TV Real: 2016 Year in Review

Kristin Brzoznowski recaps some of the headline-making stories that defined the year in factual programming.

Perhaps 2016 will best be remembered as the year that a reality-TV star won the White House. As former host of The Apprentice Donald Trump prepares to take office as the 45th president of the United States, NBC has brought back The Celebrity Apprentice, this time with Arnold Schwarzenegger heading up the boardroom—and Trump retaining an executive-producing credit on the show. Truth, indeed, is often stranger than fiction…

Trump’s rise from reality star to President-elect was just one of the headline-making stories that defined the year in television, and there was plenty of controversy to come out of the unscripted genre. The executive producers of the hit A&E show Duck Dynasty are currently embroiled in a spat with ITV Studios, with a lawsuit that involves claims of fraud, self-dealing and breach of contract. A&E recently decided to pull out of its upcoming docuseries exploring the KKK, though the network says the decision was not due to backlash but rather news that the third-party producers who made the documentary may have given cash payments to some participants in order to facilitate access. A lawsuit is also pending around the documentary miniseries The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, which aired on CBS this fall. Burke Ramsey, JonBenét’s brother, is suing the network, a production company and a host of contributors behind the project, as he claims the program falsely accused him of murdering his sister.

There was a spate of docs and minis revisiting the case of the slain child beauty queen, as 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the tragic event. Trump’s political campaign, and subsequent election, sparked a wave of interest for documentaries about the billionaire real-estate mogul and his potential agenda, among them Michael Moore in TrumpLand. Plenty of other news headlines made their way into the docu sphere as well. HBO is currently working on a multi-part documentary about the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who passed away in June. The passing of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds has prompted HBO to move up the airing of its documentary Bright Lights, about the daughter and mother. The Pokémon GO phenomenon that captivated the gaming community last year is being looked at in-depth in a new Fuji TV documentary. The U.K.’s Channel 5 is taking a closer look at the hot-button topic of immigration in a new factual piece—and the list goes on and on.

The year saw the BBC bid farewell to its hit factual-entertainment series The Great British Bake Off. Channel 4 will become the new home of the successful competition show, after having signed a three-year agreement with the producers. The BBC’s popular motoring show Top Gear has certainly seen its fair share of controversy, starting with the firing of host Jeremy Clarkson in 2015. The series returned with a new presenting lineup last year, which included Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc. While it’s confirmed that the former Friends star will be back to host the show in 2017, Evans is bowing out. Clarkson and his former Top Gear mates Richard Hammond and James May launched their brand-new series, The Grand Tour, which became the biggest show premiere ever on Amazon Prime Video. The trio also partnered to launch DriveTribe, a digital platform dedicated to motoring, which was backed by 21st Century Fox.

The success of The Grand Tour on Amazon is but one example of how streaming and on-demand platforms are exerting their force in the factual-programming landscape. Netflix has made massive inroads with the genre and plans to keep the momentum going. The streaming platform is gearing up for the first-ever global on-demand competition series, Ultimate Beastmaster; a talk show with famed scientist/engineer/comedian/inventor Bill Nye; and more episodes of the true-crime sensation Making a Murderer. Hulu used the release of Ron Howard’s doc The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years as a springboard to launch its new original documentary division. Apple, too, is getting into the game, lining up the unscripted competition series Planet of the Apps.

The Chinese video platform Tencent served as a co-production partner for the BBC’s landmark natural-history series Planet Earth II. The six-parter became available to stream in China at the same time as its U.K. debut, and 2017 will see a U.S. launch for the series on BBC America and in many other markets globally. Narrated by David Attenborough, Planet Earth II was shot in Ultra HD and made use of the latest camera stabilization, remote recording and aerial drone technology. It also has a companion augmented-reality experience for viewers to engage with the program on a more immersive level.

New filming technologies like those used in Planet Earth II, along with innovations in augmented reality and virtual reality, are certainly helping to evolve the documentary genre and no doubt will continue to do so. Last year, Discovery Digital Networks unveiled Seeker VR, a virtual-reality and 360-degree content offering. Sports Illustrated and Endemol Shine Beyond USA have partnered on a virtual-reality doc series that follows the journey of four climbers during their 2016 summit of Mt. Everest. The BBC revealed plans for its move into the virtual-reality space, posting several in-the-works projects to the experimental-ideas platform BBC Taster.

As the take-up of 4K TVs becomes more widespread, look for producers to step up their prowess in this space. Many have already set their sights on the next frontier: 8K. NHK, for example, last year created an 8K program with France’s The Louvre museum, marking the first international co-production to be filmed entirely in 8K.

TV Real will continue to chart the latest developments in the factual-programming arena, so be sure to sign up for TV Real Weekly and visit