Cable's Big Players Get into the Reality TV Business
USA, TNT, AMC, FX
Rizzoli & Isles, meet Mark Burnett. Cable networks like TNT, USA, FX and AMC became scripted powerhouses while mostly ignoring reality TV — until now. All four networks have big plans to enter the reality arena in the coming year in a bid to keep up with the times.
Last week, TNT — known up until now as the home to dramas like Rizzoli — picked up the reality competition pilot Fortune Hunters, from ace reality producer Burnett. And over at AMC, the Mad Men network added two more reality projects to its plate: JJK Security, shot inside a real-life rural Georgia security firm, and Secret Stash, filmed inside filmmaker Kevin Smith's comic book shop.
Basic cable's top networks have worked hard to cultivate a stable of scripted series to rival the broadcast networks, so why add reality TV to the mix? "You have to have a more balanced slate," says TNT/TBS programming head Michael Wright. "The notion that somehow unscripted or reality TV was a fad or a passing trend has been proven to be incorrect. It is part of the programming landscape. We're in the business of entertaining viewers, and if the audience loves unscripted programming, we're going to give it to them."
Look no further than this summer's Nielsen ratings. As popular as dramas like The Closer might be, basic cable has been dominated recently by reality juggernauts like MTV's Jersey Shore. "If I'm being honest, I think we're a year behind [in introducing reality]," Wright adds. "I wish we'd been on the air this summer."
But previously for networks like TNT, reality wasn't a part of the network's strategy. TNT and TBS have dabbled in unscripted series before, but Wright admits that "the strategy we were executing did not include unscripted. In the TV business, things don't become real until they're put into your budget."
That's about to change. TNT is making up for lost time, shooting pilots for several unscripted projects, including Fortune Hunters, which pits teams against each other in search of hidden treasures. The channel also has the competition adventure The Great Escape, from Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and The Amazing Race's Bertram Van Munster, which follows contestants as they break out of different confinements. Search and Rescue, from The Deadliest Catch's Thom Beers, follows the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard in Kodiak, Alaska.
"The goal is to have it as robust a part of our lineup as scripted is now," says Wright, who's looking for reality shows that fit in with the tone of his dramas. "This is not instead of, it's in addition to, our scripted programming." And although reality TV is less expensive than scripted series, "we're not doing this because they're cheaper," he adds.
Wright says TBS is further behind in developing reality series, and that the comedy-focused channel will likely focus on more comedic docuseries. "I could see doing their version of Jersey Shore," he says.
At USA Network, the first step in bringing in reality was the revival of WWE Tough Enough. The network also brought in a new head of unscripted programming, Heather Olander, and plans to have more programs on tap for 2012. FX is also entering the fray with UFC's The Ultimate Fighter, which moves to the network next spring.
Then there's AMC, which continues to look toward expanding its original programming slate. "We think there's some great storytelling to be mined from the nonfiction world," says AMC senior vice president of original programming Joel Stillerman.
Despite reports of AMC's financials being stretched thin by the cost of series like The Walking Dead and Mad Men, Stillerman echoes Wright in arguing that it's not a financial play. "This by no means represents a paradigm shift for AMC," he says. "We want to layer on to something. We're committed to the scripted side. This is just an extension of what we do."
Stillerman says Secret Stash (which will likely launch in February, paired with the second batch of The Walking Dead season two episodes) comes out of AMC's commitment to "genre-based storytelling." And JJK "is simply one of the most compelling pieces of character in the unscripted world," he says. "It's a sort of darkly comedic drama." AMC, which earlier dropped plans to air the Homeland Security-themed Inside the DHS (which was to star Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano), is also still at work on The Pitch, a competition show set in the world of advertising.
It's noteworthy that scripted networks like USA, TNT and FX are looking to get into the reality business just as unscripted-dominant networks like MTV try their hand at scripted fare. Who faces the tougher challenge? "I actually do think they pose their own challenges," Stillerman says. "I have great respect for people who do nonfiction TV. Whether it's close-ended like American Pickers and Top Chef or more character-based serialized shows, it's really hard to do it well."
Wright says every network faces the same challenge when they branch out into other types of programming: "Whether you're unscripted trying to get into scripted or scripted into unscripted, you already have a core audience with a certain expectation." For TNT, which refers to its dramas as "smart popcorn," the challenge now, Wright says, is "we need to find the unscripted version of that smart popcorn business."
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