Broadcast Reality Check

Despite their popularity, unscripted shows play understudy to pricier fare

When the curtain goes up on the network upfront presentations in New York in mid-May, media buyers will get a first look at the usual cavalcade of pricey scripted series. Lost in the tide of police procedurals, ensemble comedies and supernatural thrillers, the season’s new unscripted fare once again will be relegated to a dusty corner of the theater.

Reality shows account for just three of the 92 projects on the 2012-13 broadcast development slate, a disproportionate allowance given the enthusiasm of the American TV audience. Remove the NFL from the equation and Fox’s American Idol and NBC’s The Voice deliver the strongest ratings on broadcast TV while commanding some of the highest unit prices. Season to date, Idol’s Wednesday night broadcasts are averaging a 5.6 rating in the dollar demo, a number matched by only The Voice’s Monday night showcase.

As demonstrated by the $500,000 price tag attached to each 30-second spot in Idol, advertisers are obviously eager to get on board with reality. Even aging shows like ABC’s Dancing With the Stars fetch some of the highest ad rates on the tube. On Monday nights, the celeb-driven competition series is outearned only by the top-rated scripted series, CBS’ Two and a Half Men.

Despite the fact that unscripted is a proven magnet for eyeballs and ad dollars, reality has something of a prestige problem.

“There’s still a stigma attached if you do too much of it,” said Brad Adgate, Horizon Media’s svp of research. “The networks spend [so much] money on the scripted series—the pilots alone can cost more than $5 million to make—that those are the series they naturally want to show off.”

At the start of the current season, the networks aired 12 unscripted series, a tally that includes two weekly hours of results shows for DWTS and Fox’s The X Factor. Three years ago, they carried a record 21.

That doesn’t mean reality is dying. Most of the new unscripted offerings—a motley assortment that includes a pair of dating shows, a singing competition and yet another program in which Gordon Ramsay hollers at the incompetent—will be relegated to the summer doldrums.

“The thing is, you can’t look at Idol and Survivor and The Biggest Loser like they’re representatives of the same genre,” said one TV buyer. “These are totally different shows, and they attract very different clients.”

Or as Adgate put it: “For every Idol, there are dozens of Joe Millionaires.”