Sony Embraces a New Reality

Apr 19, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Sony is making a major push into the primetime reality business, betting that its international profile—and a bevy of new deals and acquisitions—will allow it to compete in a marketplace heretofore dominated by global players such as Endemol and Fremantle.
Until now, domestic studios such as Sony, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox have largely sat out the reality revolution that began 10 years ago with the launch of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Even as they continue to control the vast majority of scripted programming in the U.S., the Hollywood production houses have largely been content to let companies with European roots, or solo producers such as Mark Burnett and Thom Beers, control the unscripted marketplace.
Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, says that has to change. With reality programming making up nearly one-third of broadcast schedules (and an even greater percentage of many cable networks’ lineups), it just doesn’t make sense to ignore the genre any longer.
“The studios have had the mindset that (we’re) built to create scripted programming, that that is what feeds the syndication pipeline,” Mr. Mosko said. “But if you look at what companies like Endemol and Fremantle have done, you see that there’s a huge global business (in reality).
“If you get the right show, you can make a lot of money worldwide,” he added, pointing to his studio’s “Wheel of Fortune” as an example of how an unscripted series can be turned into a multiplatform money-printing machine.
“We’d be making a huge mistake if we didn’t get more involved,” he said.
The seriousness of Sony’s ambitions was underlined late last month, when the company announced that Mr. Mosko was adding oversight of international TV to his already broad portfolio. More than just a promotion for Mr. Mosko, the reorganization is designed to make it easier for Sony to develop and distribute unscripted show formats, whether the ideas originate in the U.S. or elsewhere along the studio’s global production pipeline.
Sony also has been active on the acquisition front, adding new companies both domestically and internationally. With little fanfare, the company snapped up key unscripted assets such as global reality distributor 2Way Traffic (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”), Michael Davies’ Embassy Row and South American producer Teleset. And last month, Sony struck a global distribution deal with Relativity Real, the unscripted shingle of producer Tom Forman (“Kid Nation”).
Earlier this year, Sony took another step toward increasing its unscripted market share by recruiting longtime Endemol executive Mike Morley to serve as its London-based chief creative officer for international production. Mr. Morley has been charged with finding global formats to import to the U.S., as well as exporting content from Sony’s U.S.-based assets.
The final element in Sony’s unscripted mix: The hiring of Holly Jacobs, a former Buena Vista and Fox TV Studios executive, to run both alternative and syndication. During her 18-month tenure, Ms. Jacobs has successfully pushed Sony into the primetime reality business, landing firm series orders from ABC (“Shark Tank”), NBC (“Sing Off”) and TV Land (“Make My Day”), along with pilots at CBS (“Strongest American”), Bravo (“Fashionality”) and MTV (“The Empire”).
Ms. Jacobs said Sony’s drive to expand its reality portfolio is a natural extension of its historic success in syndication. She also said the studio’s wide array of assets in scripted TV and film production are being harvested for unscripted ideas.
“We have phenomenal assets and relationships to play with,” Ms. Jacobs said, noting the NBC a capella project “Sing Off” originated with Sony’s feature division. She said several other scripted producers on the lot are working on reality show ideas as well.
“Everybody wants to diversify,” said Ms. Jacobs, who reports to Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, co-presidents of production and programming for Sony Pictures Television. “People see reality as a viable extension of their scripted successes, and they want to bring their strengths to the reality space.”
Mr. Morley said Sony’s wide array of “core interests”—TV, film, home electronics, music and the PlayStation videogame platform—will make it easier for the studio to make money on whatever success it has in unscripted.
“Unscripted has such an ability to create ancillary revenue,” he said. “And Sony can bring all those dots together synergistically.”
Mr. Morley made a bold prediction about Sony’s unscripted future.
“This company is something of a sleeping giant in reality,” he said. “I think people will be amazed at how powerful it can be.”
Mr. Morley and Ms. Jacobs both pointed to Sony’s structure as one of the studio’s biggest advantages in its push to become a bigger player in reality.
Mr. Mosko’s oversight of international, for example, makes it possible for ideas to be vetted and acted upon after just a single staff meeting. And because Mr. Van Amburg and Mr. Erlicht oversee both scripted and unscripted development, Ms. Jacobs feels empowered to directly reach out to producers on the studio’s roster of scripted players.
Indeed, Ms. Jacobs is working with “Two and a Half Men” executive producer Eric Tannenbaum on a game show concept called “Family Baggage.” Mr. Tannenbaum has an overall deal with Sony.
“There is such complete integration of different genres, so that everyone here is on one core team,” Ms. Jacobs said. “And there’s a real transparency of ideas here. If I get pitched something that isn’t ready for the marketplace I deal with, I can just send it over to (Sony online network) Crackle, or vice versa.”
Sony also hopes to use its independent status to help it attract key unscripted talent like Mr. Burnett. Because the company doesn’t have ties to any major broadcast or cable networks (it has a stake in GSN), ideas can be shopped to the best possible outlet.
“We’re like Switzerland. We can sell to everyone,” Ms. Jacobs said.
While Mr. Mosko and other Sony executives see a big upside to the studio’s reality play, some outside observers say it’s no accident that major studios have largely avoided getting into the unscripted sandbox.
“It’s a very hard thing for a studio to be in the reality business,” argued the head of a major U.S. reality production outlet that’s linked to a European company. “You need to have a lot of creative bandwidth to succeed in reality, and most studios aren’t set up that way.”
Studios are key to producing scripted projects in the U.S. because they are able to provide the deficit financing those shows require. Most reality shows, however, are put together without such built-in losses, which means most creative types haven’t seen a need for a studio to serve as a middleman between them and the network.
Of course, the lack of high-cost deficit financing also makes reality a relativity low-risk proposition for Sony. And the studio is trying to tackle the “creative bandwidth” problem by more fully exploiting its library of international formats, acquiring companies and doing deals with the likes of Mr. Burnett and Mr. Davies.
In addition, Sony is betting the international TV marketplace will provide the sort of back-end profits the syndication world once supplied to makers of scripted series. In the same way that local stations in middle America once lined up to get the rights to a “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” a hot, U.S.-produced reality format can fetch tens of millions in format and tape rights from global TV networks.
“If you want to enter the global market, there’s never been a better time,” Mr. Morley said.
One outside observer noted Sony already has a strong track record in exploiting its scripted assets internationally, pointing to the dozens of local versions of Sony assets such as “The Nanny” and “Married … With Children.” On the unscripted side, formats such as “Dragons’ Den” and the game show “Power of 10” have been localized in numerous countries.
Sony’s unscripted assault comes as the studio is having one of its best scripted development seasons in recent memory. Powered by overall deals with Mr. Tannenbaum, Mitch Hurwitz and Jamie Tarses, among others, Sony landed nearly a dozen pilots at the broadcast networks this spring. Its cable business continues to thrive via successes such as “Breaking Bad” and “Rescue Me.”
Mr. Mosko, therefore, doesn’t look at reality as somehow being a better business for Sony than scripted production.
“We’re doing it all,” he said. “I don’t think it’s either/or. We’re going to continue to be in all parts of the business. We have to be.”

One Comment

  1. Wow, this is much bigger news than it may appear. Many solo producers look at reality tv as their entree to the bigger market.
    The relatively low cost to produce also means that there is generally less profit for the production companies doing the work of production. What a powerhouse like Sony brings is the ability to market the same idea to several different countries.
    Creating a successful reality show is like developing a secret formula. But once it has been created, syndicating it is where I bet most of the profit is.
    The swimming pool just got a lot more crowded.

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