NBCUniversal ad-sales chief Linda Yaccarino spent much of her company’s upfront presentation this month throwing shade at Facebook and YouTube. With NBCUniversal, Yaccarino told the assembled ad buyers at Radio City Music Hall, “your brand always runs next to premium content. Other brands can’t guarantee that.”
She then introduced a lengthy and loud performance featuring the stars of NBC’s “World of Dance,” among them Jennifer Lopez.
The production illustrated Yaccarino’s point, as well as the growing role unscripted programming plays at NBC. A day earlier, the network unveiled a 2018-19 schedule that leaned heavily into unscripted franchises, including those, like “World of Dance” — whose second season premieres May 29 — that hail from the company’s still-growing Universal Television Alternative Studio. Just two years old, the studio has become an increasingly important content engine for the network, one that the larger unscripted community has begun to warm to.
“I can’t overstate how powerful having a brand like ‘World of Dance’ affiliated with the studio is,” UTAS president Meredith Ahr told Variety. “It certainly helped us define our culture and what we stand for and our processes, how we go about everything from creating and refining formats to building teams to working with global partners and creating world-class productions.”
NBC formed UTAS in 2016, with network veteran Ahr taking charge of the studio under reality chief Paul Telegdy. “World of Dance” was an early success, premiering last summer and averaging a solid 1.8 rating in the 18-49 demographic, according to Nielsen’s live-plus-same-day numbers.
The show has established itself as a key part of NBC’s summer schedule. More important, it’s a franchise that NBC, through UTAS, owns and controls the fate of. The first international version of the series is already in production in Thailand. A Polish iteration is also in the works.
The model of developing series for U.S. television, then monetizing them over the long tail has been for years the default path for scripted broadcast programming. UTAS is an experiment in whether that model can work in unscripted. Ahr, Telegdy and NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt first discussed the idea in early 2016, and were hanging the shingle four months later. The biggest goal was to develop the next game-changing format, and make sure not only that it found its way to NBC’s air but that NBC would own and be able to exploit it everywhere.
“The really big formats, if you look at history, they only came around every five years or so,” Ahr said. “We had the last one, which is ‘The Voice,’ and we weren’t patient enough to wait around for another five years hoping that the next one would come to us.”
UTAS’ NBC slate includes “World of Dance,” LeBron James and Chris Hardwick’s “The Wall,” Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman’s “Making It” and the upcoming Dwayne Johnson competition series “The Titan Games.”
“Meredith and her team are great partners in the creative process and her meticulous attention to detail is reflected in every aspect of this production,” Lopez, who is under a first-look deal for unscripted development with UTAS, told Variety. Poehler, under overall deals with UTAS for unscripted and Universal TV for scripted, said, “Meredith and UTAS have been behind ‘Making It’ since the beginning, and their energy and enthusiasm is matched by their strength in helping wrangle a show into shape.”
The studio has yet, however, to deliver a killer-app reality hit on the same plain as “The Voice.” Its next big bet is “The Titan Games,” an athletic competition hosted by Johnson, who exec produces with business partner Dany Garcia. The show was born of Ahr and Telegdy’s desire to create a companion to “American Ninja Warrior” — whose creator, Arthur Smith, also exec produces “The Titan Games.” It was developed with Johnson in mind, long before the star was approached about the project.
“For us, Dwayne was the face of the show, even though we hadn’t talked to him yet,” Ahr said. The series will premiere in January, part of a strategy that will see NBC flood its midseason schedule with unscripted franchises.
That scheduling move wouldn’t be possible without the volume of series UTAS has developed for NBC. But multiple unscripted agents told Variety that the real test of the studio’s strength will be whether it can be more than just an in-house producer.
“At the beginning of the year, the goal was to start to meaningfully connect with buyers outside of NBC and our own portfolio, and the conversations have been really great,” Ahr told Variety. “The studio has been incredibly well received.”
There is no reason to believe that crossing corporate lines to make a sale will be any easier a task for UTAS than it is for its scripted counterparts. Vertical integration has forced scripted studios such as Universal TV, 20th Century Fox Television Studios, ABC Studios and CBS Television Studios to focus on developing for their family of networks. Studios without broadcast partners, such as Sony and Warner Bros., have had to shift resources to developing for streaming and cable.
But UTAS has made headway. It’s in production on its first non-NBC sale — “In Search Of,” with exec producer and host Zachary Quinto, for A+E Networks’ History. Several other outside deals, including at least one at a rival broadcaster, are near completion.
Ahr expects, as demand for unscripted grows across television, to see more such activity for UTAS.
“Now that we’re two years in and we’ve established our own brand and our own culture and our own protocol, that’s what’s the exciting bit,” Ahr said. “That’s why it feels like we’re in inning three in the game right now, and we’re just getting started.”