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Does a Streaming Service Need Reality TV to Accelerate Growth?

Ben Bowman

Does Disney+ have a reality TV strategy? Does it matter? Can a streaming service survive without reality hits? Business Insider spoke to reality TV industry leaders to get a sense of how each service is planning their moves.

Notably, Netflix has had some outsized reality successes with shows like “Love is Blind” and “Too Hot to Handle.” The streaming leader is leaning into those most trusted of all reality TV factors: horniness and lust for fame.

“In the past, [Netflix was] a great buyer, in terms of paying a fair amount to get quality — they’ve been tightening the purse strings on the genre,” one production exec said. “I wonder if that’s because the algorithm shows them an hour of house-flipping — that you can make for next to nothing — rates as well as or better than an hour of some beautiful, premium, important thing.”

The reality TV “bang for your buck” is why networks have been falling all over themselves since “Survivor” landed ashore on CBS 22 years ago. The only real costs are related to production. The participants are usually unpaid or there may be just one cash prize at the end of a contest. There are no big stars, no CGI robots, and no time-consuming lighting. Everything is shot on the fly.

And if you have participants willing to get drunk, fight, or get naked, that makes it easier to draw a crowd. MTV’s “Jersey Shore” pulled nearly 9 million viewers for its Season 4 premiere. That is an insane number. (The first season finale of “Survivor” topped 28 million, if you can believe it.)

That trash TV style won’t work for Disney+, which is trying to stay family-friendly. Conflict is almost always of the heroes-vs-aliens variety. You’re not going to see Minnie throwing her martini in Daisy Duck’s face. And you’re not going to see Elsa and Anna getting plastered in a hot tub. Absent the conflict or the competition, it’s hard to create compelling reality TV. Disney+ has tried, with efforts like Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth,” but those shows haven’t caught on like the gold standards of reality shows like “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race.”

The lack of success won’t keep Disney from trying, however. The 3-headed monster of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ is set to produce or commission 60 unscripted series in 2022, according to a 10-K filing.

The economics of reality TV make sense, even if it may take time for streamers to determine how the genre fits with their brands. Successful shows also appease viewers who are always hungry for something new to wach.

According to Eli Holzman, Industrial Media CEO, “There’s probably more buying today and more commissioning of original nonfiction series than there has ever been in the history of the world. If you can’t do well at this time, you’re probably in the wrong line of work.”

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