Reality and Streaming television

The following piece was originally posted in two parts on my friend’s excellent blog “Far From Reality”. I wrote this as a response to the insinuation that Netflix hasn’t commissioned a Reality show because Reality television is low-brow and somehow below Netflix. You can read the inspiring post here.

If Netflix were to announce a series with Michael Moore, would we even debate whether that series was Documentary or Reality? The fact that there is a debate about the genre of Chelsea Does says more about our cultural opinion of Chelsea Handler then it does about the content of her series. But ultimately that debate is counter-productive when trying to discuss why Chelsea Handler gets a Netflix show and Surviving: the Real Housewives of Kim Kardashian’s Dance Moms does not.

I think that Netflix does not produce Reality television because Netflix believes that their subscribers are not going to watch Reality television on their service. In addition, I believe that most of the Reality television sub-genres are at odds with the streaming service models of viewership as well.

I recently finished working on a Netflix show and on every call, the production people would say, “Netflix is a global company.” They even had a slide show that outlined the characteristics of the ideal Netflix show; which is 1) something that appeals to a global audience, 2) is discoverable and evergreen, 3) could be made into a franchise. In general, I believe that most Reality programming does not meet this criterion.

Global Audience

In general, most Reality sub-genres do not translate to a global audience because of cultural differences. In the Competition Reality genre, we see a show like Britain’s Got Talent remade into America’s Got Talent, and then Sweden’s Got Talent, etc. Each country gets a locally produced version of the same competition show. Netflix has no interest in producing the same show for each country; the company wants to produce one show and stream everywhere.

In the Docu-Soap and Follow-Doc sub-genres, if the lives of Housewives in a global city such as New York or London do not appeal to a global market, then I don’t know whose lives would. What we do see, similar to the competition space, is taking the format and reproducing it for a local audience. For example; Fox Latin America recently took the Housewives concept and made it in a show called Lucky Ladies Mexico, Lucky Ladies Argentina, and Lucky Ladies Brazil.

A follow-doc series that centers around a celebrity family like the Kardashians could hypothetically work for Netflix, because the Kardashians have transcended into the ultra rare global celebrity status that is hard to achieve without already having the cult of celebrity.

Discoverable/Evergreen

If there is one reason Netflix doesn’t ‘do’ Reality, I believe this is it. Netflix wants their shows to be as relevant three years down the road as they are when they are first released.

An example would be like when someone is home sick and they discover one of those BBC crime sagas, like The Fall, and they binge watch the enitre series from beginning to end. How many people ‘discovered’ Breaking Bad in its second or third season on Netflix and then became current viewers on AMC in the fourth or fifth season?

So why is it that I just don’t see someone ‘discovering’ The Real Housewives of Orange County and binge watching 6 seasons of it the way someone would with Breaking Bad or Pretty Little Liars?

I think that there is an unspoken sense of “of the moment” that Reality television shares with News & Sports that separates it from Scripted television, or even the Documentary. And if we are ever going to build a solid definition of Reality television, this is the area that needs to be explored.

Revealing the winner of Survivor; New Jersey Housewife Teresa flipping a dinner table; these things have more in common with last year’s Super Bowl, or Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal, then they do with rise & fall of Breaking Bad’s Walter White.

The competition reality genre operates similarly to sports. You don’t watch old season of Survivor to catch up on this year’s competition. And there is very little fun to be had watching old seasons when you know who is going to be eliminated. This is the same as not watching old Super Bowls to catchup on this year’s football season.

Being shocked by the antics of the Jersey Shore cast has a similar feel as being shocked to discover that the governor of New York State is having sex with a twenty-year-old prostitute. There is something about being current that makes the Docu-soup and Follow-doc genres potent now, but mostly irrelevant three years from now. (Seriously, when was the last time you thought about Teresa’s table-flipping incident before being reminded of it two paragraphs ago?)

The Franchise

Ever since Disney/Marvel released Ironman and announced a series of movies building up to The Avengers, the franchise has been one of the defining components of modern tentpole cinema. In the television space, the word franchise is thrown around from time-to-time, Bravo’s Real Housewives immediately comes to mind, but there is a big difference between what Disney/Marvel is doing and what is happening in television.

The Marvel Universe is occupied by numerous individual properties that come together and synergistically drive audiences to each other. The Netflix series Daredevil is a stand alone. You can watch seasons 1 & 2 on their own and get a satisfying story. But you can also expand into the Jessica Jones or Luke Cage series. To the audience, they are getting a deeper more immersive viewing experience. To Netflix, they are getting four stories (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and their combined story) for the price of three.

In streaming environments, like Amazon and Netflix, franchise amounts to a kind of choose your own adventure and you can see this revised concept of franchise at play at YouTube. They recently released Fight of the Living Dead which takes established Youtube ‘stars’ and places them into the well defined Competition Reality genre. Viewers of PrankvsPrank will watch Fight of the Living Dead to root for their star. But Youtube is betting that viewers will learn about, and start watching, Joey Graceffa’s or Stawburry17’s channel as well. For Youtube the sum is greater than the parts. It’s also worth noting that the entire series of 11 five minute episodes was produced for less than the post production budget of one 60 minute reality show.

