The non-scripted television business is made up of a wily group of people who deftly navigated their way through the Covid-19 pandemic to get a large volume of shows on air.
There is now new light at the end of the tunnel and shows that were shut down, forced to adapt or paused during the last twelve months are starting to find a sense of normality with the likes of American Idol bringing back audiences, Survivor finally getting back into production and American Ninja Warrior returning to its traditional summer time slot.
There is also a widespread sense of optimism that the next twelve months will be buoyant for the business – the “roaring ‘20s of non-scripted” as one buyer called it – with the pandemic having an encouraging impact on development that will see some wild and noisy ideas emerge.
Deadline has spoken to close to 50 senior buyers and sellers from across the broadcast, cable and streaming spectrum about what summer 2021 looks like, the “mind-boggling, bonkers” new formats coming through and why the unscripted business is still obsessed with spinoffs and reboots.
“At times, it has felt like herculean efforts by all parties to keep things going,” Jenny Groom, EVP, Unscripted at NBCUniversal, told Deadline. “I’m ready for us to be turning a corner and hopefully being able to have more mobility and do more things. But I’m definitely proud of what we were able to accomplish this past year.”
MTV Entertainment Group’s Nina L. Diaz agrees. “I was fortunate enough to be at MTV during the golden age, the explosion of the genre and I think we’re ripe for it all over again. It’ll be the roaring ‘20s, similar to after the Spanish flu. There’s an opportunity to redefine reality for a new generation,” added the company’s President of Content and Chief Creative Officer, who developed the original Cribs and My Super Sweet 16.
The buyers aren’t, however, taking their eye off the ball, in case things take a little longer to get back to normal. Rob Wade, President, Alternative Entertainment and Specials, Fox Entertainment, said, “We’re obviously in a really good phase at the moment in LA in terms of case load, but we’ve all seen from this last year that it’s not a steady curve. The question is where will we be in three months, six months, nine months, so, you have to prepare in case there are maybe stop downs, delays, or at the very least, more challenging times to film.”
Many of the broadcast shows that missed out last summer are returning. MasterChef, which didn’t air last summer, will return this year, filmed at the end of 2020, but Ultimate Tag, for instance, which ran from May through the end of July, will not. Wade said that that competition show was one that he’d “like another crack at” but the lack of a mass audience makes it more difficult, although he hinted that a second season could potentially be filmed in Australia, as the network did with Name That Tune.
Wade said that Covid has made scheduling decisions tougher. “You can’t rely on dates so much, you have to find your opportunity to make something and then find the place to put it rather than [specify] the slot,” he said. “I’m purposefully taking shots on stuff now which I know might be able to fit into a variety of different slots in the hope that I can still kind of make different shows which require more ambitious filming schedules and travel.”
NBC has a summer slate featuring American Ninja Warrior (above), America’s Got Talent and Making It, although no World of Dance after it was cancelled, and recently ordered series including Family Game Fight featuring Kristin Bell and Dax Shepard. Groom said being able to have limited audiences back is a boon and is excited about being able to film Ninja Warrior in locations such as the Tacoma Dome and Las Vegas.
ABC is expected to have a slew of summer returners including Bachelor in Paradise. Recent orders include Zooey Deschanel and Michael Bolton’s The Celebrity Dating Game and The Ultimate Surfer. Rob Mills, newly promoted to EVP, Unscripted and Alternative Entertainment, Walt Disney Television, told Deadline that he was pleased that the network was finally able to get back to a place where it will air new originals on almost every night over the summer.
CBS will also have both Big Brother and Love Island back in a more traditional pattern. Mitch Graham, SVP, Alternative Programming, said that the network is currently in pre-production and casting on Big Brother and the long-running reality series will continue with Covid protocols in place. Love Island will move from Las Vegas to Hawaii for its third season. Both shows were forced to air later in the summer last year and Graham is pleased it looks like they’ll be able to air earlier. “I’m excited to see how having Big Brother more in pattern this summer combined with Love Island, that’s a good, solid, one-two punch for the schedule. It gives us a lot of hours, a lot of content and hopefully we can use each of those shows to feed off one another,” he said.
