Has Netflix Finally Figured Out Reality TV?

Love Is Blind, Netflix’s first high-concept dating franchise.
Love Is Blind, Netflix’s first high-concept dating franchise. Photo: Netflix

It didn’t take long for Netflix’s unscripted chief Brandon Riegg to bring The Circle to America. Days after the original version of the Big Brother–meets–Catfish reality competition debuted on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in mid-September 2018, Riegg booked himself on a Sunday night red-eye to London to observe the show’s filming firsthand and meet with executives at series producer Studio Lambert.

Knowing other American outlets were sniffing around the format, Riegg raced to make an offer by the end of that same week. The competitive hustle paid off: Shortly thereafter, Netflix closed a deal to do multiple versions of The Circle before some of its rivals even had a chance to bid for it. “I heard later that one of the U.S. broadcasters actually had somebody on route to the airport and they were told to turn around because Netflix had gotten it,” he says.

Riegg probably wouldn’t be sharing this story if The Circle hadn’t shaped up to be a major win for Netflix’s unscripted division, which has been on a tear the last few months. While the streamer’s refusal to consistently release verifiable audience data makes it impossible to assess shows based on viewership, social media metrics and anecdotal evidence suggest several of Netflix’s recent reality shows are breaking through with audiences:

• The Circle, despite its admittedly cheesy format, generated surprisingly strong reviews from critics and prompted numerous celebs (including Chrissy Teigen and Paul F. Tompkins) to kvell about it on Twitter. It’s also made minor celebrities of contestants Joey Sasso and Shubham Goel, and resulted in explosive growth for the casts’ Instagram accounts. (They now collectively boast over 1.5 million followers on the platform.)

• Docuseries Cheer, which premiered last month, has become a legit cultural phenom. The show’s stars have been all over the talk show circuit, appeared in a sketch on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and were spoofed on Saturday Night Live. And Jerry, Gabi, and Morgan each now boast 1 million or more followers on Instagram.

• Rhythm + Flow, the hip-hop competition series launched in October, won raves from critics for its authenticity and provided a major boost to the career of the show’s winner, D Smoke. His finale has racked up close to 6 million views on YouTube, and he went from 10,000 followers on Instagram before the show’s launch to 1.6 million now.

• And Love Is Blind, Netflix’s first attempt at a high-concept dating franchise, launched last week as a “three-week event,” earning aggressive coverage from outlets that typically scrutinize every frame of The Bachelor. Los Angeles Times reporter Amy Kaufman, writer of the 2018 bestseller Bachelor Nation, gave the show her blessing on Twitter: “Guys, Love Is Blind is soooo good. It’s gonna be your new Netflix obsesh,” while The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) called it “an instant classic among quickie-wedding reality shows.”

Netflix’s run of good luck on the reality show front comes two years after the Queer Eye reboot and Nailed It! first put the division on the map. Since then, the platform has unveiled dozens of new unscripted shows and specials across a wide swath of genres, part of Netflix’s overall strategy of becoming not just a digital version of a cable network but all the networks. Yet Riegg says his division is still in its infancy. “With the volume of stuff that we aspire to get up on service, we haven’t even finished what I call our phase one of the unscripted strategy,” he says, explaining that Netflix is still trying to get a feel for the kinds of shows that play best with audiences and how they want to watch them.

That means trying out formats that might not get a chance on a linear network (like a show about glassblowing), striking deals with unconventional hosts (Marie Kondo), and attempting multiple shows in a given area (like magic or food) before knowing whether Netflix audiences are interested in the genre at all. “Part of the goal is, we’re trying to provide something for everyone,” Riegg says. “And unscripted is probably the broadest content genre that’s out there, right? It’s everything from game shows to docuseries to these big competition formats. We’re working hard to get all of that covered and do the best shows in those various categories.”

Netflix unscripted may also be thriving because its shows tend to stand out from so much of what’s on cable and broadcast. Queer Eye, with its almost cinematic production values and feel-good vibe, helped establish a template for many of the projects that have followed. The lack of commercial interruptions means producers can tell stories more organically, without having to build to a break or constantly repeat story beats for viewers. Similarly, there are no censors forcing shows to bleep out four-letter words, making Netflix reality shows feel more, well, real.

