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The rise of unscripted TV could be good for advertisers

TV screen shows various images including people saying cheers with champagne glasses.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

This year’s Emmy Awards came and went, and so did some of the most memorable TV series in recent history: Succession, Ted Lasso, The Crown, and Never Have I Ever, among others, have all ended their runs.

It may be a while before we see such a crop of engrossing television again, considering streamers have been forced to tighten their investment in originals over the past year. The end of Peak TV, however, is triggering the rise of unscripted TV, and that could be a good thing for both platforms and advertisers in the age of ad-supported streaming.

The volume of scripted titles announced in 2023 declined by 19% compared to the previous year, according to Olivia Deane, senior analyst at Ampere Analysis. Meanwhile, unscripted titles as a whole declined by 12%, and reality titles suffered even less, dropping by just 10%.

“As a result, unscripted titles, while declining in volume, represent an increasing proportion of announced titles,” says Deane.

The medium as the message

For streamers, unscripted content can offer a relatively low-cost way to keep audiences engaged for a prolonged period, as opposed to buzzy scripted series that are greeted with fanfare upon release but sometimes drop off in viewership soon after.

“Unscripted in theory is ‘live’, and live eyeballs are stickier than non-live,” says Douglas Montgomery, senior analyst at Aluma Insights. “Contest-izing these shows also helps, as the viewer is incentivized to watch live, so the result is not spoiled.”

For advertisers, this translates to shows that can be more conducive to carrying commercial messages. Advertisers’ and streamers’ recent push into shoppable TV ads, which allow viewers to shop for products they see on screen, also syncs up well with the increasing prominence of unscripted shows.

“The cheesy nature of [some shows] allows for the shoppable component more easily than some serious shows like Game of Thrones,” says Montgomery.

Disney, NBCUniversal and Paramount have all introduced shoppable TV ad formats in recent months, pairing them with unscripted programs like Below Deck: Mediterranean and Australian Survivor.

“As audiences continue to fragment, a corresponding ability to target them gives advertisers a better chance to use a rifle and not a shotgun. This, of course, is tailor-made for streamers with all that data,” says Montgomery.

More ads, better ads

The relative increase of ad-friendly unscripted titles could add to the growth of connected TV (CTV) ad spend, which in the U.S. is already projected to shoot up to $42.44 billion in 2027 from $24.60 billion in 2023, a 72% rise.

Marketers are already grappling with the fact that more ads are popping up on more screens. Some say that’s an opportunity to figure out how ads can enhance, not hinder, the viewing experience.

For example, Jon Giegengack, founder and principal at Hub Entertainment Research, says that Hub’s research on Discovery+ with ads showed an interesting dynamic: while people were most likely to say the platform had more ads than others they watched, they were also most likely to say the number of ads was “reasonable.”

This seemingly paradoxical relationship could be explained by the fact that Discovery’s unscripted channels, like HGTV, Travel Channel or Food Network, usually share ads that are relevant to the shows themselves, reasons Giegengack.

“They feel like less of an interruption, and maybe even improve the viewing experience,” he says.