Unscripted, Reality TV Gets Unreal: Are Jobs, Money Disappearing?

Earlier this year, news about declines in scripted TV hit home for many executives, as U.S. scripted TV shows dropped 24% to 481, according to Ampere Analysis.

But what about unscripted TV shows -- which in recent years seemingly make up a significant piece of the programming puzzle -- especially on cable TV networks? 

Tangential evidence shows that is declining as well: the number of Los Angeles shooting days for TV production in the first quarter of 2024 dropped 19% to 1,317 from 1,617 the year before, according to FilmLA.

One would think the size of streaming and connected TV platforms would push production executives to produce more TV shows -- of all types. But apparently that may not be the case.



Premium streaming platforms house plenty of scripted/unscripted TV and movie content. And while unscripted TV shows are a piece of the puzzle, most times that's not what gets big headlines.

Still, some shows have made some hay, like Netflix's “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which to an extent has helped lift viewership when it comes to actual race coverage on other networks' series. 

Top Netflix unscripted shows in 2023 were “Love Is Blind” (273.7 million hours); “Squid Game: The Challenge” (270.6 million); and “Physical: 100” (257.7 million), according to FlixPatrol. Top scripted shows scored higher: “The Night Agent” (967.6 million); “Ginny & Georgia” (731.3 million) and “The Glory” (689.7 million).

A number of new unscripted shows (or new seasons of existing shows) are on the way. New shows include “Selling The City” (from the creators of  “Selling Sunset”); also “Building the Band,” and “Battle Camp.”  

At the same time, legacy media companies on their traditional linear TV networks continue to rely on their unscripted fare for major parts of their schedule: NBCU's “ Deal or No Deal,” Fox’s "MasterChef” and “Lego Masters,” ABC's  “American Idol," NBC's “The Voice,” CBS'“Survivor,” ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Bachelor.”

For cable TV networks, it's Bravo's "Below Deck" and “Real Housewives.”

Some recent data reveals that over 75% of television networks' programming consists of reality TV shows. Around 44% of television viewers say they watch reality TV regularly, and the average number of reality TV shows that a regular viewer watches is 3.5 per week.

That sounds like a lot. The belief has been that after last year's writers' and actors' strikes, scripted TV programming would see a downturn and that unscripted TV content would see an increase.

But it hasn't. The Hollywood Reporter reports a number of unscripted TV producers are perplexed about the lack of work in Los Angeles.

The bottom line, you ask. Exactly. It's the financial bottom line of legacy TV/movie companies' studio operations that is being hard hit -- NBCUniversal, Paramount Global, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Walt Disney. 

Except, perhaps, for Netflix. The big streamer continues to spend big bucks -- around $17 billion annually on average for original and acquired programming.

That's the unreal reality of the current TV content business in an increasingly competitive and mature marketplace.

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