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Hollywood Contraction: Unscripted TV Business Facing “Crushing” Grim Reality As Fewer Shows Lead To Fewer Jobs

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the Deadline series Hollywood Contraction, which examines the toll the job losses caused by the ongoing industrywide cost-cutting has had on different sections of the entertainment community.

Matthew Hobin, a producer who has worked on series including Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, was driving for Uber Eats during the pandemic when he found out his Netflix food series Fresh, Fried and Crispy got four Daytime Emmy nominations including a best director nod for himself.

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Hobin, who runs OU812 Productions and was a co-exec producer on truTV’s Storage Hunters and exec producer on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, told Deadline that he pulled over, celebrated for 30 seconds, and went back to delivering food.

His story is symbolic of a broader problem in the unscripted industry, which is impacting significant numbers of people.

Patrick Caligiuri, a producer who has worked on shows including Big Brother, The Amazing Race and American Idol and was most recently a co-exec producer on The CW’s Fight To Survive, is facing a similar situation.

Caligiuri told Deadline that he knows of people who are working for DoorDash who have five Emmys on their mantels while others are driving for Uber or selling their “inherited grandmother’s jewelry” to make ends meet. He went viral recently when he posted a TikTok to his LinkedIn page titled “Reality TV is Dead”. The post, which has had close to 2,000 comments, eloquently laid out how the current state of the business was “crushing” entertainment workers.

“I don’t think anybody in the nation knows how bad it is in Hollywood, because we still are given this premise that the economy is doing great right now,” he told Deadline. “There’s a trickle-down effect. First we’re out of business, but then we’re not hiring the catering companies, the drivers, the cube trucks or the production spaces.”

It’s not just producers and other below the line workers that are suffering. As Deadline laid out, there’s a “full-scale depression” among unemployed executives, as well.

“One of my favorite network executives got let go a week after she won an Emmy,” said Hobin, the son of a steelworker.

Caligiuri says that he doesn’t want this to become an us-versus-them issue because everyone is struggling. “There is massive empathy [from executives]. One described as it feeling like they’re on one of the lifeboats from the Titanic, watching the ship go down and everyone’s swimming out there,” he added.

People working across the unscripted business are “down, depressed and scared”, according to one senior agent.

Another said that it’s tough for small and mid-sized producers to compete with bigger companies with financial muscle. “The top half of my roster is doing fine. The bottom half makes me think that a good 30% to 50% of [unscripted] production companies will be out of business in the next 12 to 18 months,” he added.

Deadline has heard of multiple instances of non-scripted production companies axing their development teams and instead just hiring people on a freelance basis. Some big, long-running shows are also cutting the number of exec producers, including people who have been on hit shows for many years.

“TV DARWINISM”

Others believe that it’s the natural progression of the sector — “TV Darwinism” as described by one producer.

“The sector’s too fat, there are more producers pitching shows than the system can support. This is literally TV Darwinism, it is survival of the best positioned,” he said. “If you think about the business as a whole, it’s severely diminished. We’ve been through an explosive 15-year content bubble. There’s now a major contraction, and there’s just not enough money in the system to support all of the people who were doing what they used to do. There’s going to have to be air let out of the balloon, the market just can’t support it.”

There is evidently less money in the unscripted world than there used to be; networks are cutting the number of originals and trimming episode orders.

For instance, cable networks that used to hand out 16-episode orders are now buying eight episodes. Eight weeks of pre-production has turned into four and ten weeks of editing has become seven.

“We’re making the best quality television that’s ever been made; beautiful, cinematic, gorgeous stuff, great stories, but under this level of pressure, and nearly impossible expectations, the finished products have never been better. What seemed crazy is now the norm,” said Hobin.

Unscripted television is not immune to what’s happening on a more macro level such as general cost-cutting measures that have impacted other areas of entertainment as a result of the expensive push into streaming.

