A&E, ID, Paramount Network Execs on Recipes for Unscripted Success

Lip Sync Battle Live PD
Courtesy of Paramount Network/A&E

In this time of record volume of content competing for audience attention, there’s more than one way to define a series’s success, especially when it comes to structured and unstructured reality shows that don’t follow as strict a format as reality competitions, nor as specific storytelling arcs as scripted programs.

“The DNA and ingredients in every show are very different,” says Keith Cox, president of development at Paramount Network. “You really have to slice it and dice it. Not all shows are created equal, and when you’re thinking of a hit, they’re not defined the same, nor should they be.”

High ratings may be the first indicator of success, but seldom give the full picture of the audience, not only due to viewing habits but also geographic location. “Are they
showing up live? That’s critical and means they’re really into it. Live-plus-three tells a different story — they’re very engaged, but there’s a lot of competition. That’s still great; it means ‘I love your show, I’m a huge fan. I just can’t get to it exactly at a certain day and certain time,’” Cox continues.

Adds Investigation Discovery’s executive vice president and general manager Kevin Bennett: “With Discovery being a global company, and ID being in so many territories around the world, it’s often less about how well a show specifically does, and more about how that genre or type of show could do internationally.”

For A&E Networks, building franchises and creating series that have repeat viewing value is more important. Elaine Frontain Bryant, the group’s executive vice president and head of programming, points to such unstructured series as “Wahlburgers,” “Born This Way,” and “The First 48,” as well as structured series “Live PD,” both of which led to spinoffs, as strong performers.

“Live PD,” for example, grew from a two-hour Friday night experiment into a juggernaut airing three-hour episodes each Friday and Saturday night, spawning follow-up series “Live Rescue” and a weekly recap show.

“The metrics for success are very different on a slower night of the week,” Bryant says. Despite debuting on a traditionally slow Monday night, “Live Rescue” ended up with one of A&E’s biggest launches in years.

“The metrics for success are very different on a slower night of the week.”
Elaine Frontain Bryant

Repeatability is also important to ID’s Bennett, home of series including “In Pursuit With John Walsh,” “Body Cam” and “Deadly Women.” But equally so are series that can run multiple episodes back-to-back and entice viewers to stay through the whole thing, in a binge-watching model, and what he calls “new-new” programming.

“Our audience really likes to see new premieres of new series,” Bennett says. Last year’s debut of “Body Cam” expanded ID’s audience by drawing new viewers to the network. “It had all the hallmarks of great storytelling — the twists, the turns, the emotional connection that we have with our audience.”

Of course, awards and critical buzz generate attention, but such organic passion from the audience and internally within the company is even more essential to Paramount Network, says Cox. Some of its biggest structured and unstructured projects, “Bar Rescue” to “Lip Sync Battle,” have become pop culture events, with footage going viral before and after episodes air.

“That’s something we’re always looking for,” Cox says. “If you don’t have that, what do you have?”