Three days after the first reality TV president was sworn into office, hundreds of reality TV producers swarmed into Washington for the RealScreen Summit, an annual conference for nonfiction programmers. Posters promoting the new show “Mama June: From NOT to HOT” promised that the “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” star undergoing extensive plastic surgery would be “a more shocking reveal than the election results.”
Even aside from the marketing gimmicks, President Trump, the former “Apprentice” star, was a popular conversation topic. The phrase “the next four years” repeatedly came up as experts pondered the impact Trump’s victory could have on reality TV: What will viewers want to watch? (Scripted programmers have already ordered pilots about “red state” communities and the military.) And since the election proved a wide swath of the U.S. population feels overlooked by the “coastal elites,” should New York and Los Angeles-based networks adjust their strategies?
Some executives were cautious about trying to form a specific game plan. “I do think it’s a mistake to say, ‘Okay, Trump’s in office, let’s program this way,’ ” A&E executive vice president Rob Sharenow said during a Q&A. “Because I think that often times, you can never predict how culture is going to respond or what people are going to want.”
A&E experienced that lesson late last year when the network announced “Generation KKK,” a docu-series about members trying to leave the hate group. The backlash was severe as people worried any spotlight would help normalize the Ku Klux Klan after an election that emboldened white nationalists. Executives changed the show’s title to “Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America” before they scrapped the project completely, saying that they discovered third-party producers paid subjects to participate, which is against A&E policy.
Sharenow said the network is investigating what happened and emphasized he still believes in the show’s mission of spotlighting people who want to escape the organization. In terms of future programming, he said, his network will continue to focus on topics that don’t see much coverage elsewhere.
“Great moments of A&E over the past decade have been moments that open doors to things happening in culture that haven’t really been looked at,” Sharenow said, citing shows such as “Intervention,” an unflinching portrayal of those battling substance abuse, and “Born This Way,” which stars adults with Down syndrome.
Given the many voters in the election who felt “forgotten,” particularly in the middle class, reality TV producers discussed ways to reach out to viewers who are underrepresented, both on screen and behind the camera. One panel’s description specifically asked: “How does this disparity, noted often in the run-up and aftermath of the recent U.S. presidential election, manifest itself in unscripted content? What stories are being missed, and who should tell them?”
Although reality TV has turned the spotlight on non-coastal America with hit shows such as “Duck Dynasty,” producers noted that in the past several years, there are fewer working-class reality shows, especially since the days of TLC’s “Jon & Kate Plus 8” (2007-2010), about the Pennsylvania family with eight kids, or Discovery’s self-explanatory “Dirty Jobs” (2005-2012). ITV Entertainment president David Eilenberg, who moderated the panel, pointed out that you’re more likely to see shows centered on people with unusual lifestyles, from “Real Housewives” to the alligator-hunting “Swamp People.”
“I think one of the problems with our industry is that once there’s one, it’s ‘We need 17 of that exact same thing,’ ” said Patrick Jager, who helped develop HGTV juggernaut “Fixer Upper,” starring a husband-wife contractor-designer team from Waco, Tex. “Four years ago it was ‘What’s our “Duck Dynasty?” ’ Now it’s ‘What’s our “Fixer Upper?” ’ Everyone chases the same thing because they say that’s what everybody wants to see. That’s a problem, because then we’re all trying to depict the same type of person.”
So how do you solve the issue? One key is to erase the idea that producers who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles are “outsiders.” Members of a panel that featured producers and executives from Knoxville, Tenn.; Denver; St. Louis and Minneapolis said although plenty of networks are interested in shows from the flyover states, there’s definitely still a “cool kid” mentality of certain coastal brands. Some people still ask, “Why is your company there?”
“If we’re trying to bridge this divide between the urban and the rural and try to tell stories, post-November, about our world, that mind-set within our group has to change,” said Jager, who runs the Denver-based CORE Innovation Group.
When networks do feature shows with communities they’re not familiar with, everyone agreed the most important element is authenticity. John Feld is the senior vice president of programming for HGTV, DIY Network and Great American Country, which are headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn. His networks have a tactical advantage when they want to tell stories from Middle America, he said, particularly because they know what the audience wants.
“When I see an urban-based production company . . . depict our cities, it’s always a depiction that will appeal to their urban viewers,” Feld said. “With some of these other networks, they’re not appealing to the people that live there as much as they’re appealing to the people that live in New York and Los Angeles.”
They also debated whether a lack of working-class programming is the fault of the storytellers or the channel executives themselves. A common excuse that networks use for blue-collar shows is that they’re “advertiser unfriendly.”
“One of the things that I keep hearing is that producers who bring projects that tell stories that aren’t ‘cool kid’ stories are told that it’s not something advertisers want,” said Eilenberg, whose company develops and produces shows for networks. “So that seems to be one of the lines of defense from network buyers, is that advertisers really want things that are ‘upscale, more urbane, more glamorous.’ ” (“The Bachelor” and “Shark Tank” are just two types of shows that advertisers crave because viewers are young and rich.)
Yet if a show becomes a hit, advertisers don’t really care — take AMC’s hit “The Walking Dead.” “Who would advertise on a show about flesh-eating zombies? Everybody,” Eilenberg said, to much laughter.
Most importantly, networks need to find out what viewers are actually interested in seeing on TV, and whether there are truly crossover audiences. Eilenberg brought up the New York Times’s “cultural divide” TV map after the election, which showed how political views align with pop culture preferences. For example, viewership of “Duck Dynasty,” the series about the conservative millionaire duck-call manufacturers in Louisiana, was a powerful predictor of a Trump voter.
“One of the issues of a totally disaggregated television landscape is that people can use their screens as mirrors instead of as windows,” Eilenberg said. “And I don’t know how to stop them from doing that, if at all.”
Ultimately, producers theorized that TV audiences are a more open-minded group than they’re given credit for, and it’s up to networks to have diverse offerings.
“I think people are looking for connections to their real life and day-to-day experience,” said Jane Durkee, vice president of Tremendous Entertainment in Minneapolis. “So if you’re reflecting them and offering those choices, people will gravitate to those shows that have that commonality.