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Theme Festival - Reality Television

Programming Profile

Back to reality


Reality TV has long been the preserve of free and pay TV channels, but how is the genre changing as streamers’ appetite for it increases and viewing shifts online? And what content is coming down the reality production pipeline?


From celeb franchises like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, via social experiment and adventure classics Big Brother and Survivor through to sultry reality hits such as Love Island and Are You The One?, reality has been a powerful line of defence for traditional TV against the growing might of global streaming platforms.


That is changing rapidly, however, with Netflix and Amazon proving reality can also play a pivotal role in the line-up of a global streamer. For Netflix, the first foray into reality came with shows such as Queer Eye and Selling Sunset. More recently, The Circle, Too Hot To Handle and Love Is Blind have all performed well, with the latter reported to be the streamer’s top title in the US, Germany, UK, Australia and Canada at launch. Not to be outdone, Amazon has commissioned local versions of ITV Studios’ Love Island and Banijay’s Hunted in Europe.


Tim Gerhartz, president and MD at Red Arrow Studios International, says it’s no surprise that the two camps are now going toe to toe for great reality shows. “Reality also gives streamers an opportunity to control content costs – but more importantly, it is a way to expand their subscriber offering.”


Prior to the recent breakthroughs, there was some skepticism about whether SVoD’s on-demand, binge-driven model would be able to accommodate reality series. This was especially true for series like Love Island, which are typically scheduled as primetime events over several nights. But various factors appear to have coalesced to make reality viable across SVoD.


Fireworks Media Group founder Jesse Fawcett has seen his reality show Big Timber play well across pay TV channel History in Canada as well as Netflix internationally. He says: “One factor that has benefited the streamers is that the distinction between scripted and non-scripted is more blurred than ever. As the production quality of reality has improved and the genre has learned from scripted, audiences don’t really mind as long as they’re watching a great story.”


Avril Blondelot, head of content insight at global research firm Glance, says the streamers’ surge into unscripted TV has seen them try “a format in almost every unscripted genre. To date, dating formats seem to be what works.”


“What works for the streamers overall are short, fast-paced formats where the tension is high, a lot is happening at once and episodes end in an intriguing way, just like in the scripted space. This combination is perfectly suited for a binge-watching experience,” Blondelot says.


The Circle
The Circle

It’s worth noting that Netflix has experimented with staggered release patterns. The second season of Fremantle-produced Too Hot To Handle, for example, was streamed in two programming blocks during 2021. As for The Circle, the 2021 US version of the show was scheduled over four dates, with the final episode given its own event-style release. While it is unclear how the streamers will develop their reality portfolios alongside new distribution methods, Blondelot points out that Netflix has tested out a programmed linear content channel in France.


Lauren Marriott, senior VP of sales and business operations at ViacomCBS International Studios Distribution, believes the streamers have pushed the creative boundaries of reality – in part because they are less restricted by regulation. This comes at a time when, in the UK at least, reality TV is under more scrutiny than ever following various tragedies that some argued were caused by a lack of proper aftercare for contestants.


“Whilst the formats might be the same, streamer versions tend to have bigger budgets, more extreme casting and storylines and fewer limitations on episode duration and release pattern. I also think streamers have learned to harness the power of the water-cooler moments reality TV is renowned for,” says Marriott.


The exec also believes the streamers have been shrewd to invest in local versions of shows, rather than relying on a single global version. The Circle, for example, has US, French and Brazilian versions on Netflix after it originated on Channel 4 in the UK.


“Whilst it is definitely a goal to create globally appealing reality hits,” says the ViacomCBS exec, “nothing works as well as seeing people from your own country on screen in these types of settings. We’ve seen this with our many local versions of the Shore franchise on MTV, so the shift might be towards franchises with production hubs that can create five or more local versions of the same show for streamers.”


Too Hot To Handle
Too Hot To Handle

The success of reality on Netflix and Amazon raises several issues – not least of which is how traditional channels should respond. Red Arrow’s Gerhartz says “linear broadcasters need to try to match the scale and ambition of the streamers – and they need to build brands.” He points to Married At First Sight, which has been produced in 29 countries, describing it as “a channel-defining brand for broadcasters.”


Partners such as Nine Network in Australia, Channel 4 in the UK and Lifetime in the US “totally get what is required,” he says. “Aside from the main show, they have built a universe around the core show as a way of keeping viewers engaged.”


In the US, Lifetime is currently on season 13 and has commissioned through to season 17. “The catch-up streaming numbers are huge,” says Gerhartz, “and the show airs on several platforms after Lifetime premieres it. The brand is boosted by an aftershow, special episodes and spin-offs, including Married at First Sight: Couples Cam and Married at First Sight: Unmatchables.” Further bolstering the brand, Lifetime and Channel 4 have also acquired and aired the show’s more extreme Australian version, which became a lockdown hit in the UK earlier this year.


James Townley, global head of content development at Banijay, says this need for powerful reality brands explains the continued appeal of iconic series like Survivor and Big Brother. The latter is currently airing on Seven Network in Australia and has seen its episode count jump from 21 to 31 in the past year.


Married At First Sight
Married At First Sight

Of course, a key question for super producers like Banijay is how to balance the opportunities presented by traditional broadcasters and global streamers. While there is clearly a lucrative business model in adapting shows for local channels, the allure of streamer cash must be mighty tempting.


