Emmys: How Netflix’s Emergence in Unscripted Races Challenges Broadcasters, Cablers

Just a few years ago streaming services didn’t even produce reality series, but this year Netflix landed five Emmy nominations in four reality/competition categories and sparked buzz (and viewer joy) that may encourage linear networks to take more chances in the increasingly crowded reality space.

“With the amount of shows we’ve rolled out collectively, it felt inevitable that with many more programs to offer, the voters would embrace some of the new programs,” says Netflix vice president of nonfiction series and comedy specials Brandon Riegg. He notes the streamer leans tonally into more positive, aspirational and escapist reality programming. “A lot of what we’ve talked about is there’s so much great content out there, we do need to differentiate ourselves. I think having that mentality allows for these projects to bubble up that might feel unconventional but it fits within the spectrum of what we’re trying to program to.”

One such program, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” which scored a nom this year in the structured reality program category, alongside fellow Netflix feel-good series “Queer Eye,” may not seem like typical American programming on paper. The program sees best-selling author Marie Kondo go into clients’ homes to help them “tidy” their space by encouraging the removal of items that do not spark joy for them. Kondo is not a native English-speaker, which caused some outlets to pause: “Broadcast companies passed on it, as did cable,” says executive producer Gail Berman.
But now, the tide may be turning, thanks in part to the ultimate success of “Tidying Up.”

“I don’t know if it will go as far as a non-English-speaking host on a cable network,” says executive producer Hend Baghdady, “but I do think networks are interested in taking more risks with more premium content and more unique voices because they have to to compete.”

Jane Lipsitz, executive producer of “Top Chef” and “Nailed It!” (both nominated in the competition program category this year), has seen that first hand. After achieving success with the latter series, which “took something very familiar — the baking competition — and reinvented it,” she says her former company, Magical Elves, “definitely got a lot of calls from cable networks asking, ‘Can you create our “Nailed It!”?’”

It is a strategy those at broadcast and cable do not deny. Many platforms that have multi-quadrant demographics to hit all with one show and are still somewhat beholden to advertising dollars in the way that a streamer such as Netflix is not, like proven programs. They prefer not to set the trends, but instead hope to jump onto one just as the wider audience is realizing their hunger for such a thing.

“What we do is take what works there and look and see if there’s any way to implement that in broadcast,” admits Rob Mills, ABC senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late night. “In some ways streaming has become like cable used to be back in the day. We’d see ‘Trading Spaces’ become a phenomenon and say, ‘How do we take what’s working here and take it in broadcast?’ That’s the genesis of how ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ came about. ‘Instead of rooms, let’s make it a house.’”

Interestingly, though, ABC’s “Shark Tank,” seeing its eighth nom in the structured reality program category and featuring a panel of businesspeople who decide whether to invest their real dollars in amateur entrepreneurs’ ideas, is a format that has versions all around the world but is still one-of-a-kind for American audiences and therefore Emmy voters.

“On SVODs you can tear it apart and put it back together in a new way,” says David Collins, executive producer of “Queer Eye,” who notes changes from the original 2003-07 Bravo series, including relocating the show outside Manhattan and allowing viewers to get to know the Fab Five better.

“When you tell a bigger story you can get more depth in the narrative of your show,” says “Queer Eye” executive producer Rob Eric.

“It just needs to feel real and authentic, so it doesn’t feel like great-aunt Tilly dancing to EDM at a wedding, where you know right away that shouldn’t be happening.”

Phil Rosenthal, whose “Somebody Feed Phil” on Netflix is nominated in the unstructured reality program category, says such things are certainly aided by a streaming home that is “accepting of the artist’s vision.

“Once they hire you to paint the house, they let you paint the house,” he says of Netflix. “You still run things by them and they still give notes, and the notes are wonderful; they’re always helpful.”

But that is not to imply that such evolution would be impossible at more traditional networks. For example, Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” up for its sixth Emmy this year (for structured reality program), has shifted over its 13 years on-air to put a greater focus on story, says executive producer Frank Matson.

“It’s obviously a food show, but the stories of people who become an entrepreneur via the restaurant are what we’re seeking out,” he says. “That resonates with people because it’s truly real.”
Courtney White, Food Network president, says a byproduct of the uptick in reality show volume is the necessity to be loud. “How do we invite viewers to come to something that is exciting and new, and maybe a little unexpected, yet scratches that itch that they come to the network for?” she says. “You’re going to get it wrong sometimes, and if you’re not getting it wrong sometimes, you’re not experimenting enough.”

Tim Palazzola, vice president of original programming across MTV, VH1 and Logo and an executive producer on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which is the incumbent winner and once again nominated in the competition program category, agrees, noting it’s important to “flip the script” a little each season.

“Taking something familiar and giving it an unexpected twist is where this show has always thrived,” he says. “We don’t want to jump the shark and feel like we’re responding to what’s going on in the [TV] world. We want to feel like we are forging a new path.”

Overall, though, despite having to fight harder to make noise in the increasingly crowded reality space, “it’s not a bad thing that there’s really great competition out there. It’s good for all of us,” as ABC’s Mills puts it.

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