CBS also recently received good news that Survivor (left) is heading back into production in Fiji for the first time in a year. Graham told Deadline that they will film seasons 41 and 42 back-to-back as they have done in the past.
The only outstanding alternative show left to return is The Amazing Race. CBS is currently in conversations with creators Bertram Van Munster and Elise Doganieri over its return. “There’s a little bit of a longer way on that one until the world officially opens back up. We’ve explored some other options such as going to Covid-light countries but I don’t think it’s the same, you want the experience of traveling the globe. Once we feel we can do that safely, we’re going to get them back out there, we would love to have that show back as fast as we can,” Graham added.
One of the other priorities for CBS is finding a big tentpole, shiny-floor entertainment show. In September, it ordered Come Dance With Me, exec produced by NCIS: Los Angeles pair LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell, its first step back on to the dance floor in ten years. Shooting is set to start in the next couple of weeks. “It’s a different way into the dance space and performance,” Graham said. “The dance space is a little crowded so we have to figure what’s our way of doing that show.”
The network is also in the early stages of development with 50 States of Stardom from Simon Cowell, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. “We’re always looking for big broad formats, be it in the shiny floor space or the arced competition space, which has been our bread and butter for many years. We’re always looking to expand and take different swings and try some different types of programs.”
CBS’s younger-skewing sibling network The CW has also been ramping up its activities in unscripted in the last few months. The broadcaster recently ordered U.S. versions of British formats Would I Lie To You?, exec produced by The Good Wife and The Good Fight duo Robert King and Michelle King and Evil star Aasif Mandvi, and ITV2’s parlor game Killer Camp. EVP, Development Gaye Hirsch told Deadline, “We’ve always been incredibly interested in the alternative space but we do sense that there’s even more opportunity. We’ve been aggressively looking in the marketplace.” These shows will sit alongside long-running returners Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Penn & Teller: Fool Us and World’s Funniest Animals.
Cyle Zezo, VP, Alternative & Digital Programming, The CW added that it is looking at more competition and gameshow formats and wants producers to find shows that can fit alongside its scripted originals such as The Flash, Batwoman and Nancy Drew. “One of the things that we talk about in terms of our unscripted strategy, is while we do like shows that have a broad appeal, we do like to find shows that feel like they fit tonally with what we’re doing with the scripted content and from a genre perspective it fits with a Gen Z audience,” he added.
There’s been a lot of talk as to whether quarantine and production shutdowns would lead to a development boom. All of the buyers that Deadline spoke to were buoyed by the quality of projects that have come on the market since the turn of the year.
Fox’s Wade said he’s still looking for mystery formats, building on The Masked Singer, I Can See Your Voice and Game of Talents, and has seen some interesting new ideas. “They’ve all come slightly at once. There was definitely a pause before Christmas, I noticed a slow-down in ideas and I wondered what was happening, but then suddenly since January it’s been very, very intense.”
The network recently ordered competition format Domino Masters, hosted by Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet, and is close to greenlighting a few more projects. “We have to loosen our shoulders a bit and start taking some swings. I’m talking about the entire business, not just at Fox. Everyone has got a little bit of confidence, but it is scary when you are going into $20M-$40M investment projects and you don’t know if you can finish them and you’ve got no insurance,” he added. “I’m obviously hoping to take bigger and better swings over the next 12 months.”
Turner has been particularly busy buying new projects during the pandemic. Two shows bought pre-Covid, The Go-Big Show (right) and Wipeout, have both launched on TBS.
The network has ordered whodunit cooking format Rat In The Kitchen, hosted by Natasha Leggero, and dating competition The Big D from the creators of Are You The One? and Deadline understands that its version of The Cube, which is hosted and exec produced by NBA star Dwayne Wade, will also air on the channel, rather than TNT.
