The finance of reality (TV): What it really costsby
Bake Off is back. Our resident baker Makbul Patel delves into what the world of British reality TV revenue means through the lens of a management accountant.
Yes, Bake Off is back. Don’t I know it. The series is a phenomenon. Its followers are international and, although I am biased, there is nothing quite like it on TV. The format is so familiar - the setting, the challenges… It’s as much of a comfort blanket as TV can give.
One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the scale of the production. It is humongous. There is nothing left to chance. Every little nook has an experienced member of staff looking after it. It is a multimillion-pound production that has a global reach. Many countries have their own versions of Bake Off all linked to the UK original.
Although, looking at the TV schedules you cannot help but notice the number of other shows that start with the words ‘Great British’. The Great British Sewing Bee. Great British Railway Journeys. Great British Menu. The Great British Pottery Throwdown. A while back we had the Great British Food Revival. Great British this and Great British that. The success of the Bake Off has had an effect.
These days, with revenue from TV advertising on the wane, TV executives want to invest in programmes that will be an instant hit. Patriotism is a bankable commodity.
However, with the presence of hundreds of TV channels each vying for an opportunity to light up the nation's lounges, there is of course another format that is armed with sharp elbows to keep us glued to the screen. Reality TV.
Personally, I would not regard The Great British Bake Off as reality TV. It is not based in real life. 12 bakers in a controlled environment trying to impress judges is more inclined to be treated as a gameshow. Each baker is in competition with the others to progress. However, the industry splits TV shows into either scripted or unscripted, so I guess Bake Off is a form of reality TV.
The other form of unscripted reality TV comes with the camera following people in their natural environment. No part of life is too private not to receive the presence of a camera and the dulcet voice of a narrator indulging the viewer in the mishaps unfolding on screen.
People being saved by paramedics. Cops in helicopters chasing dodgy drivers through woods and housing estates. Someone’s catastrophic wedding preparations. Truckers making huge deliveries in the snow. Chanice and her plastic surgery diary and how Jake in America regretted the last chocolate muffin when told by doctors he weighed 35 stones. It’s all out there, whatever takes your outrageous fancy.
Though we may feel there is a glut of these kinds of programmes there is a reason behind it - the cost. As I mentioned before, putting on a show like Bake Off runs into millions of pounds. Mainstream TV is expensive.
True unscripted reality TV, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive. TV on the cheap.
Let’s not go into the quality of these shows, which is another debate altogether. A point of note though - personally, I don’t watch much TV and I don’t watch any reality TV. My viewing tastes are very limited. Mortimer and Woodhouse’s Gone Fishing is as exciting as it gets.
Scripted TV dramas are expensive. As management accountants, we are nearly always concerned with the value for money - the return on investment. Thus, the investment on any show has to make a handsome return for the company. Syndication and advertising revenue. A good quality scripted show can cost £1million upwards.
Game of Thrones, for example, cost an eye-watering £15million per episode. An episode of a reality TV show can only cost about £100k. With no writers to pay, little to no studio time and no expensive names, it makes sense for smaller cable channels to invest in these types of shows.
(Source: Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) data to end of Sept 2021)
Of the top ten most popular TV shows (within their time slots), six are unscripted reality TV, with GBBO in the top three (yay!). With these types of statistics, it makes sense for TV companies to invest in reality shows. I remember in the 80s and 90s when it was only soap dramas that dominated people’s viewing habits. So much has changed. Corrie barely makes it in the top 10.
I grew up watching Morecambe and Wise, Minder, Only Fools and Top of the Pops. These shows were deep-rooted in British TV culture along with Corrie and EastEnders - iconic but expensive.
With the revolution in entertainment technology, viewers today are more fickle. Instant gratification, on-demand and binge-watching - the drug of the small screen must have an instant effect. Watching live TV has become a thing of the past. Word of mouth plays an important role as there is so much content to choose from. This has had a significant impact on advertising revenue. The glory days of traditional advertising have long disappeared into the sunset.
As viewing habits have changed, advertising has had to evolve. Reality TV serves as a much better platform for product placement. This practice, which generates advertising revenue for both the show and the network by strategically adding brand name products within the context of the program, has become the norm.
It is seriously jarring when done on scripted shows. Reality TV can get away with it as brands are also a part of everyday life. Bake Off were very strict in not allowing branded goods to be shown in front of the camera. We couldn’t even have any logos on our clothes. I suppose they would make exceptions with the equipment which can be a nice little earner, as Arthur Daley would say.
Surprise surprise, the bottom-line is everything. That is the biggest advantage of reality shows over scripted ones. Stuff the quality. Reality TV can keep the same format and churn out the same content over and over again with different people in similar situations. The TV calendar is long. Reality TV has proven to be a dependable earner for networks over a much longer time span.