It's tough out of there for TV shows. With so many choices for viewers, increasing competition from digital streamers, not to mention cord cutters, it's never been more challenging for a show to attract, and then keep, an audience.
Despite all the attention scripted content gets, it's unscripted programming that's still driving much of the scale, particularly on cable. Of the top 50 entertainment telecasts on cable during the third quarter of this year, 39 were unscripted shows (AMC's Fear the Walking Dead, a scripted show, took the top 5 spots).
Bravo, home to reality hits like The Real Housewives and Top Chef, recently looked at viewership for some 330 unscripted programs on cable over a two-year period to see how many grew their audience from one season to the next. While the results overall weren't pretty—65 percent saw their audiences decrease—Bravo thinks it's found a formula for audience growth.
The NBCUniversal-owned network uses a variety of methods to get viewer feedback: surveys, social media and focus groups.
"We try to understand the underlying motivations that people have when they're watching television," said Dave Kaplan, svp, research and insights, Bravo and Oxygen Media. "We try to suss out what those [reasons] are, and if a show is delivering less on those things, it's obviously an important note for production."
Kaplan said they usually start gathering data two to three weeks after a show finishes and immediately provide the findings to producers. He added that more recently, they've started running "flash polls" four or five episodes into a season to gauge reaction.
By continuously getting feedback from their viewers, Bravo is able to keep shows fresh, which is crucial for reality programs that tend to run much longer than scripted series. Take The Real Housewives of Orange County, for example—the show's 10th season, its most recent, was also its highest rated.
"The formula changes, and I think viewers evolve in terms of what they're looking for out of unscripted shows," Kaplan said.
Bravo and Discovery's ID were the best-performing cable networks as each had 10 shows return with more viewers.
Programing to a Brand
For Scripps Networks Interactive, which includes six different lifestyle-specific channels, the formula is a bit different but no less successful. Three Scripps networks—Cooking Channel, HGTV and DIY Network—saw more than half of their returning shows post audience gains from last year.
"We are a brand, so when a viewer is interested in food content, they know exactly where to go," said Kathleen Finch, chief programming, content and brand officer for Scripps Networks Interactive. "We very much work that to our advantage." Finch said their viewers aren't necessarily tuning in to HGTV because "Oh my god, I must watch a House Hunters tonight," but because they want to watch home improvement content.
But that audience is incredibly loyal and will leave the network on for a long time. That's because the Scripps networks superserve their audiences. For example, House Hunters will run 400 new episodes a year. Not only does it cut down the downtime between seasons, it also conditions the viewer to sit through multiple episodes. Finch said when they stack multiple episodes of a show on top of each other, they get a long length of tune in, up to four hours or longer.
Scripps also taps its hosts—the connective tissue between the viewer and a series—between seasons.
"They have huge social media followings," said Finch. "We encourage all of our talent to be very active on social, including answering fans' questions." She said on most days, at least one of their hosts will appear on a morning show.
The audiences that watch Scripps networks are particularly valuable to certain advertisers like packaged goods or the home improvement sector.
"Our endemic advertisers will pay a premium," said Finch.
(Ratings data: Nielsen Adults 18-49, prime time, Live+3)