Corie Henson, EVP and head of unscripted programming for TBS, TNT and truTV, said it shot a ton of presentations and pilots during the pandemic. “We prepared ourselves coming out of the other side and used it as a creative incubation period,” she said.
Now, she wants more big, outdoor formats that are “mind-boggling bonkers”. “I’m always blown away when someone comes in with a big swing because people have become so risk averse with producers coming in and telling you they’re being cost-conscious. We’ll figure that out, just bring me a big idea,” she added.
Much of Turner’s unscripted focus is for TBS, but Henson added that she’s still looking for “cheeky, naughty and irreverant” formats for TruTV, which recently ordered illusionist stunt series Big Trick Energy and home renovation format Backyard Bar Wars, and the occasional series for TNT such as docusoap Rhodes To The Top featuring All Elite Wrestling’s Cody and Brandi Rhodes.
Social experiments are of particular interest right now with networks and streamers all keen to see if they can crack the next Big Brother or Real World.
MTV Entertainment Group’s Diaz said that there’s an opportunity to “break new ground” for a Gen Z and millennial audience. “What does dating and social experiment look like for that generation? What subcultures will become mass culture and then become global culture? This last year has shown that people can change through the power of storytelling, so we’ll start amplifying real issues, making the invisible visible and starting national conversations. In this genre, there’s a way to close the cultural gap and bridge differences.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race, which recently aired its 13th season on VH1, is a good example of a reality franchise that took a subculture mainstream. Spinoff Drag Race All Stars is heading to Paramount+ and the streamer recently ordered another spinoff, talent competition Queen of the Universe. Diaz said it is now looking for more subcultures to shine a spotlight on.
NBC ordered Home Sweet Home, a family social experiment, from Ava DuVernay last summer. Groom said that the show is very different for the network but it will continue to do “some new things that feel fresh and different to our physical lane that we like to live in”.
It recently piloted comedy quiz show I Literally Just Told You from Richard Bacon and is in “conversations” as to whether to proceed and is also “talking what the future might look like” for This Is My House, also from Bacon, that features four people, three liars and one house, although it hasn’t filmed a pilot for the show, which recently aired in the UK on BBC One.
“You can expect to see more things in the music space, new things in the gaming space and then we’ll be doing some other big physical games too,” Groom added.
Groom’s colleague Rod Aissa, who is EVP, Unscripted, Documentary & Lifestyle oversees the reality and docusoap side of things across NBCUniversal. He has overseen shows such as E!’s Celebrity Game Face with Kevin Hart and The Bradshaw Bunch as well as the final season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians during the pandemic
He told Deadline that be believes comedic escapism is the next big trend. “We’re getting a lot of pitches where it’s shows with new Anthony Bourdain types or just fun escapism. People want to laugh and have a good time. It’s a little less commentary on the last year, and more a look to the future.”
STREAMING CRACKS REALITY
The emergence of Netflix into unscripted has been one of the most significant changes to the business. The streamer dipped its toe into the market with the likes of Queer Eye and Nailed It!, but has been going hell for leather more recently with big-ticket launches of The Circle and Love Is Blind. As one agent told Deadline there’s no other buyer in town that can compete with the scale of Netflix’s investment.
Brandon Riegg, VP, Unscripted and Documentary Series, told Deadline that they have gained more confidence in the genre over the last few years. The streamer’s longer lead time for programming helped it during the early days of the pandemic and meant that it had shows such as Too Hot To Handle and Floor Is Lava in the can before Covid struck.
Although Netflix doesn’t disclose viewing data, it was clear from social engagement and its two season renewal that Love Is Blind was arguably closer to The Bachelor than many other rival dating formats. “Dating and relationships has been a challenging space. The Bachelor is obviously an incumbent and all the spinoffs, they do great,” said Riegg. “The success of Dating Around a couple of years ago gave us more confidence to see what else we could do in that area and we tried with Love Is Blind and then with the more outlandish show Too Hot To Handle and those worked great.”
