As Writers Strike Looms, Reality Producers Optimistic About Possible Unscripted Boom

As Writers Strike Looms, Reality Producers Optimistic About Possible Unscripted Boom

January 27, 2023

A potential writers strike would be incredibly harmful for many in Hollywood, but there’s one sector of the entertainment industry that is quietly optimistic that it could lead to a boom for them: the unscripted television makers.

As history has shown, there’s also precedent for an uptick — from the 1988 strike that led to the creation of Fox’s Cops and the 2007-08 strike, which bolstered unscripted shows such as The Amazing Race and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

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The issue was top of mind at this week’s Realscreen conference in Austin, where thousands of nonfiction producers, documentary filmmakers and buyers discussed the future of the unscripted business.

Kathleen Finch, Chairman and Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Discovery’s U.S. Networks Group, told Deadline that while a strike would aid the unscripted business, she warned there would be “big repercussions”

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“Given past history, it would [help the unscripted TV sector], but I don’t think it helps the industry at all,” she said. “When you think about how many people would be out of work, if all those scripted shows stopped, none of us want that. I certainly hope that it doesn’t happen. But would we be able to keep moving forward? We would but I just think it would be so rough on all of us that there would be big repercussions later.”

The linear broadcast networks, cable networks and streamers are starting to prepare for a strike and are bulking up unscripted development in case the scribes do put down their tools.

Multiple agents told Deadline that this hasn’t translated into a massive increase in unscripted series orders yet, but they are expecting that to begin soon.

“They’re starting to talk about it and it’s definitely coming, whether there’s a strike or not,” said one source.

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“This year is going to be a really interesting, positive time [for unscripted],” added another. “Entertainment industry-wide, we’re looking down the barrel at the potential writers strike. But in the unscripted world, I see that as opportunity. It’s worth thinking about all of the ideas that we have sitting on the shelf, this might be the perfect year to bring that stuff off the shelf and bring it to market, especially if it can be produced quickly.”

Leslie Greif has fingers in both pies as the exec producer of scripted series including Paramount+’s The Offer as well as the man behind A&E’s long-running reality series Gene Simmons: Family Jewels.

He pointed to the fact that previous strikes led to more news formats, game shows and reality shows.

“Every time the writers went out, they ended up hurting themselves, but it was a great opportunity for unscripted. That’s the truth,” he added.

The relative low cost of unscripted series – even at the top end – compared to big-budget dramas and comedies, will likely see even more turn to the genre if there’s a strike, particularly given how cost-conscious Hollywood has become.

However, others cautioned that the prevalence of unscripted shows across all of the networks and streamers means there’s less room to grow compared to 2007-08. The broadcast networks, which previously only really aired reality in the summer, now have big tentpole franchises throughout the year, the majority of cable networks pulled out of scripted and are now entirely commissioning unscripted originals and the streamers, particularly Netflix, have been growing their reality slates in recent years.

Non-scripted executives are also now in more senior positions across the television business than they were during the last strike.

Rob Wade runs Fox, Chris McCarthy runs a large chunk of the Paramount universe, Finch oversees the vast majority of networks at Warner Bros. Discovery and even Netflix Chief Content Officer Bela Bejaria started at the streamer overseeing reality.

History repeats itself, it seems, as previous writers strikes have actually bolstered their unscripted rivals.

Cops, created by John Langley and Malcom Barbour, was born out of the 1988 strike, which was also good for shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted.

The last strike benefited a wide range of unscripted shows and formats.

CBS ordered two seasons of The Amazing Race for the 2007-08 season and an extra season of Big Brother. NBC’s The Biggest Loser was supersized, going from a one-hour slot to a two-hour slot to fill the schedule. Fox’s American Idol and fashion series Project Runway were among those shows that celebrated ratings highs.

Over the next few months, as the scripted world keeps a close on how talks go between the WGA and the AMPTP, we’ll see whether the unscripted community’s optimism pays off.

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