Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

8 Ways to Create an Unscripted Cable Hit: Lessons from 2010

For our Real Screen 2011 panel, we gave AETN’s Don Robert 5 minutes to nail the question of the day:  What are the common elements that go into making an unscripted cable hit?

by Don Robert
Senior Vice President of Research, AETN

 We looked at some of the top unscripted series on cable in 2010 and came up with 8 key observations:

  1. It is still important to BE FIRST with an idea.  Deadliest Catch, Pawn Stars, Intervention, Project Runway — they all looked and felt different and unique when they first hit the tube. If you’re first with a great concept and execute it well, you can have a hit for years as these shows have demonstrated.
  2. If you can’t be first, then be BEST — which usually means you need to find the best characters.  Billy wasn’t TV’s first exterminator, but his larger-than-life personality made him #1 in the category. Kat von D wasn’t the first tattoo artist and Teresa wasn’t the first housewife, but they are both break-out characters that have lifted their respective shows to big successes.
  3. KEEP IT SIMPLE.  A concept that is easy to understand and that resonates with viewers, such as the transformative process of losing weight in Heavy, the universal theme of man vs. nature in River Monsters.
  4. Many of today’s top hits were a result of picking LOW-HANGING FRUIT — meaning, they were just expanding on an idea that already had success. Before Snooki, there was the episode titled “I’m a Jersey Shore Girl” on MTV’s True LifeDog the Bounty Hunter was first profiled on the A&E anthology series Take This Job. But be careful with your picks:  For example, Jeff Dunham had multiple hit specials for Comedy Central, but his show failed as a weekly series.
  5. Before you cancel a successful show that has fallen into decline, ask if there is a way to RE-INVENT or re-energize it. In 2010, the long-running but fading American Chopper came back with a vengeance when the father vs. son theme took on a more intense level.  But you also need to know when to fold.  Without Billy Mays, Pitchmen lost their strongest character and the show fell apart.
  6. The vast majority of today’s top hits feature REAL PEOPLE, who may be larger-than-life but who are in many ways relatable to the average viewer.  The Situation, Alaskan crab fisherman Sig Hansen, and pickers Mike and Frank.  The only celebrities who tend to make it are ones like Gene Simmons, stars with loyal fan bases and who aren’t afraid to reveal candid and fascinating aspects of their lives.
  7. SEIZE THE DAY … Friday and Saturday, that is. Viewing levels may be a little more than 10% lower than the other five nights of the week, but when you factor out the Big 4 broadcast network audience, the number of viewers available to cable is roughly the same on Friday and Saturday as it is on the other five nights.  But you have to give them a reason to watch!  Some networks are discovering the value of launching hit shows on these less competitive nights, including Travel Channel and their top show Ghost Adventures, which airs on Fridays, and E!, with one of their biggest shows, The Soup.
  8. And finally, a key observation is that many of today’s top shows on all of U.S. cable are UNSCRIPTED. Look at 2010’s Top 10 networks among Adults 18-54, which encompasses both A18-49 and A25-54 demos.  There were actually 11 networks in the top 10 due to a tie at #10.
 ADULTS 18-54 
#2 ESPN#1 USA (-11%)
#5 HISTORY#3 TNT (-6%)
#6 A&E#4 TBS (-4%)
#8 DISCOVERY#7 FX (-11%)
#9 ABC FAMILY#10 SYFY (-11%)
#10 FOOD
  • Six networks were stable or up vs. 2009
  • Meanwhile, five networks were down
  • Interestingly, four of the five “down” networks do not have a single unscripted series in primetime
  • However, 4 of the 6 networks that are stable or up are loaded with unscripted programs

In 2010, if you look at cable’s top 25 original prime series (scripted or unscripted), you’ll find that 16 are unscripted shows–about two-thirds of the top hits among both the A18-49 and A25-54 demos.

And compared to three years ago, there are measurably more unscripted series among the top.

A18-49Shows% Top 25
A25-54Shows% Top 25

The Big Takeaway
Not only is unscripted programming here to stay, IT IS HOTTER THAN EVER!!

About Don Robert
Don is Senior Vice President of Research at AETN. He and his team are responsible for all audience and consumer insights supporting the programming and marketing teams, including the scheduling and PR departments, for A&E, Lifetime, History, Bio, Lifetime Movie Network and History International. Click here for Don’s bio.

The Real Screen Panel: Is 2 the New 5?
Designed to demystify the numbers game for producers and programming execs, this session will take a look at various metrics designed to measure programming success. How do network grades stack up against traditional ratings? What are broadcasters really looking for in a program when rating it? When is a program that doesn’t measure up in traditional ratings pass muster with a broadcaster.

As well as Don Robert, the expert and entertaining panelists were:

  • David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation
  • Gary Auerbach, Founder, Go Go Luckey Entertainment
  • Jo Holz, SVP Client Research Initiatives, The Nielsen Company
  • Deborah Adler Myers, EVP & General Manager, Science Channel
  • Peter Hamilton,, Moderator



Australian International Documentary Conference
1-4 March 2011, Adelaide, Australia
A hit at Real Screen 2011!
Now the workshop with A&E’s Stephen Harris hits the road!
Getting Your Concept to the Side of the Bus:
A Network Insider’s Guide to
Greenlighting a Factual Program
Improve your chances of success as you learn what’s inside the minds of network executives as they take pitches, buy in to them, promote the strongest concepts to their colleagues, budget productions, and fight for the final sign off.

And a message to friends and colleagues attending AIDC: Contact us now to get on the calendar!



The Spring 2011 CINE Golden Eagle Competition is open to submissions.  Entries submitted by February 15 will receive a discount; all entries are due by March 1, 2011.

The CINE Golden Eagle Competition, the prestigious, half-century-old competition based on peer recognition of excellence in film, television, and new media, accepts a broad range of professional, independent and student productions in a variety of categories including documentary, fiction, history, arts, science, new media, and commercial spots, and much more. 

Series submitted for the Golden Eagle Award can now receive special recognition for Excellence in Series Television. Recognized series from 2010 include ESPN’s 30 for 30, Discovery Channel’s Life and History’s WWII in HD.

Past recipients of the CINE Golden Eagle Award include Mel Brooks, Steven Spielberg, Ken Burns, Ron Howard, Mike Nichols, Albert Maysles, Martin Scorsese, and many others.

Those who enter by the early bird deadline on February 15 will receive a discount. All entries are due by March 1. For more information Visit or call the CINE office at 202 785 1136

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