Corie Henson & Rachel Smith on NBCU’s Unscripted Strategy


Day one of the TV Real Festival wrapped with NBCUniversal Entertainment’s Corie Henson and Rachel Smith discussing the group’s strategy for game shows, lifestyle and docs.

TV Real’s Kristin Brzoznowski moderated the session with Henson, executive VP of unscripted content, competition and game shows; and Smith, executive VP of unscripted content, lifestyle and documentaries, which you can view here.

In the formatted entertainment space, “the focus is primarily on finding really interesting IP that we can mine in clever ways—whether that’s taking something that you’re already familiar with and giving it a fresh spin like we did with Deal or No Deal Island or identifying a format in its nascent stages in another territory like we did with The Traitors and hopefully soon Destination X and building that out for an American audience,” Henson said. “We’re being really selective. Not just because of the current climate but because we have a lot of programming that’s already working. So, in a lot of cases, we’re looking to expand on that.”

At Peacock in particular, Henson highlighted the need for “soapy, engaging stories that have pull-through and will really carry you through from episode to episode, like Love Island or The Traitors.”

In lifestyle and true crime, similarly, Smith noted, “We’re looking for ways to selectively super-serve those audiences with choices that are undeniable and urgent and self-marketing as much as we can. That does often involve leaning into our known IP. So much of what I develop around in the lifestyle lane is for Bravo. Time and time again, we’re told we have to have the right mix of humor and the Bravo wink and earned drama that comes with investing in characters and understanding their nuances and unexpected moments, meme-able moments and arced storytelling. That could be an occu-soap, a docusoap, a social experiment, a game show. For true crime, we’re looking for really big swings, high IP and a new way to attack that story—whether there’s new archival material, an update in the legal proceedings, a never-been-seen interview. Some new way to frame a familiar case is often the way we enter it.”

Despite NBCU’s treasure trove of owned IP, the company is still in the market for breakout new ideas. “I’m more than happy to snap up a paper format and have ownership with that producer and build something out together and then take it out to the world together because we have a really strong distribution business,” Henson explained.

The Traitors is among the international formats that have been snapped up by NBCUniversal. It has become a breakout hit for Peacock. On what’s driving the success of that brand, Henson noted: “It’s everything from the location to [host Alan Cumming’s] wardrobe. There’s amazing play-along. The first season was part civilian, part celebrity, and there was an interesting dynamic that was created between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Creating the celebrity cast really took it to another level [in season two]. It’s just a really clever format. It has a spontaneous format, so it doesn’t have that regular cadence of challenge, challenge, elimination. There’s a little bit of fatigue there. In this, there are murders and roundtables; it’s always keeping you on your feet. It’s really immersive; you feel like you’re there. It’s aspirational; you want to be there. I’m desperate to do a civilian version. Every fan I talk to is like, Oh, I want to play! To me, whether that’s wanting to run the Ninja Warrior course or audition for America’s Got Talent, all of our shows have to have that bit of aspiration to them.”

Brzoznowski then asked about finding projects that will cut through in the crowded true-crime space. Smith referenced the success of Peacock’s Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies. “It’s these high-IP cases where you can come in with something fresh and new to say. Then there’s the undeniably bonkers, crazy stories that aren’t necessarily high IP,” such as a series on con artist and writer Elisabeth Finch. “That’s not the most well-known case, but there’s something undeniable about the twists and turns in the storytelling.”

On what she’d like to see more of in the non-scripted landscape at present, Henson said she’s keen to “hear some new voices in the mix. Particular genres are due for a refresh. I’d love to see a modernization of the studio game and what that would mean. I would love the emphasis to be on creativity and taking big swings. We all still have budget constraints and mandates that we’re following, but I would love for everyone to be able to take a breath and stretch their wings a little bit more within the invisible rails that we have to give from the commissioner seat.”

Smith concurred, noting, “We are in quite a risk-averse moment. It’s a crowded landscape. There are economic imperatives. When you get too focused on that, it can kill the creativity. You have to take risks. You can’t anticipate what the next thing is going to be. You’ve got to be open, excited and curious. So, I agree with Corie: Take some risks. Zag where everyone’s zigging. I’m actually looking forward to a time when it doesn’t have to be [known] IP, and we can take a chance on something new. With all this proliferation of content, the standards are so high. The storytelling has to be excellent. That’s good for everybody.”