If you’re an unscripted producer, you have to adapt to the market’s changes. The past few years have been unprecedented in the number and magnitude of changes we’ve seen in the industry.
Understanding the mindset of buyers is key to crafting concepts that will sell in today’s unscripted market. It’s also hard to do without expert advice.
That’s why Wrapbook spoke to Michelle Van Kempen, a 30-year unscripted entertainment industry veteran. Michelle shared her thoughts on the current market and her advice for producers.
Michelle spent nearly two decades successfully producing unscripted shows as a co-principal and executive producer at Film Garden Entertainment in Los Angeles.
After starting the company with her partner in 1994, Michelle “oversaw all business, production and daily operations of the prolific production company and served as executive producer on over 2000 episodes of content.”
In 2016, Michelle joined NPACT, the trade organization serving producers of unscripted entertainment content in the US. She started as NPACT’s Head of Policy and Development, moving to the role of General Manager in 2019.
Around this time, Michelle also founded Women in Nonfiction (WiN) for which she serves as Executive Director. WiN is a national organization that supports and provides advocacy for women working in the nonfiction entertainment industry.
At NPACT, Michelle is in constant contact with production companies who are actively selling their unscripted shows to buyers. As such, she’s in the unique position of having both a firsthand understanding of the history of unscripted TV and real-time knowledge of what producers are experiencing with buyers today.
To understand how to sell shows, you need to understand the context of the time we’re in. To this end, Michelle laid out the major milestones in the recent history of unscripted programming in the US.
The 2007-08 WGA strike led to a huge spike in new unscripted content. With scripted shows on hold, buyers scrambled to get programming that wasn’t subject to Writer’s Guild agreements. As Michelle explains,
“That was the cause of a big leap forward in the number of unscripted shows on the air. And the number of networks that regularly would schedule unscripted shows.”
In short, the 2007-08 WGA strike was a big boon for unscripted shows. And the boon persisted even after the strike was over. Rather than cutting back on unscripted programming once their scripted shows came back, networks continued to greenlight new unscripted content. And audiences continued to tune in.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered industry-wide production shutdowns starting in March of 2020. Because of the nature of most unscripted productions, they tended to be able to restart work before most scripted productions.
“Things were busy and growing in both scripted and unscripted. And then the pandemic happened, and unscripted, actually, was the quickest to get back on its feet…The footprint of the crews tends to be smaller in unscripted… it's sort of a more nimble production model. Unscripted producers figured out very quickly, actually, how to get back into production. And so the dip for the unscripted side was a shorter period of time.”
It was harder to figure out logistical considerations around COVID-19 safety protocols with larger teams. That meant larger, scripted productions like films were delayed for even longer.
Because of this, buyers had gaps in their programming. There was a need for content. Since unscripted shows could get back to filming faster, a lot of that content need was filled by new unscripted programming. Through all of 2021 and early 2022, buyers were ordering a high number of shows.
Suddenly, after the early part of 2022, the rapid show orders from buyers stopped.
By the end of 2022, the number of major buyers of episodic content was consolidated down to seven, and most carried a large debt load from the consolidation process. They were losing money on their streaming services, and stock prices were falling. So drastic cost cutting began.
They also found themselves with a glut of programming, after all the shows they had ordered during the pandemic.
A sign that buyers had more programming than they knew what to do with?
“In the early part of , we were already hearing about shows that were finished, that had air dates for 2023, [and] were getting pushed to 2024, or very late in 2023…So that was a big signal that…They have more programming than… they want to release right away. Then the strikes happened.”
Buyers were clearly putting on the brakes. The huge orders for programming were down. Completed shows were getting delayed start dates. And buyers’ budgets were tight.
The recent WGA strike started in May 2023, and the SAG-AFTRA strike started in July 2023. Unlike the 2007-08 strike, this strike has not resulted in a bump on buying unscripted content.
Why? As we’ve mentioned, buyers already had plenty of finished programming before the strike started.
Plus, English-speaking audiences are now more open to international content with subtitles than they were in 2007. The wide popularity of the Korean-language Squid Game is one example. And content that airs in the U.S. is being regularly produced all around the world, so isn’t subject to U.S. guild restrictions or strikes.
So, buyers now have a much wider variety of options for obtaining content than they did in the past.
The bottom line, says Michelle?
“I've been in the business 30 years, it's the slowest time in the business that I've ever seen.”
Fortunately, producers are adaptable. People are still successfully pitching unscripted content, even in this challenging market. Now that we understand the landscape, let’s get into some advice from Michelle.
As we mentioned in the previous section, major programming buyers have consolidated significantly in the past 10 to 15 years.
“Basically there are seven companies for episodic content that you can sell to, and only seven.”
So how does consolidation affect producers?
First, as mentioned, consolidation has meant increased debt loads for many buyers. There’s less budget available for new unscripted content.
Also, in the previous industry landscape, each company might have had several channels with their own buyers to pitch to. For example, the Discovery Inc. company (now part of Warner Bros. Discovery) had multiple networks for its programming. If you wanted to sell a show to TLC, you’d be pitching to a different team than if you were selling to HGTV, even though both were owned by Discovery Inc. But...
