Reality television may have suffered some devastating blows, but it’s not dead yet. At least according to the four veteran reality producers who discussed the subject at TheGrill, TheWrap’s sixth annual media leadership conference.
“It feels creatively a little derivative,” said Ben Silverman, founder and chairman of Electus. “Once we hit every subsection of American life from trailer to penthouse, we kind of got grossed out about it as a genre because it wasn’t exactly celebrating the best of human kindness.”
Silverman’s production company is behind reality hits such as “Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” “Biggest Loser” as well as scripted series “The Office,” “Ugly Betty” and CW’s critical darling “Jane the Virgin.” He was joined on the panel by Nigel Lythgoe, producer of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” on Fox; Allison Grodner, executive producer of “Big Brother” on CBS; and David Lyle, president of PactUS, a business association that lobbies on behalf of production companies.
When asked by moderator and executive editor of TheWrap Joseph Kapsch about the death of reality television, Lythgoe echoed Silverman’s sentiments that the challenges facing the genre stem in part from historical failures on the creative side. The result, he says, has made networks gun-shy.
“We’ve seen some very high-profile failures, he said. “Those failures aren’t because they’re unscripted or reality programs, but because of mistakes in the format.”
Reviewing unscripted disappointments such as Fox’s “Utopia,” “Knock Knock Live” and the decline of “American Idol,” the panel pinpointed causal creative failures for each: Poor casting, misuse of host Ryan Seacrest and the shift of focus from the talent to the judges, respectively.
But the producers were also emphatic that reports of the genre’s death are premature. While networks are having success with scripted series, including the unprecedented sensation that is “Empire,” there is still room for reality to thrive.
Watch 4 reality TV titans on ‘What’s disrupting the cash cow’
“I think it’s lazy thinking that sees it as a binary situation,” said Lyle. “There are some interesting areas on the digital end where unscripted is alive and well.”
Silverman argued that consolidation of reality producers by companies like Endemol Shine has led to the recycling of the same formats and ideas. “If this consolidation continues to happen, where is the original thought?” he asked, citing Lyle’s PactUS as an important organization for the future of the genre.
“There’s a massive opportunity to make sure that independent voice gets onto the airwaves.”
Grodner said that though producers occasionally get stuck in “comfort zones” when it comes to developing reality series, there has been a change on the buyers’ side of the equation as well.
“Right now there is something that is slowing down on the buyers’ side,” Grodner said, expressing nostalgia for the “Wild West” days when shows would go from conception to broadcast in six weeks. “Projects are getting stuck; they’re taking longer,” she said.
But in the end, Lythgoe doesn’t see the genre fading, suggesting that all unscripted TV needs is another big hit to enjoy a resurgence. He put the burden on networks to back smaller shows and allow them the chance to grow into smash hits, the way “American Ninja Warrior” and “Shark Tank” both did.
“I don’t ever see reality going away,” he said. “It is part of the diet of television viewers now.”
Watch the full reality TV panel here: