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The State of Unscripted Television Today – This is Your Reality Check by Mary Ann McQueen Butcher

The State of Unscripted Entertainment Today – This is Your Reality Check

First in a Series by Mary Ann McQueen Butcher


With the WestDoc conference now over, there are still hundreds of meetings still going on with countless cable networks (and broadcast too). I thought I would share with you the state of the unscripted genre – according to TV Development, Business Affairs and Casting executives as well as some production and distribution companies.  This first-in-a-series article includes verbatim quotes and factual summaries.  Unless noted, nothing should be construed as my opinion.

There is A LOT of new information for those who are accomplished professionals as well as newbies looking for their first break.

Some of the participants I have talked to one-on-one or via panels or as part of group discussions and pitch meetings include: Jason Carey, Melanie Moreau, Joe Weinstock, Leela Roof, David Schiff, Juan Devis, Noah Pollack, Pamela Post, JT Ladt, David Gross, Bill Gardner, Roger Eman, Steve Holzer, Nicole DeFusco, Rachel Brill, Anna Garwood, Mathew Baxt. Mark Freeman, Adam Steinman, Megan Lawrence, Brandon Gross, Peter DeJong.

According to virtually every exec we spoke to, there are three elements that are VERY important today to have in an unscripted show:  BIG characters (who would be fabulous in any situation while on TV), Conflict (It may make you uncomfortable, but it’s like a train wreck that you have to watch.  It makes awesome TV and Access.  Bring your audience to a place it hasn’t been privy to before.  Think Pawn Stores, Toddlers and Tiaras, Deadliest Catch, etc.

Regarding how to pitch.  You can pitch yourself (Yes, meeting will likely be taken if you sound professional.  You just need to call.) You can also use an agent or work with a partner – like a production company.  Every network had different ideas on this but they all said they would make exceptions – so the world is your oyster.

Regarding Sizzle Reels, Charlie Ebersol put it best:  “Don’t expect to ever see again the money you spent on your sizzle reel.”  The optimum length is about 3 minutes and you should have both a 4-sentence description (logline) and a well-written treatment. Don’t overproduce it.  Instead, give the characters an opportunity to show just how big, crazy, funny or outrageous they are.  A great concept with big characters can look just as good if you shoot it with your iPhone.  Concentrate on the characters.

In most cases, I use first names for the executives since I don’t think they want to be inundated with proposals.  Please contact me and I will be happy to share full names and contact info if I have it.

Now, let’s get started on the various companies whose reps gave their insights on unscripted TV.


SPIKE:  According to Chris, they are looking for great story telling programming that is male-oriented.  They have a young, male demo (18-45) but are looking to get more older male viewers (25-54) as well as some female viewers.  A broader audience also makes the lives of the ad sales departments very happy. Diversity is also important to them.  Be sure if you are pitching them that the contestants are “Spike friendly”.

Ideally, a show you are pitching will have “amped” up tension, be “horrifying and addicting” and have less smiling than other shows.

Pitch a program that is truly “infotainment”.  That is, it should have some real life/facts baked in to the show.  Think “World’s Worst Tenants”.  That show is grounded in legalities.

The one area that they could say with certainty that they are not interested in are “object” shows.  So, for example, while Antiques Roadshow is a long-running successful program, it’s definitely NOT what they want.  Again, they want BIG characters that the viewer can’t stop watching – whether they profess to love or hate them.

This network also skews male.  Mary made clear that if an indie producer comes to them with an idea they want to run with, they will likely pair them with a reputable production company.


We-tv:  Before you pitch a cable or TV network, always know who their viewers are.  In the case of We-TV, they audience is filled with a lot of women who are breadwinners & who also seek adventure.  Hence, shows like Braxton Family Values and Kendra On Top do very well.

In keeping with the theme, We-tv wants “big, loud, filterless characters”.  Think Joan & Melissa.  Highest rated episode came when Melissa broke up with her boyfriend.

Mary stated that all shows should have a “gloss, sheen and pop feeling” feel like the upcoming Cyndi Lauper – Still So Unusual show.

The kinds of images they would like to air include eye-popping colors, relationship shows and (again) BIG characters who “bring the drama”.

