Next Episode for Reality TV: More Shows Where Guys Can Feel Like Guys
Reality TV has targeted women more often than not so far, with fare from "The Bachelor" on ABC to the "Real Housewives" franchise on Bravo setting the tone for the genre. But programmers are increasingly looking to expand reality's less-prominent pillar: unscripted series designed to capture elusive young men.
NBC Universal-owned USA Network became the latest to put a toe in the water when it revealed plans last week for a show hosted by retired NFL quarterback Kurt Warner . Details of the premise are being closely guarded and USA wouldn't make executives available for comment. But people familiar with the show told Ad Age that Mr. Warner was specifically brought in to help draw young men.
This week The History Channel will introduce "Off the Grid: Million Dollar Man Hunt," a reality show where contestants try to evade electronic surveillance. TNT will soon premiere "The Great Escape," which puts contestants in hard-to-escape situations like a desert or a distant island.
And Spike TV, a Viacom property that has long leaned heavily on unscripted programming for its young male audience, is doubling the hours of unscripted programming on its slate next year.
"We've definitely proven that it can work," said Kevin Kay, president of Spike. "All of these shows are relatively inexpensive and easier to get on the air quicker. I suspect you'll see more balance on people's programming slates going forward."
Discovery Communications recently doubled down on unscripted programming geared toward men by rebranding its HD Theater channel as Velocity, which will carry over series such as "Chasing Classic Cars" and "Mecum Auto Auctions" but expand the lineup of auto, sports, adventure and travel shows for affluent men -- even experimenting with 15-minute shows because the target demo is so tough to hold for long.
The Discovery Channel has perhaps made the most of guy-oriented reality programming so far with series including "Deadliest Catch" and "American Chopper" as well as the newer, solid "Gold Rush Alaska."
"It's definitely working for us, and we plan to continue to be in this space," said Scott Felenstein, the senior VP for ad sales at Discovery Channel, Velocity and other company properties. "The young male has a lot of different interests, so our hope is we can continue to serve those interests with different genres in the non-fiction space."
The moves come as both cable and broadcast networks confront the staggering cost of original scripted programming and the risk that it won't catch on.
"The landscape for scripted is so much more packed now than it was before," Mr. Kay said. "When there were only a few scripted shows on cable you could get more attention for one. Now everybody has been making one-hour scripted shows on cable, it's harder to get attention and more expensive to market it."
Networks would love to find an inexpensive way to program for young men, who get plenty of competition for their attention from sports and video games.
"Most of their programming is driven by sports and animation," said Lyle Schwartz, a managing partner and researcher at GroupM. "But I think this type of unscripted programming could do very well with them. It's in their wheelhouse."
Ad buyers just need to be careful about content as networks proceed down this path, Mr. Schwartz added, to make sure none of it is inappropriate for advertisers.
Not every network is planning to push hard on this front. FX, the News Corp.property enjoying a record ratings year on the strength of scripted shows, is adding an unscripted series for men in the form of "The Ultimate Fighter," which it picked up from Spike as part of Fox's larger acquisition of the rights to Ultimate Fighting Championship programming. But executives view the channel's previous forays into reality TV as less than successful.
"Whereas some channels have made a concerted decision to expand into reality, they've hired executives, they've gotten shows, we're not in that mode," FX president John Landgraf said. "If somebody out there had a fantastic program for us, I can't ever say that we would never do something. But we're not actively seeking to expand our presence in the genre."
Executives pushing more reality programming said appealing to men depends on a combination of entertainment and information, with fewer conversations about interpersonal dynamics than you see on "Housewives."
"You have to be careful to make it more action-oriented," Mr. Kay said. "Our experience shows that guys don't want to watch guys talking to guys. They don't want to watch shows about relationships."
Men want shows "where they feel like 'I can still be a guy,'" said Bob Scanlon, senior VP at Velocity. "It's not easy. It's why it's one of the most lucrative demos in the advertising business. It requires a brand strategy, a communications strategy and a programming strategy that involves people who are passionate about the product."
Any success the new shows have could be fleeting, Mr. Schwartz warned.
"Young men are quite fickle when it comes to their programming," he said. "They latch on to some new stuff, but you've got to be careful. Just as quickly as young men come on board, they're quicker to leave."