Relativity TV’s Tom Forman Talks Challenges for Independent Reality Producers

Relativity Television’s CEO Tom Forman joined Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton Tuesday at the annual TV Summit for an unfiltered keynote conversation.

“Television is already second to movies, even though it shouldn’t be. Reality is second or third or fourth in TV,” Forman said, championing for unscripted programming. “A good story told well can be a pretty remarkable thing … when you get it right, it’s really special.”

He added, “Real people doing actual stuff is the bulk of television.”

Though Forman joked he was the unofficial reality spokesperson at the event, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, he admitted he understands why there hasn’t been a recent breakout hit in reality TV, citing short-lived big swings “Utopia” and “Rising Star.”

“If you look across the unscripted landscape and how few things have worked in the last few years … how big, few international ideas sell out of the United States,” Forman said, “I’m sort of not surprised that producers duck their head.”

Speaking candidly about broadcast networks which are “incentivized for big properties,” he continued, “Developing a big show takes time and takes money … if we are going to do that, it’s helpful to know that there’s some pathway to profitability. If the network is going to take away and put you on a percentage basis, it’s probably better to keep your nose on the grindstone.”

Though the exec said that Relativity Television pitches its content everywhere — broadcast and cable, domestically and internationally — he said, “When the networks look around and say, ‘The stuff I’m getting pitched in 2015 is a little boring, where’s the big hit?’ I think you sort of reap what you sow.”

Expressing frustration over ideas sitting on the shelf “on the principle that they absolutely have to own everything,” Forman said of the big networks, “The truth is, they’ve got billions of dollars of ad revenue, so many revenue streams, that getting out there and hustling my little cable show is often not the most important thing to them, but is the most important thing to me.”

With that, Forman says production companies better have a huge slate of unscripted properties, if they want to become profitable. Relativity produces shows for MTV, Food Network, Esquire, GSN, FYI, Animal Planet, Sundance TV and Travel Channel, among others.

The company is also behind its first big broadcast scripted series with Bradley Cooper’s “Limitless” television adaptation debuting on CBS this fall.

“We made a very conscious decision to place that at CBS in a more traditional financial model,” Forman explained. “That was the fastest route to get it on the biggest network in the world … we’re very excited to put it on CBS.”

As for the future, Forman believes reality TV will find its home on the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, though to date, streaming services have expressed interest only in documentaries or big stunts, when it comes to unscripted programming.

“I think just given the way they program and binge viewing, uploading a season of unscripted content is just less appealing, though I suspect that changes.” With a laugh, he concluded, “If you need more stuff and you need it cheap, you eventually have to get rid of the actors…but we love the actors.”

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