nonfiction could be changing. Viewers are watching more reality shows on demand. Streaming services are showing more interest in creating their own unscripted programming and adding existing shows to their offerings.
According to comScore, the top 10 rated reality programs for the 2016-17 broadcast season garnered more than 66 million VOD transactions, up 26% from the prior broadcast season’s reality programs. The gain came as overall VOD transactions dipped 3% from the prior year.
“I talk to people who produce shows for Discovery, Scripps Networks and A+E [Networks], and they all say they’re getting more interest from SVOD,” MoffettNathanson Research analyst Michael Nathanson said. “Given the price of scripted programming is going up, they’re looking at unscripted, which is less expensive, so they can raise their margins.”
Hulu currently pitches subscribers what it calls the largest offering of unscripted programming available on a streaming platform, with thousands of episodes from Scripps Networks, A+E and NBCUniversal.
“As SVOD programmers, we are always looking for content that will drive subscriber growth and keep viewers engaged,” Hulu vice president of content consumption Lisa Holme said. “We see unscripted series as an excellent driver of engagement and consumption, which correlate highly with retention. In the case of Hulu, we uniquely have a very robust advertising business, and so driving lots of hours of consumption is a priority for us, and unscripted can be a cost-effective way to balance the overall portfolio of content.”
Holme said Hulu subscribers watch a lot of unscripted programming. It accounts for a double-digit share of overall consumption on the service. “Outside of catching up on the latest episode of current series — The Voice, The Bachelor, etc. — we see a lot of viewing of character-based reality and competition-based reality, as well as, more recently, … food, home, travel-related series,” she said.
Prior seasons of broadcast series such as CBS’s Survivor and Amazing Race are popular, too. “People are often surprised that prior seasons of those series, as well as series like [Real] Housewives and [Keeping Up With the] Kardashians are consumed as much as they are on Hulu,” Holme said.
Netflix did not return calls seeking comment on nonfiction programming. Netflix’s reality offerings include Skin Wars, Tornado Hunters, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Undercover Boss.
Audiences as Loyal as Scripted Fans
TV networks say unscripted shows attract loyal audiences just like scripted programs.
“People want to be entertained, whether by scripted or unscripted,” Nancy Daniels, president and general manager of Discovery Communications’ s TLC, said. “They seek out what connects with them. We’ve seen big success with our shows even in this landscape where there are so many choices.”
While it’s harder to get viewers to watch reruns, Daniels said people watch old episodes of series like Little People, Big World to see what the characters looked like when they were younger. “The twins, Jeremy and Zack, have gotten married. They’re having children of their own. But you can go back to when they were 10 years old, starting out,” she said.
While TLC shows still get the bulk of their viewership on the linear channel, the shows that do best on the network also do best on demand or on the TLC Go app. TLC this year created an original spinoff of its 90 Day Fiancé franchise for the app called 90 Day Fiancé: What Now. “It’s been a huge driver for us on Go,” Daniels said.
Off-channel viewing is becoming an important factor in deciding which TLC series get renewed, Daniels said. “We’re not just looking at linear ratings anymore; we’re looking at overall audience engagement,” she said. “That’s certainly been an evolution for us over the last couple of years.”
App viewing is one way Discovery Communications is monetizing its mainly nonfiction programming.
“When it comes to Discovery unscripted, ours has tremendous value,” Discovery Communications chief commercial officer Paul Guyardo said.
Guyardo said that about 40% of what’s being watched on Discovery’s Go apps is library content, as opposed to current series. “Forty percent is a lot bigger than we thought,” he said.
For series on Investigation Discovery, people are streaming episodes they’ve already seen, “to pick up on clues that they didn’t catch the first time,” Guyardo said.
Discovery Communciations is not selling its programming to Netflix. It does have some shows on Hulu. The company is focusing on getting its core networks included on skinny bundles being offered by virtual distributors being rolled out by Hulu, DirecTV, YouTube and others.
Guyardo insists there’s demand for Discovery’s unscripted programing. “It’s our choice not to sell it in pieces, but rather to feature it all on our own digital platform or in skinny bundles, so we’re getting all the shows’ branding and equity.”
He added that Discovery’s programming is a good deal. “If you look at it relative to what distributors are paying for sports or paying for scripted, I would say we are an exceptionally good value.”
Producers said the subscription services are coming to them looking for original unscripted shows.
“Nonfiction may not be as sexy, but it’s very, very cost-effective,” said John Ford, a former Discovery executive and now general manager of NPACT, a trade association representing non-fiction programmers with about 100 member companies. “So you look at broadcast and cable any time of year, you take out sports programming, and many of the top 10, top 15, top 20 programs are nonscripted.
“You can create a pretty good nonscripted show for three or four hundred thousand dollars an hour,” Ford said. “On an hourly basis, you’re spending $3 million to create a scripted show. So you get 10 times the programming for your dollars in nonscripted.”
Ford pointed out there are already documentaries about food and wine on Netflix. Netflix has commissioned the producer of the acclaimed series Planet Earth to make an eight-part series, Our Planet, due to appear in 2019.
Netflix also has some older off-network nonfiction shows as well. “It’s interesting to look, just to troll through Netflix and see all the nonfiction shows that are there,” Ford said. “You’ll find inventory that I was executive producer on back in 2005 and 2006 still lurking in the inventory somewhere.”
Ford said the production of nonfiction programming for Netflix and the other streaming services flies under the radar because the shows don’t involve big stars and budgets. “What’s going on in nonfiction doesn’t necessarily claim the headlines, but I can tell you our members are actively pitching and producing for all of the OTT services,” Ford said.
Digital Is Key to The Workshop
Tom Farrell, CEO and executive producer for The Workshop, said his company is banking on selling shows to on-demand services. Last year, Amazon Prime green-lighted a series about tennis star Novak Djokovic produced by The Workshop, with Farrell as one of the executive producers.
“Everything that we develop has an eye on the digital world now,” Farrell said. “So while we’re still finding homes in the linear space, you would be foolish not to be looking at the digital component of our business.”
Production standards for on-demand shows might be higher than those for networks. “The viewer is so much more demanding because they’re going to it consciously, rather than stumbling upon it setting there on the couch riffing through the channels,” Farrell said. “You make a conscious decision, so I think your expectations are higher.”
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