Strike-Era Upfronts Mark Broadcast TV’s Shift to Unscripted

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Illustration: Cheyne Gateley/VIP+; Adobe Stock

When media historians look back 20 years from now to pinpoint what triggered the great shift from scripted to unscripted content on broadcast TV, the 2023 writers strike will be right up there among the leading causes, including the aftermath of the 2007-08 writers strike, the rise of streaming, COVID-19, the increasing cost of sports rights and cord-cutting

The writers strike has prompted some networks to go deeper into unscripted to fill the fall schedules. ABC went in the hardest, with almost all of its schedule featuring reality, competition and game shows, save for an hour of reruns of “Abbott Elementary.” 

In contrast, CBS, which canceled its upfront presentation in the wake of the strike, took a stance of business as usual and, aside from making “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” 90 minutes each on Wednesdays, did not alter its schedule much. It’s likely that should the strike go long, CBS will air reruns until originals can be made and delve into content from Paramount+. 

NBC made a similar move, with just one additional hour of unscripted added and no reruns scheduled as of yet. Fox also didn’t announce a schedule but based on VIP+ analysis of the network’s 2023-24 content slate, earnings statements and the current strike situation, look set to increase its unscripted offerings. 

Unscripted content was always going to rise. The strike has just sped this up.

There are multiple factors as to why this was going to be the case. Investor pressures from Wall Street have seen content budgets cut. But networks have long-term commitments to expensive sports rights deals. It is the remaining content pot that will shrink, meaning that cheaper unscripted becomes more attractive than expensive scripted gambles. 

For cost-cutting, look to CBS, which recently downgraded the majority of season regulars for “Bob ❤️ Abishola” to recurring cast members and canceled “East New York” when CBS requested the cast not receive customary pay increases. Belts are already being tightened. 

The big question will be whether the unscripted shift is cyclical and bounces back once the strike ends.

The current situation provides a pressure-free experiment zone. With barely any scripted content to be had, and it unclear how long the strike will last, networks can field fall schedules dominated by unscripted without question. This will provide an ideal testing ground to see if ratings are massively altered by not having scripted. 

Combined with the external pressures on cutting content costs and the number of first season strikeouts that scripted has, it’s very likely that there will be fewer broadcast scripted shows going forward. That’s not to say scripted won’t have its place in the future. Franchise and cop shows in particular like “Law & Order/ SVU,” “NCIS,” “Blue Bloods” and the “Chicago”-verse will remain. What will change is the number of new dramas and sitcoms that networks are willing to take a chance on. 

One of the key factors that brought the strike on — that scripted episode orders have shrunk from the golden days of broadcast thanks first to the rise of cable and then streaming TV — will ultimately help hasten network TV’s shift from scripted to unscripted content. The 2023 strike may well end up considered a pyrrhic victory for the WGA.