Riegg, who has previously worked on shows such as Dancing With The Stars, The Voice and America’s Got Talent, said it was taking more broadcast-sized swings. Upcoming projects include dance format All The Right Moves and tropical gameshow Jet Set. “You will see at least one big traditional-type game show, then there are some of these performance-type shows and the other bigger area is competition-type shows. We have some pretty clever, intriguing ones coming up. If we can pull it off the way that we expect with our producing partners that should unlock a whole other pretty large-sized audience for us,” he added.
There are other areas that it is also interested in. Netflix launched two seasons of interior design format Dream Home Makeover and Riegg said that it has some other bets in this genre as well as more food and cooking formats, survival adventure shows and even car formats.
Many expected Amazon to be Netflix’s biggest competitor in the streaming space when it comes to unscripted. However, Jeff Bezos’ company has had mixed fortunes in the genre, outside of the success of The Grand Tour, which launched in 2016. The division, run by former CBS exec Chris Castallo, renewed Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum’s Making The Cut for a second season, but canine competition series The Pack and Mark Burnett’s reboot of Eco Challenge were both cancelled after one season.
It’s been HBO Max, which launched in May 2020, that has arguably been the loudest streaming competitor in non-scripted. The WarnerMedia platform launched with competition formats Legendary, which featured Grammy winner Megan Thee Stallion, and Craftopia, both of which have been renewed.
Selena+Chef (above), featuring pop star Selena Gomez learning to cook at home, was its big pandemic bet and the show also returned for a second season.
Jennifer O’Connell, EVP, Non-Fiction & Live-Action Family, said that its originals skew younger and female. “We want to be bold and we’ll take on any genre,” she said. “We just need to make sure that [our shows] don’t feel like they could necessarily be on a broadcast network show or a cable show.”
Festive dating format 12 Dates of Christmas is another show that performed well for the streamer and has been renewed and O’Connell told Deadline that flower competition format Full Bloom is also returning. Upcoming projects include streetwear competition The Hype, Bethenny Frankel business format The Big Shot With Bethenny and a cocktail-infused reboot of classic gameshow Tattletales hosted by Ayesha and Stephen Curry.
O’Connell said that there are plenty of “juicy” dating shows in the works. But there’s two types of shows that she’s particularly hunting. “I want to crack the arced food show, which is hard. It’s really tricky because there have been some really great ones out there already, like Top Chef and MasterChef, and how do you compete with that,” she said. “Then, I would love to do a survival show. What is our version of that space? We’re developing some but we’d really would love to figure that one out.”
Paramount+ is also changing the way that MTV Entertainment Group looks at its non-scripted portfolio. It launched last month with The Real World Homecoming: New York, reuniting the cast of the 1992 show, and an all stars version of MTV’s The Challenge. “Streaming is an opportunity to bring that content to a whole new generation and go everywhere that our audiences are. That generation isn’t going to be consuming it on linear,” said Diaz.
Having said that, she added that MTV’s slate of “tentpole franchises” such as Jersey Shore: Family Reunion and Floribama Shore will remain on linear. While Comedy Central has been pivoting heavily towards animation and recently cancelled series including Drunk History and Tosh.0, Diaz said she is developing and looking for new topical comedy formats for the network. “Unscripted will continue to play a big role on Comedy Central.” Paramount Network is rebranding to the Paramount Movie Network later this year, which led to the cancelation of Ink Master (right) and Wife Swap. Bar Rescue’s eighth season will air on the network, but Deadline understands that this is as a result of Covid hitting its planned scripted movie push rather than a shift in strategy. Lip Sync Battle, however, will not continue in its current form, although Diaz said that it was IP that was “ripe for reinvention”.
Discovery is similarly shaking up its linear to digital mix with the launch of Discovery+. It launched earlier this year with a slew of 90 Day Fiancé spinoffs and will launch an expanded slate of originals from Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia in July, ahead of the network’s linear debut in January 2022. A number of its cable shows are already premiering on the digital platform and Deadline has heard the factual brand has been casting around for A-list names for new originals. “Sometimes we’ll know [whether a show is Discovery+ or linear show] from the beginning and sometimes it will find its way in execution, where there are different choices that we make along the way that really steer it, casting is a big one, towards streaming or the network,” Lisa Holme, Group SVP, and Commercial Strategy, told Deadline.
