7 JUN 2023

Would unscripted TV keep viewers engaged during the writers’ strike?

Viewers pay more attention to what is on screen when they are watching scripted dramas or comedies versus unscripted programs like reality or game shows, according to Morning Consult.

7 JUN 2023


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The Hollywood writers’ strike has put many 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.

However, studios cannot afford to have their programming output favor reality TV too much. New Morning Consult data shows that viewers pay more attention to what is on screen when they are 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,”  said Kevin Tran, Media & Entertainment Analyst at Morning Consult and the author of the report.


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 is sliced – among all US adults, streaming subscribers or linear TV viewers – people say they pay more attention to scripted shows than unscripted content.


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 have not panned out is not completely unfounded, the report noted.

Morning Consult’s data discourages this approach, as it disincentivizes the intentional viewing that is 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.

According to Tran, 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 (for example, not second-screening), a higher share than all adults (28%) and much higher than Millennials (22%).


Morning Consult’s data 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) will not 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.


As the writers’ strike drags on, Morning Consult noted that 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.

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

“Opportunities to nab titles of this caliber may be limited, but it is 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,”  Kevin Tran commented.

“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 did not exist (for example, 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,”  he concluded.