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As Oscar Nominations Juice Up Reality TV, Unscripted Producers Find Hope

A new survey finds reality producers frustrated by smaller profit margins but optimistic about new platforms and a new golden age of docs.

Leah Remini, Jeff Probst, O.J. Simpson

Shutterstock, CBS, ESPN

O.J.: Made in America,” which just landed an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, isn’t just a win for ESPN or its producers. It’s perhaps an even bigger victory for unscripted TV.

The Academy Awards may consider “O.J.” a film, but it’s truly a TV show, and its success is a good example of how the unscripted world is finally breaking out of its long malaise. The success of docuseries like “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” and recent reality entries like A&E’s “Leah Remini: Scientology & the Aftermath,” Showtime’s “The Circus,” CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell,” Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” and many more has helped showcase how diverse and wide-ranging unscripted TV can really be.

READ MORE: Oscars 2017: Best Documentary Shortlist Announced, Led by ‘O.J.: Made in America,’ ‘Cameraperson’ and ‘Weiner’

It’s been more than 15 years since the original heyday of reality TV, a frenzied era when megahits like “Survivor” launched, surprises like “Joe Millionaire” came out of nowhere, and it seemed like almost anything was ripe to become a phenomenon.

But as the reality business matured, the gold rush ended ­– and much of the TV zeitgeist returned to scripted TV, which is experiencing its own so-called “platinum age.”

Couple that with more expensive productions, lower ratings and squeezed profit margins, and that explains why there has been so much concern in the reality ranks about the state of their business.

“Right now, we’re at the crossroads of the business model breaking,” said ITV America CEO Brent Montgomery. “It’s a really difficult time to be a small company, and even though I run a big company, I’m quite interested to see what happens to these small guys, because they quite often create the next hit show that feeds the entire ecosystem.” Budgets are so tight, says Montgomery, that a producer’s fee isn’t even 10% anymore. “Often it gets down to 6% or 7%,” he says. “A company needs to be doing eight or 10 series to stay afloat now, and that’s not going to create a vibrant market.”

According to a new survey of the U.S.’ top reality producers, conducted by Variety and PactUS — an association of independent TV producers — producers are feeling the financial squeeze, with most contending that it’s harder to do business now.

Among other complaints, producers say networks are making smaller orders, have smaller budgets, are buying less, taking longer to do deals, and demanding foreign rights.

READ MORE: Here’s Why Reality TV Is an Ideal Day Job for Indie Filmmakers

But here’s the bright side: respondents also reported that 2016 was a “more successful” year than 2015 — and they’re even more positive about the future of their own business.

“I think in general people are aware that the entire biz has its own challenges, no matter which side of the business you’re on,” said Chris Coelen, CEO at Kinetic Content (“Married at First Sight”). “I’m more on the optimistic side. I think the business presents huge opportunity for people who are entrepreneurial.”

That’s because they see opportunity in digital platforms and streaming services like Netflix, which are still just getting their feet wet in unscripted. The documentary field is more vibrant than ever. And some unscripted producers are finding success by transitioning to the scripted world.

Montgomery is similarly bullish on the digital outlets: “We get to pitch Amazon and Netflix, who are not so concerned right now with profit margins and ratings,” he said.

Henry Schleiff, group president of Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel, and Destination America, said he believed “the world of unscripted is still somewhat under-exploited. We’re in the golden age of documentaries. You can point to any one of the short lists, or the documentary Academy Award. They’re meaningful, entertaining, and informative. That’s a world coming into its own.”

Schleiff said the competition has given both producers and networks “an opportunity to raise your game… In this world, what you need to be most concerned about is the challenge of telling a story well. The art, the genius, the talent in telling — that’s still difficult to find.”

Variety has more details on the survey here, including specifics on how reality producers view their struggles with broadcast and cable outlets, as well as their rankings of their favorite – and least favorite – networks to do business with.

Unscripted TV isn’t going away, but the reality of increased competition, declining ratings and evolving audience tastes means a return to the go-go early 2000s probably won’t happen. But that’s true about a lot of things in the TV business.

“The producers are going to have to do what they’ve always done, which is adapt,” said Pact US president David Lyle.

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