Their key demo is W25-54 but 35 is the sweet spot including a lot of African American women.  They too will pair an indie producer with a production company to get a show done.  They are not seeking earnest shows.  They do check trends by looking at the reports that come out of GMA, Twitter, newspapers and the Today Show.


OXYGEN:  The first thing Jennifer wanted us to know was who their audience is.  Not surprisingly, it’s W18-49 with the sweet spot being W24-35.  Many of these women are in “transition-hood” and come from two career families.  She further stated that they think of Oxygen as “Bravo’s younger, sassier sister”.

The Oxygen attitude is one that is unapologetic and appeals to the coasts.  “All programs are aspirational”. In many cases the middle of the country wants to be doing what is happening in NY, LA or Miami.

Authenticity is key and they like covering struggles.  Most recently, they have been programming three days a week:  Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Monday:  Bad Girls night; Tuesday: Glee Project; Wednesday:  All the Right Moves.  They are looking to buy shows now but have no interest in scripted TV at this time.

Diversity is highly important to Oxygen and Jennifer thinks they are more diverse than the other networks. She also stated that they will provide excellent marketing when they do buy a show.  One of the ad platforms they like to use is outdoor including bus shelters & subway signage.

Typically, their order for a new, unscripted program is eight episodes.  They also really try and give new programs a chance and tend to not pull them off the schedule too quickly.


BUNIM-MURRAY – So for those who do not know, Bunim-Murray, they have been creating reality TV for more than 20 years.  Some of their currents shows include: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Project Runway and the Bad Girls Club.

For you indie producers, reality TV creators and writers, B-M will produce a show and shop it to the networks.  They will produce your sizzle reel and create all the marketing materials / leave behinds. They do almost everything in house so you can expect consistency from the company.

Generally speaking, Scott said most of the deals they do are quite fair and they will split a show 50/50 with the producer. The company has a long history with a family atmosphere.  Many indie producers can expect a producer credit if they partner with B-M.

Currently, they are seeking programming for male audiences.


PRINCIPAL MEDIA – David is the CEO and the company has offices in Beverly Hills and London.  The company provides international distribution for your program.  They are essentially half finance and half production company.  They work with the likes of National Geographic, FOX, Fuel, ABC Family & many others. Almost all their revenue comes from worldwide TV distribution.

PM takes completed shows that already have the US rights spoken for and distributes them around the world.  They develop, produce and finance.  They are also the world’s largest 3-D distributor.

They have 3,000 hours of programs with PM producing about 10% of that.

David suggests that producers bring on a US co-production partner as early in the process as possible so their show can get made and US rights sold.

On the topic of what a producer can expect when they shop a show using the “hat in hand” strategy (that means you go to a pitch meeting with a great logline/treatment/sizzle reel but no money in your pockets), you can expect to get some kind of a producer credit and then be a “work for hire” employee.  Percentages vary on backend deals (many times, you will see zip, zero, nada, squat, NOTHING) on the back end.  You’ll quickly learn about “Hollywood Accounting” where new producers make very little money but get their first big project credit (Hello IMDB!)

Should you bring a silver platter deal to a network (You have a co-production partner and you put up some of your own money), networks are more likely to want to work with you if the concept and characters are great.  So use whatever edge you can and separate yourself from the herd of the zillions of independent producers/writers/directors.


TNT/TBS:  While known for their dramas and smart programs, TBS is more about “rebels and relatables”.  David said they are very loose regarding genres but they do like pranks, physical shows and those that are studio-driven.

David also said budgets are typically in line with shows like Undercover Boss, but they will work with producers on budgets.  The network is not looking for “re-create” programs or host driven shows at this time.  The company prefers not working with a production company you might bring, but as with everything else, they will consider it for a great show with (you guessed it) BIG characters.


BRAVO – Christy was very open about what Bravo is really about:  Fashion, food, design, beauty, pop culture and now digital (not meaning online).

Their audience is upscale, coastal, educated women

They have a new show premiering in the future called “Silicon Valley”.  It is an ensemble documentary show that is filled with smart characters.  Their demo is adults 25-49 but their sweet spot is 30-35.

Her network shows middle America the “Bravo Life”.  It’s the life they want to live (like those in NY & LA who are doing just that.)


Stay tuned for Part 2

Twitter:  @RealityTVDepot







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