Caroline Beaton: Why niche is the new normal

In an increasingly fragmented TV landscape, should broadcasters and producers focus more on niche formats than on trying to recreate the entertainment and reality juggernauts of the noughties, says Viacom International Media Networks senior VP, international programme sales Caroline Beaton.

Caroline-Beaton-1We’re told we are living through a ‘golden age’ of television, with intensifying competition for increasingly fickle eyeballs inspiring new levels of creativity, particularly for scripted content. However, for anyone specialising in non-scripted content, it feels like the glow has long since faded.

The first decade of the 21st century was an extraordinary period of innovation and re-invention in non-scripted television, particularly entertainment and reality formats. Quiz shows, talent shows, dating shows and reality shows dominated global air-time, with audiences showing a seemingly insatiable appetite for big reveal moments, celebrities stripped bare, the talented and, indeed, the talentless. From the turn of the millennium shows like Pop Idol, Big Brother, Survivor, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Got Talent dominated the weekly ratings.

In 2015, however, a general decline in ratings for unscripted entertainment formats suggests the shows that audiences around the world have held so dear for so long may be finally running out of steam.

The X Factor was axed by Fox in the US after three seasons, with its audience falling as low as 4.5 million compared with an average of more than 12 million in 2011. In the UK, The X Factor has also hit a ratings low with just over nine million viewers tuning in for the final, little more than half the 17 million who tuned in for the climax in 2010 when the show was at its most popular. American Idol is heading in the same direction with ratings for its thirteenth season down 23% on the previous year.

Recent attempts to replenish the schedules with new entertainment and reality hits that strike the same chord don’t appear to be working. In the UK, BBC 1’s Tumble averaged an audience of three million in early Saturday peak, a fraction of the 10 million who tuned into Strictly in a similar time slot in 2014 (although even that was one million below its performance in 2013). ITV’s Splash also took a ratings nose-dive and was axed after two seasons. In the US, ABC’s Rising Star – tipped to be a “revolution in TV programming” with its real-time voting mechanism – failed to shine, launching with just five million viewers; it was eclipsed by NBC rival America’s Got Talent. And Fox’s Utopia – costing a reported US$50 million – failed to meet expectations and was cancelled after just 12 episodes.

Of course, primetime reality and entertainment producers aren’t the only TV professionals feeling the pinch when it comes to ratings. The whole industry is being forced to come to terms with the gradual shift from live, linear viewing to time-shifted, non-linear viewing. VIMN’s latest major research study, TV RE[DEFINED], which explored the viewing habits of more than 10,500 viewers aged 6-34 across 14 countries, reveals how in mature TV markets, such as the US and countries across northern Europe, audiences now expect to be able to watch what they want to watch precisely when they want to watch it and increasingly where they want to watch it, given the penetration of smartphones and tablets.

The rise of video-on-demand platforms, with their emphasis on potentially limitless individual choice, is likely impacting shows designed to bring the whole family together more than shows targeting specific demographics. The current abundance of high-quality dramas – Awkward, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Scandal – seem better suited to this world of binge viewing and box sets than entertainment and reality juggernauts that are designed for viewing live.

In this fragmenting TV landscape, is uncovering the next Got Talent a realistic ambition? Of course, there are still shows successfully managing to deliver cross-demographic appeal – from Celebrity Big Brother to Bake Off, The Voice to The Jump – but the format industry must evolve its thinking and spend less time trying to replicate whatever it was that gave the X Factor the X factor. As greater choice inevitably makes audiences more niche, entertainment and reality formats must surely become more niche too.

The silver lining to the cloud obscuring the golden age of reality and entertainment television, is that this evolution is already underway. Digital technologies have lowered distribution costs and massively increased the number of linear TV channels serving highly targeted audiences. In order to differentiate themselves in the face of intensifying competition, these channels are increasing investment in origination and are on the look-out for proven, but affordable international hits that can been replicated locally. These buyers are looking for fresh ideas to help them stand out with their target demographic, not globally recognisable brands with a record of localisation in 20-plus countries.

There is no evidence that overall demand for non-scripted general entertainment has lessened; rather that demand for all types of television is becoming more segmented. As the audience’s exercise ever more control over their choice of content, creators should stop worrying about uncovering ‘the next big thing’, and instead look to create ‘big things’ for niche audiences.