Reality TV and Streaming: Part 1/1000

In a recent post, I pointed out that while Reality has a healthy audience numbers on TV, platforms like Netflix aren’t commissioning Reality shows. I went on to imply that snobbishness might be involved. (Okay, maybe I said it flat out…).

However, the fact is, like most Reality producers, I’m unnerved by the impact of streaming on our industry (the diminishing number of gigs), while being mostly clueless about streaming itself.

Fortunately, lowbudgetfun, a sharp former colleague and seasoned Post Supervisor knows a fair bit about Netflix. He shares his thoughts below. (I would love for this to be an ongoing, proactive discussion, given the stakes – so please get involved with comments and more guest posts.)

Netflix Logo


I think that Netflix does not produce Reality television because Netflix believes that their subscribers are not going to watch Reality television on their service. In addition, I believe that many of the Reality television sub-genres are at odds with the streaming service models of viewership as well.

I recently finished working on a Netflix show and on every call, the production people would say, “Netflix is a global company.” They even had a slide show that outlined the characteristics of the ideal Netflix show; which is 1) something that appeals to a global audience, 2) is evergreen/discoverable, 3) and could be made into a franchise. In general, I believe that most Reality programming does not meet this criterion. And I will focus on the first two characteristics.

Global audience

In general, most Reality sub-genres do not translate to a global audience because of cultural differences. In the Competition Reality genre, we see a show like Britain’s Got Talent remade into America’s Got Talent, and then Sweden’s Got Talent, etc., etc. Each country gets a locally produced version of the same competition. Netflix has no interest in producing the same show for each country; the company wants to produce once and stream everywhere.

In the Docu-Soap and Follow-Doc genres, if the lives of Housewives in a global city such as New York or London do not appeal to a global market, then I don’t know whose lives would. What we do see, similar to the competition space, is taking the format and reproducing it for a local audience. See for example Fox Latin America taking the  Housewives concept and making Lucky Ladies in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.

A follow-doc series that centers around a celebrity family like the Kardashian could work for Netflix, because the Kardashians have transcended into that ultra rare global celebrity status that is hard to achieve without already having the cult of celebrity.


If there is one reason Netflix doesn’t ‘do’ Reality, I believe this is it. On calls, the Netflix people said that ideally their shows are discoverable. What this means is that Netflix wants their shows to be as relevant three years down the road as they are when they are first released onto the service.

An example of this would be when someone is home sick and they discover one of those BBC crime sagas, like The Fall, and binge watch the series from beginning to end and the experience can feel complete from beginning to end. How many people ‘discovered’ Breaking Bad in its second or third season on Netflix and then become current viewers on AMC in the fourth or fifth season?

So why is it that I just don’t see someone discovering The Real Housewives of Orange County and binge watching 6 seasons of it the way they would with Breaking Bad or even Pretty Little Liars?

I think that there is an unspoken sense of “from the moment” that Reality television shares with News & Sports that separates it from Scripted television, or even documentary. And if we are ever going to build a solid definition of Reality television this is the area that needs to be explored.

Revealing the winner of Survivor; New Jersey Housewife Teresa flipping a dinner table; these things have more in common with last year’s Super Bowl winner, or Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal, then they do with rise & fall of Breaking Bad’s Walter White.

The competition reality genre operates similarly to sports. You don’t watch old season of Survivor to catch up on this year’s competition. And there is very little fun to be had watching old seasons when you know who is going to be eliminated. This is the same as not watching old Super Bowls to catchup on this year’s football season.

Being shocked by the antics of the Jersey Shore has a similar feel as being shocked to discover that the governor of New York State is having sex with a twenty-year-old prostitute. There is something about being ‘of the moment’ that makes the Docu-soup or Follow-doc genres potent now, but kinda irrelevant three years from now. Seriously, when was the last time you thought about Teresa’s table-flipping incident before reading it two paragraphs ago?


In today’s TMZ and Snapchat environment, it’s getting harder and harder for Reality television to surprise us. Not because Reality stars won’t do shocking things. But because the lag between when the star was taped doing that shocking thing, to when it is broadcast is usually months after the fact. And anyone who’s truly interested can usually find out via social media in advance. So not only is the shelf life of a reality show short, but it is also inauthentic when broadcast as current.

Reality has always navigated in an awkward space between documentary and news. Comparing Reality to Documentary happens frequently. But I’ve never heard of a serious discussion comparing Reality to television news. I truly believe that the next advancement in Reality television is going to be in shortening the time between production and air. Perhaps production companies should start cribbing news production?

If Netflix were to announce a series with Michael Moore, would we even debate whether that series was Documentary or Reality? The fact that there is a debate about the genre of Chelsea Does says more about our cultural opinion of Chelsea Handler then it does about the content of the series. But ultimately the debate is counter-productive when trying to discuss why Chelsea Handler gets a Netflix show and “Surviving: the Real Housewives of Kim Kardashian’s Dance Moms” does not.

Reality television is without doubt the offspring of the documentary. But like all children, it has two parents. And Reality’s other parent is television news; although it may be much like a father who abandons his wife and child. Perhaps Reality’s ‘news-ness’ makes it incompatible in the Netflix streaming universe. I don’t know but perhaps this is a good place to start the conversation.

5 thoughts on “Reality TV and Streaming: Part 1/1000

  1. Reality shows may not be a good match for Netflix streaming but they still attract enough of an audience to make them profitable streaming on some other platform. The networks that produce reality shows – Bravo, MTV, VH1 – are probably pondering this now. It will be interesting to see what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hulu streams Bravo’s library and I wonder what kind of numbers the “oldies” like Real Housewives of New York season 1 gets.


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