There’s also been a significant reduction in the cable television business. Ten years ago, there were up to 12 buyers to pitch a male-skewing reality series to, for instance, whereas now there’s only a handful.

Cable networks that used to order hundreds of hours of originals are also no longer doing so.

Nat Geo and A+E Networks’ History Channel have largely moved away from volume orders and instead have been focusing on fewer, premium docuseries.

The former is working with the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie and James Cameron, while the latter just unveiled over 2,500 hours of programming featuring President Obama, LeBron James and Derek Jeter.

“You need Tom Hanks to sell a show!,” one source texted me after History revealed a new WWII docuseries hosted by the Big star.

The NBCUniversal cable stations, Paramount networks including MTV and Comedy Central, and Warner Bros. Discovery networks are no longer ordering the same amount of shows that they used to.

Kathleen Finch, Chairman and Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Discovery’s U.S. Networks Group admitted last year had been a “rough” time in the unscripted market. She told Deadline that producers shouldn’t “focus” their attention on networks such as TNT and TBS. Earlier this year, TruTV, once the home to series including Hardcore Pawn and Lizard Lick Towing, essentially became a sports network.

There are, however, some bright spots; true crime has never been more popular, with networks such as Investigation Discovery and Lifetime taking advantage of the trend. Networks such as Bravo, with its Real Housewives and Below Deck franchises, are booming and The CW is buying again.

The streamers are also slowly ordering more product; Netflix just hired Jeff Gaspin as it continues to search for unscripted hits, while Amazon is figuring out its unscripted strategy (one that could be helped if it can close a deal with Travis Kelce to reboot Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?). Hulu has new money to spend on non-scripted shows and Peacock has found great success with The Traitors.

“Across the board. I’m seeing more series get lit up than I did last year at this time, but it’s still nowhere near 2018,” one agent told Deadline.

The broadcast networks are also still largely relying on classic shows. ABC still has Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Shark Tank and The Bachelor, the latter responsible for the most recent unscripted success on broadcast TV, and CBS is doubling down on 90-minute episodes of Survivor and The Amazing Race.

NBC has had success with new Jimmy Fallon shows such as Password and That’s My Jam, but also still relies on long-running hits such as America’s Got Talent, The Voice and American Ninja Warrior. Fox orders the most new reality shows such as The Floor, Jamie Foxx-exec produced We Are Family and The Quiz with Balls alongside its kitchen cupboard of Gordon Ramsay formats.

Fox’s The Masked Singer is, arguably, the last big broadcast reality show to breakthrough in the past five years.

“Networks have been renewing these shows at a higher clip than before so the real estate is diminished,” one source told Deadline. “Back in the day, when a show got a few million viewers, they’d think they can do better but I think they’ve realized that they can no longer do better so they’ll just do more of it.”

This has also slowed the development pipeline, where shows that used to take six months to get a decision are now taking a year.

All of this comes as the corporate futures of some of these companies remain up in the air; Paramount is going through a sale process and Warner Bros. Discovery can start making M&A moves again in less than three weeks when its Reverse Morris Trust lock-up expires on April 8. This will likely signal a fresh round tie-up rumors with NBCU owner Comcast.

For below the line workers, outsourcing has also had a big impact. Caligiuri pointed to a show about Asian gangs in San Francisco that was being produced in Cape Town, South Africa.

Fox has been producing a number of its shows in Ireland including Next Level Chef, Beat Shazam, Name That Tune and Don’t Forget the Lyrics, while other networks are also eyeing European locations for their shows.

Hobin jokes that there’s “no sympathy for the devil”. But in spite of all of this, there’s still some optimism that this is just cyclical and the situation will improve.

“There’s optimism right now because people are feeling like they’re heard, that’s the biggest takeway,” said Caligiuri. “This is a community and there’s a collective voice.”

“My entire career is based on unbridled optimism,” added Hobin. “It’s not about who to be mad at. It’s just about shining a light on the situation.”

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