“The key message from Banijay,” says Townley, “is that we are willing to work with anyone – linear channels, global streamers or regional streamers. We’ve just done a deal with South African streamer Showmax on Temptation Island, for example. But it is important for our overall business model to try to retain IP.”


That potentially presents a challenge when working with Netflix, which is equally eager to control IP. Ultimately, however, it comes down to the deal. If Netflix is willing to pay enough upfront – perhaps with a guarantee on the number of local versions it orders – some producers will sign up. If not, the alternative may be to launch a reality format into a single market, then negotiate rest-of-world rights as a licence.


Townley says it is important not to be too prescriptive: “What I would say is that the linear channels and streamers are taking their lead from each other, and the result is some really creative shows.”


Maarten Meijs, president of global entertainment at ITV Studios (ITVS), agrees with Townley that retaining IP is fundamental for distributors. But on the issue of linear versus streamers, he says: “The situation has become much more fluid since the arrival of the new streamers. Disney+, Discovery+ and HBO Max are all part of groups that have linear channel operations as well. And the traditional linear broadcasters mostly have on-demand services. The real question is how to produce a show that can feed into a multi-tiered ecosystem.”


Meijs points to The Cabins, a UK version of Dutch format Let Love Rule. Launched in 2020, the show was a hit on linear channel ITV2, generating a 43% share of 16-34s. It also generated 800,000 consumption hours on on-demand platform ITV Hub.


Temptation Island
Temptation Island

Love Island Italy, meanwhile, premiered on Discovery+  before transferring to Discovery’s DTT channel. In the Netherlands, Love Island has also performed well for RTL’s on-demand platform Videoland.


“Everything has to fit into ITV’s 360-degree ‘more than TV’ strategy,” says Meijs. “But there’s no one-size-fits-all model for reality TV shows. We look at what we have coming down the development pipeline and work out the right roadmap.”


Proof that the new streamers also see reality TV as core content is the news that HBO Max has ordered a Brazilian version of Banijay’s survival reality show The Bridge. “We’ve also secured an order from Peacock for Pride & Prejudice,” says Townley, “a dating reality show set in Regency-era England.”


Elsewhere, ViacomCBS is reviving The Real World for its new streaming service Paramount+. In terms of ViacomCBS’s willingness to work with third-party streamers, Marriott says: “Reality is a core part of our strategy for Paramount+, but we’ve worked with Amazon, particularly in Latin America, where we have done two seasons of Celeb Ex on the Beach with them in Brazil.”


While production revenue is a core reason why studios want to keep control of reality IP, not to be overlooked is the power of the catalogue, both as a distribution asset and in the emerging field of AVoD. Marriott says: “There is an appetite for early seasons as new fans come on board or people want to re-watch from the beginning. We see buyers revisiting titles such as The Hills and Laguna Beach, or back seasons of Jersey Shore or Geordie Shore. Streaming platforms such as Hayu provide an outlet for reality content. Our franchises lend themselves well to AVoD, SVoD and FAST [free ad-supported streaming TV] channels due to their high levels of title recognition.”


Finding Prince Charming
Finding Prince Charming

DCD Rights CEO Nicky Davies Williams says her company has just joined forces with US company Runtime Media to launch a FAST channel in the UK dedicated to the Bridezillas franchise, which has more than 200 episodes. Fans of the show will be able to watch the channel via platforms including Samsung TV Plus and AVoD streamer Pluto TV.


“We decided a customised channel would be an excellent way to ensure fans were able to easily access their favourite episodes free to air, whenever they wanted. It’s also a great opportunity for those who haven’t already become dedicated followers to find their way to the series,” says Davies Williams.


Are there any new shows making their debut at Mipcom that might join the reality hall of fame? Red Arrow’s Gerhartz points to Offline In The Woods, a new format that recently launched on RTL Germany’s on-demand platform Joyn. Banijay’s Townley, meanwhile, is upbeat about Table for Two, a new dating-based format for Dutch public broadcaster KRO-NCRV. ITVS’s Meijs has high hopes for Ready To Mingle, a reality show poised to launch on ITV2 that was heavily trailed during the recent season of Love Island.


Not surprisingly, the current emphasis is on dating reality, but Meijs says social experiment-based shows are still in demand, and he sees potential for reality that taps into audiences’ fascination with horror. Fireworks’ Fawcett, meanwhile, sees a trend towards hybrid shows, with reality increasingly integrated into other fact ent formats. Among his own shows is Pamela Anderson’s Home Reno Project, an HGTV Canada series in which the Baywatch star rebuilds her family home in Canada – renovation meets reality.


Banijay’s Townley endorses this idea, adding: “If I had to pick out another trend it would be outdoor reality. Titles like The Bridge are in demand because audiences want to get away from that feeling of being trapped inside.”


Other issues to watch, says Meijs, include regulation. He argues that global streamers will need to produce more locally specific shows to meet tougher rules on content quotas. Also expect greater diversity, says Marriott. “Season eight of Are You the One? featured a sexually fluid cast, while MTV UK’s True Love or True Lies gained acclaim for its diverse cast. Our gay dating show Finding Prince Charming is in four European territories. When it launched in 2016 there was very little take-up, but since 2019 buyers have been much more receptive.”