“That has really changed as things have consolidated more. So pretty much, there are seven teams of people that you can pitch shows to. So that has changed the landscape of how you develop shows and how you go about pitching them, and where you can pitch them.”
As a result, the diversity of the people who select widely-distributed content is decreasing.
Be aware that these large buyers won’t take pitches from producers who don’t have representation or an existing relationship. If you don’t have direct access to buyers, Michelle suggests partnering with production companies who do have that access as an alternative.
The production company can then help get your idea pitched to a buyer and produced.
If you’re looking for hands-on pitching experience, consider programs offered by Realscreen, an international magazine dedicated to non-fiction film and TV. Events like their Realscreen Summit offer opportunities for networking and pitching competitions.
All of this has led to a more careful market. Existing shows with proven popularity may be getting renewed. But brand-new content is having a harder time getting greenlit.
“It seems that the buyers are being much more cautious with the kinds of programming that they're moving forward with.
…[If a show] is in production and… doing pretty well, they may order additional episodes of that show. So they get the economies of scale and they know they're getting something that's working for them. There have been pickups of additional seasons of shows that have already been on the air, but it's been much more rare to see new original content, new concepts move forward over the last six to nine months.”
So if you’re pitching new unscripted content, how do you position yourself to appeal to these more careful buyers? Michelle explains that as the buying climate becomes more cautious, producers are adapting their pitches to fit.
Michelle explains that the variety of type of unscripted programming (or buckets, such as lifestyle shows, relationship shows, paranormal shows, crime shows, game shows, documentary series, reality or docu-follow, competition shows, etc) have remained.
These have been pretty consistent throughout the lifetime of unscripted programming. Currently, all these show types are popular and pitchable.
“The kinds of shows within those buckets that get ordered, and what’s new and innovative in those more general buckets, is what has changed over time.”
Right now, across all these buckets, buyers are looking for more “sure things” than big swings.
“I feel like [buyers] can't afford to take the big swings and have them not work.”
So in this “playing it safe” buyer climate, what types of pitches have the best chance of working? Michelle says she’s seeing that a lot of the new unscripted programming employs twists on formulas that have been proven to work.
Think shows with recognizable characters from previously successful shows (ie spinoffs). An obvious recent example of this might be The Kardashians (2022), which uses the same core cast as Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007-2021).
Think also about taking a proven show formula and tweaking it. An example of this would be The Golden Bachelor. The new show takes the proven popularity of The Bachelor’s format and adds the twist of adding a few decades to the ages of its characters.
The Golden Bachelor, Michelle points out, is also a strong example of matching content to platform demographics.
“The Golden Bachelor premieres on a broadcast network. And there's all kinds of data showing that the segment of the viewing population that is watching linear broadcast when it airs has aged up. You're not seeing a lot of twenty-somethings watching broadcast television when it airs at its linear time. So it's a smart move, it would appear, that, ‘Okay, the Bachelor is a franchise that works for us. Who's watching us on linear now? And how do we appeal to them?’”
Love Is Blind is another example of creators taking a proven concept and putting an innovative twist on it. It takes the classic relationship show formula of singles looking for love, and adds the unique spin that the couples aren’t allowed to see each other before deciding whether to get engaged.
“A show like Love is Blind, for example. Brilliant concept. You know, relationship shows have been around forever, but it was a completely new spin on it and very well executed. And so there are definitely… an infinite number of new things to come up with that fit in with things that we've somewhat seen before…The trick is coming up with that, and then convincing a buyer that that's what they should be doing.”
All of this said, if you have a totally off-the-wall idea that's never been tried before, you can still pitch it. That’s just a harder sell in today’s cautious climate.
“Every buyer is always looking for that amazing show, that concept that's never been seen before and becomes a giant hit. It's just, it has to be the concept that works. And it’s riskier. Those big swings are riskier.”
So pitch your “big swing” ideas. If they don’t sell right now, know that it could be the market that’s to blame. Markets shift, so hold onto the idea and pitch it again in the future, when the environment inevitably changes again.
So buyers are in money-saving mode and looking for safe bets. Does that mean your pitching techniques should shift to appeal to buyers’ cautious sides?
Absolutely not, says Michelle.
“Certainly at the pitching stage, it's less about the financing of a show and it's more about conveying the interest and excitement of the idea or the characters or the format or whatever the content is. Because then you typically figure out with the network, you figure out the budget later and then have to temper the expectations of what you pitched to fit the budget that's available. But…to pitch it, it's all about the passion of and the excitement of the idea.
…You sell them on the concept and then it's a huge bonus if you can say, and we can produce this for an attractively low amount.”
In your initial pitch, lead with emotion. Focus on the characters and why people will love them. Talk about what’s fun and new about the concept. Let your authentic investment in your own idea shine through your pitch.
The more practical matters, like budget and timing, can be worked out later once your buyers are onboard.
A huge thank you to Michelle Van Kempen of NPACT for sharing her experiences and advice with us.
For more expert tips on pitching, producing, and building a career in unscripted TV, check out our conversation with producer Irad Eyal. And if you’re interested in learning more about the general unscripted space, take a look at our list of unscripted markets for projects and guide to unscripted collaboration.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.