HRTS State of the Industry: Non Scripted – Changing Faces

IMG_4893-05.24.16-Chyna PhotographyMay 24, 2016. Beverly Hilton. Hundreds of TV movers and shakers gathered together to discuss the changing face of television during the HRTS State of the Industry – Non Scripted luncheon.

Variety’s Michael Schneider moderated a candid, freewheeling discussion with Endemol Shine’s Charlie Corwin, Warner Bros’ Mike Darnell, FremantleMedia’s Trish Kinane, NBC Entertainment’s Paul Telegdy and WME’s Sean Perry.

Santa Claus is coming to town. Or more correctly, to the set of the Bachelorette. Schneider asked Darnell how that works exactly and the latter chuckled as he said “we have to reinvent every year, there’s only so much you can do”, adding “there are very few shows that have been on that long and are still doing those numbers, it’s an amazing show”.

With the unscripted segment of the industry maturing, with shows that have been on the air for 15 years or more, Schneider wondered if there’s still shelf space for new entries. Perry said that there is always room but when selling a new show the question always is if “it’s better to go try six episodes of this new thing or put the money towards six more episodes of the show that’s working?” Corwin acknowledged that Big Brother is returning for Season 18, adding that “you could say that reality is a victim of its own success in a way, because some of these formats last so long that they’re almost like sporting events. When you talk about some of these shows with 20+ seasons it’s like the Super Bowl”.

Telegdy and Darnell recently launched a hit show with “Little Big Shots”, with the former crediting their host by saying “I think it’s a case study in Steve Harvey, in how he connects with audiences” and the latter then adding that “sometimes things have what I call magic dust on them, like when we did Idol, just once in a while you have that show and Little Big Shots felt like that to me”.

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Trish Kinane

Do you need a big name to have a big show?  As the former EP of American Idol, Kinane offered her perspective by noting that “I’m not sure that these days if you had Simon Cowell, relatively unknown, Paula and Randy, I’m not sure that it would work. And we all talk about it, could you go back to that or do you need the big celebrity?” Darnell concurred, adding that celebrities are now much more willing to do unscripted, since “when I was looking to replace Ellen on Idol and we were talking to J. Lo we had to really talk her into it”.

Schneider noted that American Idol was for many years the 800-pound gorilla in the room, going on to ask Darnell if he ever thought it would end, and if he was nostalgic about the show. Darnell drew a big laugh when he quipped “I left three years ago, so….it’s been off the air to me”, adding that “when you have a ship that big, I always say it’s like the Titanic because it is, something that huge, once it starts going down it is impossible to keep it from going down”. Kinane agreed, adding “I think it was a victim of its own success, it could never be what it was in its heyday”, and as for whether it will ever come back, “who knows, as Ryan said at the end of the finale”.

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(Left) Paul Telegdy, (Right) Sean Perry

Noting that as some of the long-running shows continue on they get more and more expensive to produce, Schneider wondered how that changes the game. Telegdy said that “obviously the environment has changed enormously and technology has sort of stuck a bomb underneath the audience and it’s spread everywhere to the four corners so we’re dealing with that fragmentation” and “fragmentation, lower ratings, means that we’re taking in less money” though with the strength of broadcast advertising they are still economically viable. Corwin added that “it’s important for producers to expand beyond broadcast, beyond cable as well, even though reality is still working well on both of those” since “we need to figure out how this programming lives on SVOD, how it exists on other digital platforms”. Perry pointed out that unlike a scripted drama with set overhead production costs, “we live in a world where you can do shows like Hollywood Game Night for a real number, the ratings are solid on it but if it was a two million dollar per episode show it would be gone”.

Whereas American Idol once ruled the airwaves, in 2016 there’s no doubt as to who is the master and center of attention: The Donald. Schneider said “there’s been a lot of talk about the news media and whether they’ve built up Donald Trump”, going on to ask Telegdy if he thinks that had Trump not been a reality TV star for many years if he’d still be the nominee today. Telegdy said “you know the answer. Of course not. If he hadn’t been the host of The Apprentice he wouldn’t have a platform to run from”.  Schneider asked point blank “does that blow you away?” and Telegdy and his very British accent got a huge laugh when he joked “it’s your country. Blow you away. I’ve got somewhere I can go”.

Telegdy noted that Trump’s “persona seems to be in lockstep with his persona on the show” and “what’s going on has demonstrated that this is an enormous amount of responsibility, that goes with the job of putting out the version of someone that we do in a TV show”. So what job will he take in a Trump White House? Telegdy joked “Ambassador to the Court of St. James, it’s a nice house in Regents Park”.

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Mike Darnell

And with a huge grin on his face, Darnell added “a reality star as president just makes me smile”.

We all have hits and misses, Schneider asking the panel about the one that got away. Darnell said “I did a show called Who’s Your Daddy and I really thought it was interesting and it taught me something because there was a lot of controversy around it and it didn’t launch. I used to think that controversy by itself was able to get something launched but it really wasn’t”.  Kinane said “we had a show when I was in the UK, one which Mike nearly bought, it was called Divorce Me and was a sort of anti-dating show” and “we had removal vans at the end of the driveway of the house and depending on who answered the questions correctly either the husband or the wife got whatever they wanted and put it in the removal van, and the last round was who would get the family pet”.  Telegdy said “I have to give a shout out to Shark Tank, I love that format going back to its glory days as Dragon’s Den on the BBC and I always thought we would love a smart business show like that”. Perry said “the one that I think about is The Island from last year. Didn’t work, and it killed me because it was so authentic, there was no significant artifice around it and if that had worked it would have created its own genre”. After having thought things through for a moment, Corwin answered that “there’s been so many shows, I generally tend to block them out if they don’t work, to save space in my head” but “there was one called Knife Swap, that was couples volunteering for elective plastic surgery but the husband would pick the procedures the wife got and vice-versa and they wouldn’t know until they woke up”.

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(Left) Michael Schneider, (Right) Charlie Corwin

There’s been a wave of consolidation in the business over the past couple of years, Schneider wondering
if everything’s been accounted for or if more is to come. Corwin said that “most companies of a certain size have been merged or acquired, so we’re probably toward the end of this cycle of consolidation”. As to whether or not consolidation is a good thing, Corwin noted that it is a positive development “to the degree that we can get to the right intersection between scale and independence”. Perry said that “from where I sit you’re still doing the same job, you’re selling shows, you’re getting people to buy them, it’s just that the buyers have changed”, adding that “it’s imperative that when these conglomerates buy shows and invest in them they’ve got to let them be who they are, because if you squash that creativity you take away the reason you bought the company”.

Photos by Chyna Photography