TV That's Good As Gold

In Reality TV's ‘Wild West’ World, Producers, Networks Endlessly Mine For Winning Content
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Tyler Pappas has a dream. As managing director of The Chapter Media, a TV production company, Pappas built a reputation making corporate videos, lots of digital content and a bunch of broadcast spots. But two and a half years ago, he started to get what he calls “the itch.”

There was a vast frontier of reality TV out there, and Pappas saw a possible stake in it.

“It seems every time you turn on the TV and see one of these shows you think, ‘You know what, I always had a thought like that,’ ” he said.

It’s true that after coming up with lots of pitches, Pappas has moved that much closer to reality-TV gold, thanks to an idea that has drawn interest. But as he now knows all too well, the world of reality TV has inspired a seemingly endless realm of would-be creators.

“As soon as I told people I was exploring reality development, I found that everyone has an idea,” he said. “Because you’re a producer, they assume you’ll get them on TV. The guy who runs the front desk at my office building has an idea; everyone in your orbit thinks they have the milliondollar idea or the ratings winner.”

Maybe they do. And Pappas — like every other TV producer, network programmer and over-the-top outlet executive — has come to understand that, to whatever degree, you have to listen. The next great idea may well be right at your fingertips, like some secret trove of ore waiting to be mined.

“It’s like the Wild West out there,” Pappas said.

It is an apt description for a genre so big and evolving, the word “genre” seems too small to hold it. Broadcast and cable networks and over-the-top Web providers have continually made the form their bread-and-butter arena of programming, filling hours too vast to count comfortably viewed across all platforms. Production companies of all sizes — and there are hundreds throughout the U.S., according to multiple sources — pour pitch ideas to networks through vast pipelines; those nets in turn send more creative back from their own in-house teams — more ideas in search of the right fit. And smaller companies, once they’ve tasted a smattering of success, become bait for larger companies in a vast and eager M&A free-for-all that has seen several hundred-million-dollar deals over the last few years.

Ideas that once seemed outrageous or outlandish are now outdated. (Where have you gone, Ozzy Osbourne?) Meanwhile, pitched and produced content — some chaotic, some polished — emerges and gains new legions of fans. And like a riderless horse in the high plains, the process shows no signs of slowing down.

“There are more players and more outlets and more producers; there’s a beast to be fed and that creates an opportunity,” Marjorie Kaplan, group president for TLC and Animal Planet, said. “Think about the role of the casting person. I imagine there is nobody in Appalachia who hasn’t been contacted by a casting person by now.”

Added Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager of History and H2: “I’ve been in cable TV for 20 years and it’s never been this competitive. With this many cable and production companies and this many hours of original content available, I don’t know if it’s possible to consume it all.”

A VIEWING DYNASTY

It may be equally challenging to consider what set the stampede running in the first place. Some might say the O.J. Simpson trial some 20 years ago brought viewers around to watching daytime fare that might offer drama a little less contrived than the soaps. For others, it might be that the Jerry Springers of the combative TV world made it somehow OK for a man get 15 minutes of fame for sleeping with his wife’s sister … and that sister’s babysitter. And the writer’s strike, leading into the 2008 recession, left broadcast networks with many hours to fill, and cheaply, with unscripted fare.

But through each step in the form’s evolution itself, from the Loud family (PBS’s An American Family) to The Real World (MTV) to “Shark Week” (Discovery Channel) to Cops (Fox); to the big broadcasting hitters of the early 2000s in Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race (all three from CBS) and American Idol (Fox); to cable-network- brand-redefining fare from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo) to Ice Road Truckers (History); to the historic success of Duck Dynasty (A&E); reality has gained new ground and grown into something larger than what it was.

And yet, every one of these shows, and hundreds more, from competitions to docuseries, some featuring people chasing big cats or big deals, have a certain intrinsic commonality: They’re about people living life on their own terms, using their own code, an iconoclasm that is at once appealing, inviting and inspiring.

“We call that ‘the genius of the common man,’ ” said Eileen O’Neill, group president, Discovery, Science & Velocity Networks, who’s been in the business of reality for some 24 years. “We really do believe the captains on their deck, or the mom that manages eight kids, there’s something uniquely special about what they’re doing and accomplishing, and how they’re doing it, that is so relatable.”

Added Hoogstra: “We call it the pioneer spirit. Whatever it is they’re doing, there’s a rebelliousness, but they’re very skilled, talented, fiercely self-reliant, independent people. These are lifestyles you wish you had. It’s aspirational in that way.”

COMIC TIMING

The magic formula, for the shows with the most staying power, seems to be mixing that pioneer spirit and homespun intelligence with a painfully enviable quality that broadcast networks have lost a bit of a handle on: The easygoing structure and chuckles of a well-drawn sitcom.

