Evergreen Content: What I Learned From Reality TV

Everyone has an idea for a TV show. I have lots of them. So do you, even if you’ve never told anyone.

But what makes a hit show?

The cable channel HISTORY has a great record of success because it knows its audience incredibly well, and knows how to tell a powerful story. The cable network forged its formula with hits like “Ice Road Truckers” and “Pawn Stars,” blending information with entertainment and introducing larger-than-life characters from forgotten corners of America.

As Executive Producer at HISTORY, John Verhoff has developed and run a slate of shows from “American Restoration to Hanger 1: The UFO Files.” (Please note: “It’s factual programming,” says John. “Don’t call it reality TV.”) And he gets lots of pitches for new shows. So how does he pick potential hits from the slush pile? What key elements underpin a hit show? What are the building blocks of creativity?

Here’s what John says makes a successful HISTORY series—and what you can learn from it when developing lasting content.

Sustainable Stories

“Anyone can do episodes 1 and 2—but is there a 10? Is there a bigger story that’s going to hold up over multiple episodes? The core is telling a good story, a yarn that entertains, informs and surprises.”

What you can do: Develop content franchises with repeatable, sustainable formulas. Every episode or piece of content needs to tell a story, but the overall series needs a bigger connective arc too.

Big Surprises

“You start with a great campfire story, you hook your audience, and then you can take them everywhere you want. A great show has to intrigue you and make you ask questions. Could it be time travel instead of UFOs? You may never get answers, but you leave the door open.”

What you can do: Creatives love the phrase “surprise and delight” and it’s truly essential to bring something new to the table every time.

Powerful Characters

“Early in my career I worked with Regis Philbin and Nancy Grace. Not everyone loved them, but you’d never forget them. For HISTORY I want characters with a sense of danger and the unknown—but also someone you’d want to have a beer with.”

What you can do: Feature people your audience can identify with. Real people with real stories resonate far more than a set of product specs.

Brand-Friendliness

“Our target demographic is 25 to 54, and 60% to 65% male. We’re not going to do a show on weddings. We’re looking for shows that are aspirational to our audience.”

What you can do: Personas are created for a reason! Know your audience and create content tailored to their wants and needs. Know how old they are, where they live, where they are in the purchase cycle.

Real Takeaways

“For us, a show has to be informative. If you’re watching a show about survival, the takeaway might be learning how to start a fire. If you’re watching a show about UFOs, it might be simply be giving you permission to believe.”

What you can do: Make content with a clearly defined takeaway for your audience, whether that’s tangible, usable information or an emotional reward that validates their beliefs and builds loyalty.

So do these guidelines apply to all platforms? “I have a sign hanging over my desk,” John answered. “It says, ‘technology changes, people don’t.’ At the end of the day we consume content on different platforms, but the core of telling a good story always stays the same.”

By Gordon Bass