NYC TV Week: There’s No Recipe For Unscripted TV Hits

But Creating a Series That is Both Unique and Timely Offers a Solid Starting Point

NEW YORK -- Like the nature of unscripted shows themselves, there’s no precise recipe available on how to create a successful reality series, execs tied to the popular TV category said here today.

But that did not stop them from offering some advice on how  producers and showrunners can break the mold.

But, bottom line, always strive to develop a unique offering, since that’s now become the viewer expectation, said David McKillop, executive vice president and general manager,  A+E Network, in response to questions from session moderator Dade Hayes, the executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable.  “The secret is really getting away from that derivative side,” McKillop said.

One trick, added Michael Hirschorn, president and CEO of Ish Entertainment, which has developed and launches series for VH1, We, Oxygen, and YouTube, among others, is to assemble a strong base of your own ideas and sprinkling in input from others. The right mix is “a combination of idealism and cynicism,” he said.

“It’s our job to push the envelope,” said Brent Montgomery, CEO of Leftfield Entertainment, which is behind unscripted series such as Pawn Stars and American Restoration.  But once those ideas start to churn out results, the networks sometimes try to constrain further envelop-pushing. “A lot of networks will [then] try to put us back into that box,” he said.

And being timely also doesn’t hurt. Montgomery noted that Pawn Stars was developed for A&E when the economy was in the dumps and consumers were seeking out ways to make an extra buck.

Plus, don’t get caught in a rut when you do strike a hit. “Being diversified is very very important,” he added.

But the pace of unscripted TV development can also be refreshing and require a forcing of the action and add in creativity on the fly that is typically found in movie making.  

With TV “we have an airdate to hit,” said Meryl Poster, president of television for The Weinstein Company, maker of reality shows such as Project Runway and Mob Wives. “It forces you to make a decision…with TV, you’re on a timetable.”

Panelists also discussed how social networking and digital distribution are changing the dynamics of the business.

“They [viewers want to feel they are part of the brand itself,” McKillop. “The younger generation has an incredibly powerful tool, they have a passion, and they can become an advocate for our brand.”

And those tools and passions can sometimes turn into job offers. McKillop shared a story about a promo developed by a fan (for all of $80) for the second season Bates Motel and distributed it on the Web…this all before A&E had even produced its own. In fact, this Web-only handiwork was surprisingly similar to the promo A&E had under development, McKillop noted.

While the lawyers’ first reaction was to issue a cease-and-desist warning to this rogue promo producer, cooler heads prevailed and A&E, in fact, ended up hiring the kid who developed it, McKillop said.