LINEAR LANDSCAPE LEANS INTO DIGITAL BUYING
Many of the buyers at the broadcast networks are no longer only looking at linear schedules. Groom and Aissa are buying across NBCUniversal’s broadcast, cable and streamer Peacock, while ABC’s Rob Mills recently took over unscripted programming at Hulu, ViacomCBS’ team is buying for MTV, Comedy Central, VH1 and Paramount+, and Turner’s Corie Henson is working closely with her HBO Max counterpart Jen O’Connell.
Mills’ recent promotion saw him take over alternative programming for Hulu, a platform that has focused on scripted and documentary originals over entertainment. Mills said that there is “huge opportunity” and a “blank canvas” at Hulu. He said it would look at dating social experiments, building on the success of on acquired titles such as the British version of Love Island. He added, “If we were going to do a version of a game or competition show, it should have its own sort of something that feels distinctly Hulu.”
Frogger, an adaptation of the 1980’s video game, is a recent example of the strategy at NBCU. The show, which is produced by Holey Moley producer Eureka Productions, will air on Peacock.
“It’s happened with a couple of our shows, where a pitch has come in and we’ve fallen in love with it, but we maybe just don’t have the slot for it on NBC or separately it doesn’t fit within NBC’s brand filters, but it’s a great show. We’re then able to look across the portfolio and try to find a home for it, which is really exciting,” said Groom.
She added that the company is able to be a little edgier, niche or younger on Peacock and can play around with windowing. “It’s another playground for us to play in,” she added.
Aissa said that it allows them to buy shows outside of traditional development seasons and give producers answers quicker. “So far, we’ve had a lot of good response from the creative community and we’re putting some points on the board with regard to working that way.”
The Real Housewives (left) franchise consists of eight shows on Bravo, a Miami-set series coming for Peacock and a “mash-up” featuring an all star group of characters set for the streamer. “Mash-up is shot over a real, finite-period. It’s doesn’t shoot over months and months. There’s a little bit of a construct to it that causes interaction. It’s a remote setting that’s beautiful, so inhibitions are down,” said Aissa.
Fox’s Wade is also looking at how the company’s AVOD streamer Tubi can play into its originals strategy. He said that certain types of factual entertainment formats might not be as “sticky” as gameshows or competition formats but have a longer shelf life than entertainment series and could work on the streaming service that Fox acquired for $440M in April 2020. Wade, who said that he had a couple of shows in the advanced stages of development that fit this bill, added, “It’s really interesting as the business changes to look at what now Tubi means for us and thinking about the long tale of shows.”
WarnerMedia is also sharing resources. The company has two brands focused on non-scripted – the Turner cable nets and streamer HBO Max. But Turner’s Corie Henson and HBO’s Max Jen O’Connell are working closely together. Max recently launched Stylish with Jenna Lyons, a show that was originally set up at Turner, and there had been talk of HBO Max doing a kids’ version of British gameshow The Cube at the same time that TBS launched its grown-up version. The recent overall deal with the Tenderloins comedy troupe, stars of Impractical Jokers, will see them developing a slew of non-scripted projects across platforms, some they will star in and others that they will exec produce. “We’re very collaborative,” said Henson.
THE NEXT PHASE OF REALITY DOCUSOAPS
Bling Empire, a reality series that follows a wildly wealthy group of Asian and Asian-American friends and frenemies in Los Angeles, is the latest docusoap sensation.
The show, produced by Jeff Jenkins Productions, launched on Netflix in January and has been renewed for a second season. The streamer has also renewed Selling Sunset through season five and has ordered My Unorthodox Life following fashion mogul Julia Haart and a realty series set on the Florida coast.
