There are plenty of examples of powerful people looking at transitional moments in media and making exactly the wrong call. In 1946, Darryl Zanuck predicted the demise of television when he said people would “soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Years before, as movies were set to transition from silent to sound, studio boss Harry Warner asked, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
Today, all kinds of smart and sophisticated people are looking at the television business. They are focusing on how content is distributed and consumed. They are talking about how much of it is being produced. But most of these people are missing a piece of the puzzle that has the potential to change the medium from the inside out.
With social media, we are all reality-content producers. This is an entirely new activity — an emerging area of expertise that did not exist a decade ago, and now increasingly consumes and defines us. For our own personal networks, we produce and package the moments that make up our lives — every day, sometimes several times a day — across myriad platforms and interactions. We have clearly entered a digital age that is being driven by the power of personal storytelling. Whether the tools are Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter, life today is not only something you live; it’s something you post.
In addition to connecting all of us in new and powerful ways, social media will give rise to an era in unscripted or reality programming on television like nothing we have seen since the genre came to prominence almost two decades ago with shows like “American Idol” and “Survivor.”
There are hundreds of millions of people on video-centric social platforms like Facebook Live, Periscope, and Vine, producing and consuming content every day that looks very much like unpolished versions of unscripted television. And as the familiarity of this storytelling form becomes pervasive, it can’t help but have an impact on our entertainment consumption choices — not just on how we are going to watch, or on which device (although those lines are also blurring in a way that brings social media and reality TV together), but on what we will watch. Reality TV will be the beneficiary.
As we continue to produce and share — as the distinctions between conventionally produced entertainment and personal social activity disappear, and resonance is less reliant on form and more on whether the content is relatable, entertaining, and authentic — reality or unscripted television will experience a renaissance. This is not to say that reality programming will completely replace scripted, but the continued prevalence of social media and the role we play as reality producers in our daily lives will have an impact on how we as consumers define entertainment.
And beyond familiarity of form, consider the potential for talent to build immense followings on emerging platforms, and for reality television stars to use social media to connect with fans — in character and as themselves — every day.
When a season of “The Sopranos” ended, there was no way for a viewer to stay in touch with Tony and Carmela — they were gone until new scripts could be written and episodes shot. But reality stars don’t go away; they are present before and after each episode. Fans hunger for these connections with the stars they watch on TV. There is probably no better example of this than the Kardashians. Though new episodes of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” air only about a dozen times each year, the family is “in season” 52 weeks of the year through activity in the media and on social platforms. That type of always-on engagement is unprecedented.
Unscripted storytelling is only beginning to realize its full potential and prominence, despite those who would have us believe the genre’s best days are behind it. Thanks to social media and the impact it’s having on how we define and consume entertainment, the famously wrong prognostications of Zanuck and Warner are sure to have some company.
Marc Juris is the president of WE tv.