Unlocking Unscripted TV

(content originally published on www.BroadcastBeat.com, written by OMS's CEO Robin Hafitz and EVP Allison O'Keefe)

We find ourselves in a “new golden age” of television, where big budget, high-intensity, scripted programs like many HBO and Netflix series. Still, scripted originals do not pay the bills at most Networks.  Unscripted programming, though rarely revered is critical to keeping many a network’s lights on.

What Connects –Delivering a Go-To

Four of five cable telecasts in Q3, 2015 were unscripted so cracking the code of “Go To” unscripted programming can be game changing.   The key lies in understanding what viewers want from the unscripted TV experience.

Escape, the allure of the familiar/relatable, and the promise of drama or take-aways are top draws, but it gets interesting when analyzed by gender. For men, "learning about history" ties escape for top draw; history doesn't even make womens' top 10. Women want relatability and drama. 'Watching people navigate life events I'll go through/have been through' ranks second, "watching drama ensue" ranks 3rd, elements which rank 15th and 5th for men. Additionally, watching for "Inspiration" has appeal for all, but is significantly important to women (6th) vs. ninth for men.

As to subject matter, careful regard to targeting is critical. Many favorite topics cover common ground - men and women are interested in people 'overcoming adversity,' in 'competition' and 'shows showcasing nearby locations'. There is fairly gender neutral appeal across food/cooking, travel, animals/nature and home improvement.

Where do things diverge? Guys favor history, behind the scenes in business, the inner working of jobs unlike my own, survival and cars.  Women appreciate shows about families, decorating and design, home renovation, and lavish lifestyles.

Speaking of lavish lifestyles, unscripted docudramas play a role in women’s lives similar to an end-of-day cocktail, providing stuff they talk to girlfriends about – train wrecks (who slept with whom), family issues, and stories that make them feel better.  Four categories rule in unscripted docu-dramas: Escape and Relax via a Train Wreck, Grow by Learning, Feel Better about Me, and Relate to Relationships/Family Issues.

When considering relatable life events, viewers say they want to witness the relatable but gain input they can use so they don’t feel they “wasted time”.  So, it isn’t surprising that relatable life decisions/events like renovating a home (90%), buying a home (87%), and exploring a faraway city/country (82%) are of the highest interest.

Still, “take-away” value is a major draw, but do not take “take-away” literally.  Viewers love to learn from unscripted – but “stretch learning” outranks the practical.  Learning something they may never do (30%) ranks higher than learning something they actually need (23%). Men love info driven home by pop-ups, graphics and maps.

And remember, right characters are key. Viewers agree that they want to relate to characters, while they aspire, imagine or judge.  But relatability doesn’t mean “averageness” – quirks, flaws, and unusualness increase connection. Again, while some qualities, authenticity, wit/humor and the ability to overcome obstacles, appeal to most viewers, gender preferences differ. “Straight talkers”, “odd people” and “attractive people” increase men’s interest; women seek ‘kind people,’ ‘people with flaws,’ and ‘strong-willed people.’

What to Avoid

It’s one thing to know what sucks them in, but crucial to understand what sends them running.  Avoid the ‘middle.’ People want topical extremes – rough streets, ultimate luxury, crazy indulgence, uber-healthy food. But there’s one exception.  When it comes to one-off characters, few viewers enjoy following a regular person who is over-the-top rich.  Rich works when people are the focal point, and even better when viewers see the rich share the same problems.

However, people hate forced premises or contrived, scripted moments when it appears that the producer, told the characters to do or say something.  Savvy viewers will call out “the producer clearly made them do that” when they see something inauthentic.

Strategies for success

Beyond show elements and characters, some simple, tactics make a difference in whether a show is a “Go To”:

Tease, Tease then Tease some more:

Despite the repetition, viewers generally do not find it annoying when a show teases what’s next – tell them what’s coming and they say “I was so annoyed…because I COULD NOT change the channel.”  Still, few programs make effective use of teasers.

Magnify Involvement:

Interest is magnified when viewers can ‘play along.’ People love to guess how much items are worth on ‘Pawn Stars,’ or which house people will choose in “House Hunters”.  Organic play-along is an appealing game that carries them through episodes.   Additionally, pre and post commercial quizzes have significant pull.  Another“no brainer” tactic that is under-leveraged.

Watch Your Blueprint

Lastly, a clear structure keeps viewers returning . When it comes to unscripted TV, blueprints are not boring – viewers appreciate a formula.  A show that defines its “purpose”, sets the stakes, and focuses on core elements is a show viewers can “go to” again and again.

We wish you success in finding your formula for “go to” unscripted success!




OMS has moderated hundreds of TV focus sessions in the last three years, analyzed hundreds of discover journals, and conducted quantitative surveys with over 25,000 TV viewers. The insights here are a distillation of trends from all this work, brought to life with data from a tailored quantitative survey of 400 men and women ages 25 -49, with annual incomes over $50,000.

Open Mind Strategy works with a wide range of television clients from networks across the NBC Universal umbrella to Discovery Networks to Viacom to Scripps Networks to ESPN (to name only a few).  In the course of conducting both tactical and strategic projects for these partners – that run the gamut from pilot testing to audience segmentation studies to emotional response tracking – OMS has learned a lot about what connects viewers to television, both scripted and unscripted.  While in the world of scripted, the holy grail is often “must see” and “breakthrough”, hundreds of TV-focused qualitative sessions and custom viewer DiscoverJournals™ and quantitative surveys with over 25,000 TV viewers, have shed light on the fact that in unscripted it is often about making a show a “Go To”.  OMS has unlocked insight into the show elements and production strategies that help make unscripted shows “Go Tos”.