And while producers say Netflix doesn’t generally spend outrageous sums of money on shows, its budgets allow them to avoid the cost-cutting compromises that make basic cable reality efforts look so cheap. “They’ve made the business better in that they’ve inspired us to raise our game, [to] try to do something bigger and better with our shows,” one veteran producer who’s worked with the service says, adding execs at Netflix push producers to “reach for something more, stylistically and editorially.” Riegg says that’s by design, pointing to the “flexibility that we have in terms of not being constrained by runtime, not having ad breaks, not even having episode count restrictions. We strive to make the best version of the show, and I think that comes across on the screen.”

In addition to experimenting with genres and storytelling techniques, Netflix has recently been playing with release patterns for its unscripted shows. Eschewing the platform’s usual all-episodes-at-once rule, Rhythm + Flow, The Circle, and Love Is Blind have all dropped episodes in batches over the course of three weeks. In theory, this gives Netflix’s publicity and marketing machine (as well as The Algorithm) more time to funnel viewers into the shows, while also helping to build social media chatter. Riegg says it’s a “judgment call” which Netflix unscripted projects get the multi-week release strategy, noting that Cheer and the recent Next in Fashion competition series premiered all their episodes on the same day. “It’s not that one way is better than the other,” he says. “It’s more about customizing it, depending on the show.”

All this trial and error inevitably leads to some failures, even if Netflix execs rarely use the F-word. So, while the service has had more than its share of reality “hits,” the sheer volume of its unscripted output obscures the fact that plenty of shows have also just faded away. The ambitious musical docudrama Westside had a few minutes of buzz before its October 2018 premiere, and then vanished a few weeks later. Jimmy Carr’s attempt to bring the U.K. celeb panel show format to streaming with The Fix fizzled after one quick season (though he’s since done stand-up specials for Netflix). Riegg, who joined Netflix from NBCUniversal in 2016 and has run the unscripted unit on a day-to-day basis since 2018, says there are no overarching lessons to be drawn from the hits and misses of the platform’s stepped-up push into unscripted programming, at least not yet. “It’s really not a question of what has or hasn’t worked,” he says. “We’ve had a wide range of shows that have worked, and a lot of that success reflects that our members just have diverse tastes and interests. We’re still working on making sure that we cover all the different categories.”

Riegg concedes that there is one category that has proven to be more difficult than he might have hoped: talk shows. While David Letterman, Hasan Minhaj, and Jerry Seinfeld still have programs on the service, Netflix has made multiple other attempts at talkers that went nowhere, despite hosts such as Michelle Wolf, Norm Macdonald, Chelsea Handler, and Joel McHale. “The timeliness of the talk genre has been a challenge for us, especially for shows that are of-the-moment or have a short shelf life,” he says. “It’s a different viewing habit compared to what Netflix members usually expect from us as an on-demand service.” Riegg adds that streaming is still “a new frontier” for talk shows and that the three remaining shows on the platform possess “distinct and original styles that are thoughtful and topical but have longer shelf lives than traditional linear shows.” And of course, even linear networks have struggled with talk of late: Viewers under 50 have fled the big three’s nightly shows, while Comedy Central and E! have both had high-profile failures in the genre in recent years.

As for what’s next for Netflix unscripted, the overarching theme will continue to be … more. The next few weeks will see the debut of docuseries Babies (February 21), the food-themed Restaurants on the Edge (February 28), and social experiment 100 Humans (March 13) as well as the Brazilian version of The Circle (March 11). There’ll also be new seasons of Ugly Delicious and Car Masters, though some reality producers are starting to ask if Netflix will keep successful unscripted franchises going for years the way cable and broadcast networks do. The service has made it clear that it favors spending money on new ideas over keeping projects alive for more than three or four seasons, since fresher fare tends to drive new subscription signups. “People have said, true or not, that in scripted Netflix has no incentive to make ten seasons of a show. There is no reason to do so creatively or financially,” one top unscripted producer says. “Is that going to be true in unscripted? If I make a basic cable hit, the goal is to maximize the rating for as long as possible … the network will generally want as much of that show as possible. At Netflix, I’m not sure anyone is sure of the model for success.”

While agreeing his broadcast and cable peers “have different demands on them” and are more likely to supersize episode counts for successful shows, Riegg hints that Netflix unscripted might also keep its biggest reality shows alive for awhile. “If you look at the history of TV, some of the longest running shows are unscripted shows,” he says. “What’s unique in this space is, every season of Big Brother or Survivor or America’s Got Talent, it’s like a new start. So there’s no reason not to think that Queer Eye or Nailed It! or The Circle or any of these shows couldn’t go on for many, many seasons.”

Has Netflix Finally Figured Out Reality TV?