Why Unscripted TV Wouldn't Keep Viewers Engaged During a Prolonged Writers Strike

Media & entertainment analyst Kevin Tran unpacks how consumers are more likely to be using another device while watching unscripted shows versus scripted content
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Anna Davis
June 06, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • As the writers strike pauses scripted content production, Hollywood has to rely on unscripted genres like reality and game shows to fill programming needs.

  • But consumers are much more likely to be second-screening when watching reality TV than they are when viewing scripted shows.

  • Media companies must remember this as they aim to keep new programming coming while also convincing brands to spend on ads in a challenged market.

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The Hollywood writers strike has put many of the town’s prominent scripted productions on ice.

In response, studios are leaning more on unscripted content like reality, news and sports, as well as stockpiled scripted shows, as the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents the studios) work toward a new contract. More than half of the fall prime-time programming major networks announced for 2023 was unscripted content, up from 38% in 2022, per Variety Intelligence Platform. Meanwhile, The CW’s head of unscripted programming recently said TV networks and video streaming services are expanding orders of established reality shows.

But studios can’t afford to have their programming output favor reality TV too much: New Morning Consult data shows that viewers pay more attention to what’s on screen when they’re watching scripted dramas or comedies versus unscripted programs like reality or game shows. As traditional TV networks and video streaming platforms both look to increase ad revenue in the months ahead, attentive viewers are key to driving results for brands. 

This means not completely ignoring opportunities to fill programming gaps with popular licensed sitcoms. It also means not neglecting chances to further program traditional TV networks with already produced scripted programs, either from other networks or from streaming platforms within a company’s portfolio. 

Consumers say scripted drama and comedy warrant more attention than reality TV and game shows

Morning Consult’s data quantifies long-held assumptions about the nature of TV viewing: Watching scripted dramas like “Yellowstone” or comedies like “Abbott Elementary” is more of an intentional activity than viewing unscripted titles like “Real Housewives” or “Survivor.” 

For example, 51% of adults said they prefer to watch dramas with undivided attention, but that figure was lower for comedies (41%) and much lower for game shows (33%) and reality TV programs (25%). No matter how it’s sliced — among all U.S. adults, streaming subscribers or linear TV viewers — people say they pay more attention to scripted shows than unscripted content.

Reality TV Consumption Isn’t Engaged Viewing

Shares of respondents who said they prefer watching each TV genre with undivided attention:
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Respondents were given examples of each TV genre, such as “Yellowstone” for drama and “The Mandalorian” for action.
Survey conducted May 12-14, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,207 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. “Traditional TV viewers” refers to those who watched TV using a cable or satellite subscription at least once in the past month.

Unscripted content can help keep viewers from tuning out after they watch prestige programming. Additionally, many consumers might not even notice the impacts of the WGA strike until 2024, even if it continues into the fall. But the idea that studios could use the strike as an excuse to pivot away from pricey scripted originals from creator deals that haven’t panned out isn’t completely unfounded. 

Our data discourages this approach, as it disincentivizes the intentional viewing that’s ideal for driving results from ad campaigns that air on TV channels and streaming platforms. After all, intentional viewers will be more likely than disengaged ones to notice the ads that play in between programming.

Companies should know that intentional TV viewing is a habit that extends to even the youngest adults: 34% of Gen Z adults said they most often watch TV with undivided attention (i.e., not second-screening), a higher share than all adults (28%) and much higher than millennials (22%).

Gen Z TV Viewers Aren’t as Distracted as You Might Think

Shares of respondents who said they most often watch TV with undivided attention
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Survey conducted May 12-14, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,207 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

This combats the notion that Gen Z is a uniquely distracted generation — and signals to executives that incorporating novel second-screen elements (such as being able to scan an on-screen QR code to get an exclusive backstory on a character) won’t necessarily be a foolproof way for a show to make inroads with the cohort. 

The high share of Gen Zers who watch TV undistracted probably has to do with the fact that they generally have fewer obligations than older consumers do. For example, millennials and Gen Xers are more likely to be parents or executives and therefore might have more difficulty watching TV totally uninterrupted.

Previously aired scripted TV provides a meaningful path forward for networks and streamers 

As the writers strike drags on, an advisable strategy is to disperse series on other platforms — whether TV channels or streaming services — beyond their original homes.

This could lead to an acceleration of the trend of streaming originals airing on linear TV networks. We’ve already seen Disney air the Hulu original “How I Met Your Father” on its Freeform cable channel as part of its bid to boost streaming profitability. This would also mirror how CBS aired episodes of Showtime’s “Dexter” during the last writer’s strike.

Meanwhile, classic TV programs also represent a compelling way to offer streaming viewers programming options they previously didn’t have. Ideally, streamers could license long-running shows like “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” which drive massive viewing hours because of how widely beloved they are: More than a third of adults said they have a “very favorable” opinion of “Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Law & Order.”

Consumers Favor “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” Over Other TV Classics

Shares of respondents who said they had a “very favorable” opinion of each TV series:
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Survey conducted May 12-14, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,207 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Opportunities to nab titles of this caliber may be limited, but it’s still worth it for programming executives to start looking at the options since some shows are already in the latter half of five-year licensing deals. For example, the five-year deals for “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” began on Max in 2020, suggesting that talks for those properties will start to heat up over the next year. 

Additionally, while companies are incentivized to keep crown jewels like these for their own platforms, the current “less is more” mindset in the streaming wars is surely opening up more nonexclusive licensing opportunities that previously didn’t exist (e.g., both Netflix and Peacock eventually might simultaneously offer “The Office” in the United States). This means there are likely some overlooked opportunities to bulk up streaming platforms via classic sitcoms.

A headshot photograph of Kevin Tran
Kevin Tran
Senior Media & Entertainment Analyst

Kevin Tran previously worked at Morning Consult as the senior media & entertainment analyst.

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