What AMC did with Better Call Saul and Bravo did with Vanderpump Rules is the ‘spin-off’. That is to say, someone who watches The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills may continue onto Vanderpump Rules, but that’s about it. The spin-off is unlikely to lead viewers to any of Bravo’s other properties. In order to thrive in the future television landscape I believe that reality television is going to have to adapt.

For example; one of the hallmarks of The Real Housewives shows is the seasonal cast trip. Every year the city’s cast fly away to an exotic location and have emotional moments together that serve as a way to summarize the season. Perhaps Bravo should consider a future trip on the Below Deck ship. This would be an unique opportunity to introduce the Housewives viewer to the Below Deck crew. This kind of interconnectedness is the defining feature of the modern franchise and is critical in the future. It will also certainly require a different way of thinking at the Network level and beyond.

Conclusion

The idea of having The Real Housewives vacation on a Below Deck yacht is exciting for another reason as well. It’s an opportunity to subvert the audience’s expectations about what a Reality television show could be. Having two casts converge and interact would update troupes in a well worn genre. I hope Bravo is brave enough to take the dive because this sort of high concept meta-reality scenario sounds exactly like the sort of thing I would expect to stumble upon on Netflix.

In today’s TMZ and Snapchat environment, it’s getting harder and harder for Reality television to surprise us. Not because Reality stars won’t do shocking things. But because the lag between when the star was taped doing that shocking thing, to when it is broadcast is usually months after the fact. Anyone who’s truly invested in their Reality stars can usually find out via social media in advance. So not only is the shelf life of a reality show short, but it is also inauthentic when broadcast as current.

Reality television has always navigated in an awkward space between documentary and news. Comparing Reality to Documentary happens frequently. But I’ve never heard of a serious discussion comparing Reality to television News. I believe that the next advancement in broadcast Reality television is going to be in shortening the time between production and air. Perhaps Reality production companies should start cribbing news production?

Reality television is without doubt the offspring of the documentary. But like all children, it has two parents. And Reality’s other parent is News; although it may be much like a father who abandons his wife and child. Perhaps Reality’s “of the moment” quality makes it incompatible in the Netflix streaming universe. I don’t know but perhaps this is a good place to start the conversation.

Reality television isn’t going to disappear in the immediate future, but it is going to have to change because new media players clearly have little interest in what’s currently being offered.

Further Reading

I highly recommend the following list of articles to further explore the ideas presented. I think they add considerable value to the conversation and I hope you’ll take the time to provide your own thoughts in the comments below.

Dance Moms and the broken promise of reality television — An oldie but goodie, if you work in Reality television and you only read one of these articles, Please Read This One. The whole article is worth quoting, but I think the conclussion is especially potent:

Ultimately, what’s so bothersome about Dance Moms and so much of its ilk is that they aim to confirm biases, not to subvert them. … At its best, reality TV can expose us to people and places we rarely see on television, and can teach us about jobs and hobbies that might otherwise seem closed-off. But then there are the shows that exist merely to say, “Those people that you think are probably terrible? Guess what? They are!” These shows serve a function as guilty pleasures, yes, but do there have to be so many of them?

You Won’t Live to See the Final Star Wars Movie — Interesting exploration of what franchise means in today’s marketplace. What struck me most about this article is how the concept of franchise requires less individual ego and an even greater level of collaboration between creatives:

In that framework, the auteur gives way to the team player. The myth of the screenwriter as a loner who vanishes into a Starbucks purgatory for a couple of years and returns with a script isn’t necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t apply to universe-building. Paramount has structured its Transformers team explicitly like a television-series writers’ room, with a showrunner and multiple writers all working on individual stories and the overall arc, following a story bible that establishes themes, tone, characters, and even plot twists.

Big Gulp: “Drinking and drama on Vanderpump Rules — While catching up on the Bravo spin-off, The New Yorker’s thoughtful television critic, Emily Nussbaum, describes the process of watching Reality television as less a binge and more a cultural IV drip.

I still sometimes have the urge to critique the reality machine; it’s certainly asking for it. But it’s also true that reality is where the action is. It’s an easily mocked mass artistic medium that’s corrupted by half-hidden deals, but it also provides a magnetizing mirror for the culture, dirty and mesmerizing. It’s television’s television.

TV Advertising’s Surprising Strength … And inevitable fall — If you have any doubts about why we NEED to start discussing the future of Reality television then you should really stop what you’re doing and really take the time to contemplate this article. (For extra credit, read the companion piece about Dollar Shave Club)

Linear television and its advertisers were all predicated on owning distribution and thus owning customers. The Internet has or is in the process of destroying their business models for broadly similar reasons; for now the intertwinement of these models is keeping everyone afloat, but that only means that when the end comes it will come more swiftly and broadly than anyone is expecting.

Published by lowbudgetfun

Post is the most exciting aspect of Film and Television Production. I've dedicated my career to learning every aspect of the process and sharing what I've learned as a Post Supervisor and Assistant Editor with the community.

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