These are all part of a new wave of docusoaps, a genre that shows no sign of slowing down. It is possibly best summed up by what’s going on at Hulu, which has new reality series featuring the D’Amelio family, made famous by TikTok star Charli D’Amelio, and The Kardashians follow up show. Rob Mills said he believes these docusoaps, featuring the “old guard and new guard” will be defining shows.
This has long been the heartland of NBCU cable networks such as Bravo, E! and USA Network. Below Deck has been a huge hit for Bravo with eight seasons and two spin-offs and Deadline understands that a cold water series, potentially filming in Iceland, is in the works. Aissa’s team is also reportedly eyeing a real-life Emily in Paris-style reality series along with a slew of other projects set in the U.S.
“It’s like finding lightning in a bottle,” he admitted. “Are we trying to find another show that will galvanize an audience in the way the Kardashians did? Yes, but we’re not alone in that. Every network is looking to find lightning in a bottle again.”
Chrisley Knows Best, which follows real estate tycoon Todd Chrisley, is a similar sized hit for USA Network with eight seasons and a spinoff. NBCU is now looking to expand the franchise further. “We’re talking to Todd about what other things are in his creative powerhouse of a mind because he’s a guy with a thousand ideas. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a family docuseries,” added Aissa.
THE GROWING WORLD OF SPINOFFS & REBOOTS
Spinoffs aren’t solely the domain of docusoaps. There’s been lots of talk of spinoffs of NBC’s The Voice with a kids’ version popular internationally and a hip-hop version recently ordered in Turkey. Groom said, “We talked about different iterations for The Voice in the past and we ultimately haven’t pulled the trigger just for various logistic reasons or timing. Finding the right spinoff is a little bit more challenging than you would expect.”
However, Groom admitted that it is looking at a couple of other spinoffs of other NBC formats for Peacock.
The Bachelor is one of the most spun off franchises on broadcast television. ABC’s Mills said that it is still high on a senior citizen version of the dating format and is currently casting. He joked that casting has thrown up one older woman who claimed that she has slept with a former President of the United States. The senior citizen version will likely replace The Bachelor: Listen To Your Heart, which will not return to ABC.
The Disney-owned network has committed to two versions of The Bachelorette in 2021. The first one, featuring Katie Thurston, is in production now and will air in the summer, followed by the second, fronted by Michelle Young, airing in the fall. Mills said the format can help launch scripted shows, as it did with Big Sky in 2020. “I made a commitment to the network that we would have some Bachelor related programming in the fall. As we were doing that, we also saw that we had some really great girls this season of The Bachelor,” he said.
Another defining feature of non-scripted, as is also the case on the scripted side, is reboots. Wipeout just launched on TBS and became the top new unscripted show on cable this year with close to 2M viewers.
CBS is also bringing back Kids Say The Darndest Things after it was cancelled by ABC after one season. Deadline understands that the show, which is hosted by Tiffany Haddish, will return with half-hour episodes. Graham said that they’re pleased to bring the comedian back to the network after she was discovered via its comedy showcase scheme.
Its sister company is also bringing back titles such as Behind The Music, Ink Master, not long after it was cancelled, and Dating Naked, which ran for three seasons on VH1, for Paramount+.
Diaz said, “We love to challenge ourselves to what can we do to go further and reskin, rethink and reimagine these beloved reality franchises creatively.”
Fox recently rebooted Name That Tune and has others in the works. Wade said that one of the benefits is that brand recognition means you can put these shows anywhere in the schedule and they will find an audience, which is particularly useful now as it can be more challenging to craft new formats at a time when the pandemic has made production more difficult.
ABC has also aired plenty of updates of classic gameshows including Card Sharks, Celebrity Family Feud, Press Your Luck, The $100,000 Pyramid and To Tell The Truth.
“Pretty soon it’s going to get to the place where we’re going to cancel Family Feud and then reboot that somewhere else… rebooting our own reboots,” joked Mills. “We’re due for some new fresh ideas. Shows that evolve and push things forward, big swings. You can feel it. It’s been a little while. It’s really time for us to start looking for things that feel just different.”