Netflix's unscripted boss explains the strategy that's led to a string of reality-TV hits like 'Cheer' and 'Love Is Blind' - and his next big bet
- Netflix content exec Brandon Riegg is leading the streaming service's rise in reality TV.
- His strategy is two-fold: Find a few projects in every genre in the unscripted category - which can span food, competition, dating, auto, home makeover, docuseries, and more - and push producers to bring something new to the table, like compelling formats or subject matters.
- He's also experimenting with staggered release schedules for reality series that have elimination rounds and other overarching narratives.
- Netflix has landed a few recent unscripted hits including "Cheer," "The Circle," and "Love Is Blind."
- Riegg said the company's next big push with be into home-renovation programming.
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For the past three years, Netflix content exec Brandon Riegg has been gradually architecting the streaming service's rise in reality TV. Now the company is hitting its stride after rolling out unscripted hit after hit, including docuseries "Cheer," competition show "The Circle," and dating series "Love Is Blind."
Riegg, vice president of nonfiction series and comedy specials at Netflix, is a reality-TV veteran who developed mega hits like "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent" for NBC and "Dancing With the Stars" and "Wipeout" at ABC before joining Netflix in 2016.
He spoke with Business Insider about his strategy to make a name for Netflix in the reality-TV space.
Riegg is encouraging his content-development team and their production partners to take shots all over the unscripted category - from home-improvement shows to dating competitions - as the streaming company works to find its footing in reality TV.
"We're never going to be 100% one category or another, which is what you see with a lot of cable networks," Riegg said. "It really was tackling the challenge of coming up with programming that would cater to all different types of tastes and moods and categories."
Riegg is pushing his team to try many angles in the unscripted category
Some of Netflix's first big unscripted hits were true-crime docuseries like "Making a Murderer" and food shows like "Chef's Table."
Since Riegg joined the company in 2016 to develop alternative programming, he's helped the push to explore other sides of unscripted TV, like dating and competition shows.
The strategy is two-fold: Try a few projects in each category across the unscripted landscape - which can span food, competition, dating, auto, home makeover, docuseries, and more - and push producers to bring something new to those genres, like a compelling format or subject matter.
"Unscripted really is the broadest content category that's out there because it involves docs and format and makeover and all those types of shows," Riegg said. "We are trying to service all those different tastes and needs and appetites."
Take the music competition series, "Rhythm + Flow." Where most music competitions like "The Voice" or "American Idol" focus on pop, "Rhythm + Flow" centers on hip-hop, which surpassed rock as the most-popular music genre in the US in 2017. Artist John Legend and TV producer Jeff Gaspin brought that series to Netflix, Riegg said. They incorporated aspects of hip-hop culture like rap battles and cyphers, and held auditions at well-known music venues like S.O.B's in New York.
"They said, 'this is an opportunity for us to tap into a music genre that hasn't been represented accurately and faithfully on TV to date,'" Riegg said. "And they wanted to take a real swing in that space."
Riegg said the creators of "Love Is Blind," Netflix's first big dating show, won him over with their format, which aspired to get contestants to value each other for who they were, rather than appearance, wealth, or status.
The success of "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" also encouraged Riegg to experiment with reality series from different countries that could be created or adapted for global audiences, such as "The Circle," a UK show that Netflix acquired and made US and Brazilian versions of.
"['Tidying Up with Marie Kondo'] is one that a lot of us joke none of us would have been empowered to buy at our old places ... between the language barrier, the cultural barrier," Riegg said of the show about a Japanese organizational expert who helps Americans declutter their lives. "She was sort of a global phenomenon and it made sense on a global platform to find a show to put around her."
Riegg is trying out different release models for each show
Riegg is also experimenting with the way Netflix rolls out its unscripted programming.
The streaming company's first few reality series, like "Queer Eye" and "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo," followed the typical Netflix approach of releasing seasons all at once or in half batches spread out over a few months.
With "Rhythm + Flow," Riegg started staggering the release schedule. The 10-episode season rolled out over three weeks, in three- to four-episode batches, that allowed viewers to binge, and still have a collective conversation about the show online.
"There was a difference in what people were talking about on social media and even what the press was discussing," Riegg said. "They ended up being able to talk about specific moments in time because of the way that the show was released essentially kept everybody in within the same timeline."
He's used similar release strategies for other competition shows since, including "The Circle," and "Love Is Blind."
Riegg said release schedules will continue to vary by show. "Cheer" rolled out all at once. But the staggered model has made sense for reality series the have multiple arches within one season, eliminations, or opportunities for fans to weigh in, like "The Circle."
Netflix's next big unscripted push will be around home renovation
Having tackled food, docs, music, and dating, among other genres, Reigg said Netflix's next big push in the unscripted TV will be in the home-renovation space.
The streaming company is developing a few home-renovation and property shows that will be released in the coming year, Riegg said. The shows will have different approaches and formats to see what hits with audiences.
Riegg said it can take a year or two to find one's footing in a new unscripted category.
"It takes a minute to find the idea that we really respond to," Riegg said. "It was similar to dating and relationships shows."
One category Netflix still hasn't nailed is game shows.
"It depends on what is percolating amongst the creative community," Riegg said. "We haven't seen a ton of those pitches, but I think we're always on the lookout for that."
But Riegg has noticed one trend across the unscripted space: Netflix's global audience tends to embrace reality series that are more aspirational and positive tone, such as "Queer Eye" and "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo," which were both about improving people's lives, and the uplifting cheerleading show, "Cheer."
"By and large, things that feel positive and aspirational and optimistic have been embraced globally across a lot of our unscripted fare," Riegg said. "We saw that approach and that tone really resonate with viewers, and so, as we've grown the slate, that's always been something we've kept in mind."
For more on Netflix's business, see our coverage on BI Prime:
- Netflix salary data reveals how much it paid for more than 30 roles across teams like marketing, product, and finance last year: Netflix says it pays its employees at the top each worker's "personal market," which means high performers in in-demand fields may see their pay rise faster than others.
- Netflix insiders share how they feel about its internal 'postmortem' emails that detail why employees were fired to their coworkers: After firing an employee, Netflix explains its reasons for letting the person go in an internal "postmortem" email.
- We identified the 54 most powerful people at Netflix. Here's our exclusive chart of its top executives and their roles.: They include influential execs like Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, as well as some less familiar names, like Rochelle King, the vice president of creative production.
- Exactly what it takes to get a job at Netflix, according to its head of hiring, former employees, and recruiting experts: Insiders share their best tips for navigating the hiring process, from how to prep for an interview to what to do if you don't get the job.
- Netflix's recruiting boss reveals the team the company is staffing up the most in 2020: Netflix's creative-production team will be its biggest hiring priority.
Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider's parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.
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