Employees talk about production delays

Veteran unscripted producer Wendy Miller was attending a meeting for women over 40 in unscripted television who are unemployed when the idea came to her. While the gathering could easily have become sentimental, one woman brought levity to the proceedings by telling a story about working on a previous show that had the entire room in an uproar. Miller imagined a storytelling event similar to The moth, where reality TV workers could share scandalous career stories with a paying audience, raising money for needy peers: “We are all unemployed and have no money, but there are people who are much worse. What if we use this as an opportunity to raise money for someone who is really in trouble?” Miller threw the group.

The subsequent “Hollywood Horror Happy Hour” (slogan: “We’re all broke. Let’s laugh about it!”), which took place on May 21, was just one sign of the times in the nonfiction TV world. Jobs are scarce, budgets are tight, employees are considering taking a leap, and executives seem terrified of taking creative risks on untested concepts. This came as a surprise to some insiders in the space. There was initial expectation that the 2023 actors’ and writers’ strikes would accelerate activity on reality TV, which boomed during the 2007-2008 writers’ strike, but many say the opposite happened – even though nonfiction, which is relatively cheap to produce and largely non-union, a natural stopgap for entertainment companies during work stoppages.

Development and production have not picked up much since then for the waiting workforce. “I’ve been working in this industry for twenty years and suddenly the tap turned off,” says producer Patrick Caligiuri (Naked and scared, American Idol), who has posted several times on his TikTok since March about the struggles of entertainment workers. (His first post, titled “Reality TV is dead,” launched on LinkedIn and received more than 2,000 likes and nearly 300 comments.)

“It’s not just people who just moved to LA to get into the business who can’t find a job,” adds a veteran reality TV producer. “It’s someone who has been working for 25 years and has a resume that I would kill because he says he hasn’t worked in a year.”

Many veteran producers and unscripted salespeople, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an effort to protect future sales, say the recession is a reflection of what’s happening in the scripted TV world, as budgets are also suffering across the board pressure, especially on broadcasts. Unscripted programs, which have historically been cheaper to make and faster to produce, are feeling the same fiscal pinch as their scripted counterparts as media companies align their plans and spending appropriately. “It’s the same problem as scripted, and it’s really depressing,” says one veteran reality executive.

The overall contraction and mergers and acquisitions have also led to fewer buyers for non-scripted rates. Max, for example, no longer has his own unscripted department after incorporating Discovery’s extensive program portfolio into the streamer. “There is enormous tax pressure on the old companies – just look at the share prices. Those are the traditional buyers. These are the same reasons you saw with scripted, but which now also lead to unscripted,” says an old salesperson.

Meanwhile, budgets for the shows that get the green light are being cut, which sources say is trickling down to the salaries on offer. Some particularly notable examples have been making the rounds in online reality communities: A longtime reality producer, who says seasoned story producers used to be able to make $2,800 a week, shares a job posting starting May 31 offering $350 to $450 a day, which amounts to up to $1,750 to $2,250 per week; a story producer sends a screenshot of a job that started in January offering $1,800 to $2,200 a week for the same role. “Unfortunately, there is a lot more supply than demand right now” when it comes to available labor, the veteran reality TV producer adds. The result was: “Everyone is Scrooge McDuck.”

More than ever, unscripted insiders say buyers are risk-averse and relying on bets that are considered safe. What’s working now? “The big franchises are still getting the green light, and that includes both the big IP – Deal or no deal, Chef, Lego masters – and franchises like Below deck and the housewives” said Ben Samek, CEO of Banijay Americas, which oversees nine manufacturing companies in the United States and Brazil. “New items must be well thought out and have a reason why they are going to buy them.”

New sports-related ideas have been especially welcomed in the wake of Netflix’s popularity Formula 1: drive to survive series, which is credited with increasing viewership for races in the US. Insiders note that LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s production shingle, the SpringHill Company, has been a standout seller during this time, with three upcoming sports documentaries for History Channel and an upcoming docuseries for Vice TV announced in recent months. Game shows are also flourishing amid the general slowdown in nonfiction. Titles like Fox’s The floor And The quiz with balls, both shows debuting in 2024, can be done on a budget and deliver impressive ratings, explains a 20-year unscripted veteran. “And they repeat it too,” says this person. “People forget questions and look again. (They are) easy to put on and view.

However, for the unscripted workers who aren’t attached to long-running franchises and aren’t working on these breakout genres, 2024 has been brutal. A longtime editor in this space says she has sold a second home out of state and is in the process of selling her LA home with the intention of renting until she decides whether to stay in the city or try to buy a new home . The longtime reality producer says her mother took money from her emergency fund to help pay her bills. The producer has applied for a job at Trader Joe’s. Caligiuri, who started his career in the news business, dusted off his resume and started writing freelance for a local news affiliate.

For freelancers, this period has led to concerns about what the workforce will look like in the coming years. Some who spoke on behalf of this story don’t know if they will stay in the business. “I’ve been writing all day. I write scripts, I write half-hour pilots, I write feature films, I make reality shows,” says Miller, “but at the same time I can’t help but think that for the most part, this is over for me.” Others are just wondering who will be left in the reality world in the next two years. “Our sector has just leveled off a bit. It depends on livelihood,” says Caligiuri.

In the meantime, some production companies are getting creative and diversifying their revenue streams to weather the slumps in the nonfiction market. Critical content, behind MTV’s Catfish and that of Netflix Cunningfor example, has focused on brand partnerships and first-look deals in international territories to first test ideas abroad and then bring them back to the United States. It is also developing a FAST channel for the truTV hit Storage hunters, which the company owns. The thinking is, “How can we continue to feed that pipeline (non-scripted sales), but also build other pipelines?” says President Jenny Daly.

Glass Entertainment Group, behind HGTVs Christina on the coast And Tough Love with Hilary Farr, meanwhile, expanded into podcasting about two years ago and is sometimes developing that IP as unscripted shows. The results of this effort include those of Hulu Betrayal: the perfect husband. “We were like, ‘You know what? If we believe in a story and there’s no TV house for it, let’s make a podcast.’ Well, our podcasts have done really well and that’s why they became TV shows,” explains CEO and executive producer Nancy Glass. Others just push through the shrinkage and try to bring out ideas that will break through. An experienced director says: “What should we do? We are sellers. We must persevere. Talking about it doesn’t help. You have to try, otherwise nothing will happen.”

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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