A visit to Pawn Stars on History means not only watching Rick Harrison bargain over JFK’s cigar box and enlighten us about civil war weaponry; it also means we’ll get another episode of three generations of Harrison family shtick, with Rick’s dad, “The Old Man,” complaining about the savviest slacker on television, store employee Chumlee: “Working with Chumlee is like working with a 2-year-old, but a 2-year-old would be smarter,” he says in the off-camera interview style that worked so well in the British and U.S. versions of The Office.

“The most successful reality shows, for lack of a better term, are cast well,” Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at Katz Television Group, said. “The producers find the right people that have, in the case of Pawn Stars, a sense of humor, and we’re observing the comical nature of the interchange of a family dynamic.”

“Reality may have replaced comedies as a genre on the cable landscape,” Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, added. “There’s such a dearth of comedies out there; if you go back 20 years ago, when there was a lot less cable networks, there was some sort of aftermarket for comedies, but there’s not as many now. Couple that with there are so many more cable networks looking for ways to brand themselves for viewers. If they can come up with a reality show that gets a respectable rating, it’s nothing ventured nothing gained.”

The gains have been great, even if they’ve sometimes been met, afterwards, by losses. This month’s premiere of the sixth season of Duck Dynasty drew 4.6 million viewers to A&E, a more-than-respectable number for a hit cable show, but a considerable drop from the season five premiere number of 8.5 million — not to mention the record 11.8 million that showed up for season four’s opener. The series has seen its share of controversy —namely, the dust-up following series star Phil Robertson’s GQ interview — but late last year, Forbes estimated the Robertson family to be worth $400 million, with a big chunk of that coming from a merchandise deal with Walmart.

Meanwhile, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, brightest star in the incomparable Bravo franchise, has gained viewers every year; its sixth season, which ended in May, averaged 3.7 million, with a 1.66 number in the 18-to-49 demo. And while much has been written about the ratings decline of American Idol, there’s no erasing the eight seasons it ruled television, with season averages in the mid-20 millions to as high as 31 million in 2006, a time when you couldn’t refer to the show without using the adjective “juggernaut.”

RISKY BUSINESS

The wealth continues to be spread among more networks and outlets, bringing increased value to the companies that make the content. Among other big players, recent deals have netted ITV America, the U.S. arm of the huge U.K. production company, controlling interests in both Gurney Productions (makers of, among other series, Duck Dynasty and Spike’s Auction Hunters) and Leftfield Entertainment, the team behind both Pawn Stars and fellow History success Counting Cars, in transactions that can eventually run into the hundreds of millions.

“A lot of this consolidation with production companies is pretty recent and we don’t know yet how that will affect our business,” Hoogstra said. “We’ve always been on the lookout for who’s the new producer, the really creative upand- coming young talent, and we’ve always still used our trusted long-term relationship guys, and they’ve delivered for us consistently over the years, and that part hasn’t changed.”

The networks hold on to those contacts, old and new, as much as possible, since that’s their greatest ammunition when it comes to the necessary give and take of massaging a brand message. TLC, once known as The Learning Channel, has made a long journey from the slogan “A place for learning minds,” to “Life surprises,” and from science docu-fare to home-improvement shows to Little People, Big World and Cake Boss, to go along with Toddlers & Tiaras and its huge spinoff Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

The wide swath of programming not only suggest the jagged over-the-map twists and turns a network brand can take, but also the at-times homogenization of reality programming. It gets harder and harder to find your rich plot in the landscape and make it entirely your own. Thankfully, viewers and advertisers are willing arbiters.

“The content is not driven by ‘learning’ like it was 20 years ago, but we want to make sure there’s something of value,” TLC’s Kaplan said. “You have to think about — and listen to your audience — all the time. If they don’t like what you’re doing, they won’t watch, and that’s a good way to learn.”

And these networks continue to be watched big-time. The U.S. reality frontier doesn’t even seem to represent the limit, especially adding in OTT players from AOL to Crackle, and from Hulu to Yahoo.

“It’s going to continue to grow,” O’Neill said. “I think we haven’t entirely tapped in with the global phenomenon in two ways: one, importing more stories and content and characters from around the word, and secondly, exporting. The U.S. is maturing in this reality space. I don’t think it’s been put on full throttle in many areas of the globe. I don’t see a limit at this point. It’ll take different shapes, but we’ll be taking it in on different devices as tiny as our wrist and as big as the wall.”

And producers such as Pappas are banking on that. In a reality form where it sometimes seems like all you need is an iPhone and a dream, the world of storage lockers and moonshine runners, Alaskan loggers and Amish gangsters remains, all this time later, TV’s great land of opportunity.

“Right now, my company is four people, but that’s our core,” he said. “We staff out when we need to; with 15 to 20 people, we can run a show. It’s like anything you do. You’re always building.”

Tyler Pappas has a dream. As managing director of The Chapter Media, a TV production company, Pappas built a reputation making corporate videos, lots of digital content and a bunch of broadcast spots. But two and a half years ago, he started to get what he calls “the itch.”

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