How Netflix Is Breathing New Life Into Reality TV

The streamer seems more committed to unscripted than ever, and it's paying dividends.
  • Tan France and Alexa Chung in Netflix's Next in Fashion, premiering Wednesday January 29th. (Photo:Netflix)
    Tan France and Alexa Chung in Netflix's Next in Fashion, premiering Wednesday January 29th. (Photo:Netflix)

    Netflix’s journey to streaming giant began with a library of older shows and movies. Then came the original productions like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black and the high-profile revivals of shows like Arrested Development and Gilmore Girls. Today the streaming service offers an assortment of original shows and movies that any premium cable network would salivate to have.

    But there's one genre that never seemed to be a high priority for Netflix: unscripted. Sure, there have been great docuseries like Wild Wild Country and The Keepers, and one-off game show-style reality series like baking shows Sugar Rush and Nailed It!, but those have felt like a different beast -- cheap, easy to produce content to add to the service, not fully fleshed out competition series like those that have become the bread and butter of network television over the last two decades. 

    For a while, Queer Eye seemed poised to become the streamer's reality tentpole, but that series’ moment seems to have come and gone -- none of its three seasons released in 2019 made it onto Netflix’s top 10 most-watched unscripted series of the year (one season of Nailed It! and two seasons of Sugar Rush did). Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the show that demonstrated how Netflix could truly be a reality powerhouse was also a baking show: The Great British Baking Show.

    After previously dropping entire seasons of GBBS here in the US long after they originally aired in the UK, this past season Netflix switched things up and began dropping individual episodes of the series on a weekly basis just a few days after UK audiences saw them. As my colleague Joe Reid wrote at the time, the new release schedule ended up being a game-changer, proving that the streamer could run a reality competition series like the networks do and still attract an audience.

    That success, coupled with the cult hit glassblowing competition Blown Away,and the key pickup of the Boulet Brothers’ drag horror contest Dragula, gave Netflix an impressive portfolio of  buzzy reality series by the end of 2019. But we had no idea just how much the streamer was about to turn up the heat. In just the last month, Netflix has released two reality series that have become genuine phenomena, with a third is on the way that hopes to do the same.

    The Circle and Cheer, in theory, couldn’t be more different. One was billed as a social experiment released in four-episode chunks over the course of three weeks, while the other was a docu-series that many fans binge-watched in no time. But their impact has been roughly the same. They’ve made social media stars out of their participants, prompted think pieces from cultural commentators, and affirmed that unscripted TV, no matter its format, has a place on Netflix.

    Then there’s Next in Fashion, the Tan France and Alexa Chung-hosted fashion competition series that borrows liberally from Project Runway, but promises to improve upon that workhorse reality series in new and interesting ways. Like The Circle, Next in Fashion carries its cast through the whole season, allowing viewers to develop bonds with them. I wound up bingeing the entire season of screeners (10 episodes) over two nights, and I can imagine others will do the same. It’s remarkably watchable — and, to its credit features far more fashion world notables than the current season of Project Runway.

    Who knows whether this upswing in Netflix’s unscripted output can remain this consistent moving forward, but January 2020 has been an exceptional month in the genre for the streamer. New seasons of The Circle are all but a sure thing, while Next in Fashion, if it's a  hit, could easily be expanded into other spinoffs. This success should come as a comfort not just to Netflix, but to all streaming services: reality (including even competition series) really can work online. Here's hoping this discovery leads to more new and addictive pleasures.

    Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.

    TOPICS: Netflix, Blown Away, Cheer, The Circle, The Great British Baking Show, Next in Fashion, Queer Eye, Reality TV