Cable’s reality check

Unscripted series draw big bucks for rerun rights

Reality’s all grown up — and reaching for a share in backend coin.

Long-running hit “Survivor” fetched $10 million from cabler Outdoor Life and CBS’ other reality juggernaut “The Amazing Race” pocketed $6 million from Game Show Network. King World, which distributed both skeins, also engineered a $6 million rerun deal with VH1 for “America’s Next Top Model.”

Pacts show that significant backend dollars exist for select reality shows — despite industry perception to the contrary. “The industry’s thinking on this genre has been wrong for so long. Reality lasted when everyone thought it wouldn’t. As you’re seeing, everything changes,” UTA partner/alternative TV topper Chris Coelen says. “Arced shows are still difficult, but I think you’ll see the ones that are more stand-alone like ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ and ‘Wife Swap’ do pretty well when all is said and done.” Coelen reps “Swap” producer RDF. Most naysayers point to the subpar performance of “The Real World” in syndication. And CBS’ own attempt to repeat the first season of “Survivor” in 2000 failed, though few remember it faced competition from the Summer Olympics on NBC.

GSN programming chief Ian Valentine acknowledges “some risk” in spending for “Race,” which he’ll strip seven days a week beginning next month. But he reasons “Race” is closer in nature to the self-contained episodes of “Fear Factor” — which has performed modestly on stations and better on FX — than a serialized gamble like “Survivor.”

One buyer, who had considered but did not bid on “Race,” called that procedural quality “a big selling point. It’s likely that the show will stand up to repeated viewings, and so I’d say it’s totally reasonable to consider it a smart buy for GSN.”

Ben Zuria, senior VP of programming strategy for VH1, has already found a scheduling model that’s worked for “Top Model.” Cabler ran a season one marathon of the competish skein as a lead-in to the premieres of “Kept” and “Strip Search.” Combined with those bows — 1 million viewers each — “Top Model” vaulted VH1 to the most-watched day in its history.

“We’re going to do as many of these acquisitions that suit our brand. ‘Top Model’ and ‘Tommy Lee’ fit perfectly into pop culture nostalgia core, and we know reality is a big part of pop culture,” Zuria says.

Fox Reality general manager David Lyle likens the idea of reality reruns to buying a DVD, with people spending for a film they’ve “usually seen, but enjoy the experience of watching. And like a DVD, Fox Reality will have extras, or supplemental material, that haven’t been seen before.”

There’s also ESPN Classic, a channel dedicated to rerunning memorable games and sports highlights — evidence that there is an audience that will watch events again and again, even while knowing the outcome.

Still, Lyle says “Survivor” and “Race” rep “huge commitments in cost and volume to OLN and GSN, respectively. “You’d almost have to say, it’s a throw of the dice.”

He should know.

Fox Realitylaunched in 20 million homes last month and has already snapped up 30 reality series — from the States and abroad. .

“With Fox Reality and others coming into play, suddenly everyone’s got a big appetite for these shows,” says UTA’s Coelen.

Joe DiSalvo, King World prexy of domestic sales, says he has noticed a recent aggressiveness for the distributor’s unscripted fare.

“I think cable networks want to be able to produce their own programming. But what they’re all trying to find is the right combination of originals and acquisitions,” he says, pointing to TBS and TNT as examples.

Even smallish returns on “Survivor” and “Race” could mean ratings boosts for OLN and GSN, well-distributed nets that have not yet come up with a signature show or significant Nielsens. And Lyle says in many cases, a $70,000 per-episode fee is a small price to pay for a broadcast show that likely cost $1 million per episode to produce.

Backend coin for reality still falls far short of that for scripted drama. Prices for those repeats of red-hot procedurals from the “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises have sky-rocketed into the millions. More recently, A&E broke the bank, spending $195 million for 78 episodes of HBO’s “The Sopranos.”Even “Smallville” fetched a $400,000 per-episode license fee from ABC Family — and that show averages just a fraction of the audience regularly delivered by first-run episodes of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.”

But that’s only because the market is not yet mature, per reality producer Ben Silverman, behind such skeins as “Blow Out” and “The Biggest Loser.”

“Most of these shows don’t have enough episodes to make them valuable. But we’re on our way to seeing that change,” he says. He adds that he’s increasingly approached by emerging platforms including buyers from the online and on-demand worlds.

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