So what would you do if you suddenly won US$1 million dollars on the lottery? I would definitely buy a house. Or would invest in development to try to come up with the next big thing in factual television. What lies beyond Duck Dynasty? It’s the classic high-risk, high-reward approach and it all depends where you think factual television is going next.
Over the last decade factual has lurched through several huge transitions, leaving smaller and smaller vestiges of its previous existence behind. First there were the info-documentaries about space, the human body, weather, technology, explorers, biographies and wildlife. Born out of some of these programmes came character-driven series such as Deadliest Catch, which proved real life could be a damn good soap opera. Exploration shows turned into survival shows. And then along came the History Channel, which totally reinvented itself with the highly addictive Pawn Stars (isn’t it amazing what the residents of Las Vegas find to bring in… did that guy really own the suit of armour?) and American Pickers. Both were brilliantly executed. These shows paved the way for a different type of factual that was highly ‘produced’ and yet still full of interesting content and the added appeal of colourful characters.Then there was the next lurch into even more extreme characters – preferably hillbillies, swamp people, Alaskan hunters and any other subculture you could imagine, especially if they had beards. Discovery has made a huge transition over its lifetime from blue chip to red neck, and has prospered extremely well off the back of it.The evolution of factual shows on cable channels has been so successful it has eaten hard into the terrestrials. Duck Dynasty pulls audience numbers that even the networks covet and the recent brilliant Skywire Live with Nick Wallenda smashed all records. Big events and live shows are back.
So where would the million dollars in development go? more hillbillies or into dramatising famous moments of American or WWII history? down the cerebral route, brimming with entertainment, audience participation and – critically – takeaway information? or take risks and create concepts that are entirely new?
The 1000lb gorilla these days is scripted reality (which seems a contradiction of terms) – reality turned into non-reality. My own hunch would be to put some of my development money in this space if the characters are right and game to do what the producer tells them. High-end event specials will get bigger and louder – if that is possible – but there will remain a significant market for smart, intelligent shows that deliver content. It’s just a matter of finding a new way of doing them.But no one really knows.