The Economics of Producing Reality Television

Posted on: May 07, 2024

Photo Credit: Frame Stock Footage // Shutterstock

By Gabrielle Glenn

Calling reality, or unscripted television, a juggernaut would be an understatement. After the initial success of Survivor on CBS, reality TV blew up, captivating audiences with classics like The Bachelor, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and Duck Dynasty.

After the 2008 writers’ strike, networks realized they could produce unscripted TV without the unions and for less money. With more unscripted shows on the air, one can’t help but wonder who is financing these programs?

The main funding sources for unscripted shows come from partnerships, network/streamer funding and merchandising. 


As with everything else, the price of producing content has gone up, and partnerships are one way for production companies to save money on costs. This happens by allowing an outside company to provide goods and services to be used on camera for free, or at a heavily discounted rate. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race season 16 has sparkling water brand Bubly as a financial partner for the main show, as well as the spinoff, Untucked. In Untucked, the queens rehash that day’s challenge over mocktails and cocktails, so teaming up with a beverage that can be consumed with or without alcohol makes a lot of sense.  

Another example is the partnership of Drag Race with Cashapp. Cashapp supplies funding for the show, which provides cash prizes for contestants. This allows the producers to increase the show’s production value without going over their budget. 

Financial partnerships are mutually beneficial for the show, the network and for the brand. Because Drag Race is so well known, the network doesn’t have to spend money doing business with Bubly, who gets a boost from being in business with the culturally relevant, Emmy-winning show. 

Network/Streamer Funding

Nowadays, networks aim to fully own the programs they distribute, so that they control the budgets, track revenue and choose the platforms their programs will appear on. With more network financing comes more network oversight. Producers work closely with networks to cast contributors, hire above-the-line crew and navigate post-production and marketing processes. 

One example is Netflix’s Love Is Blind. Kinetic Content, the production company behind Love Is Blind, sold the show to Netflix, who now owns the show outright. In previous years, producers could hold on to at least partial show ownership, so they could partner with other platforms in other countries to license the show. However, since networks own the programs they exhibit, networks and producers are considered partners in a producing endeavor, rather than solely a financier/benefactor relationship. Given that the production company has been with the project since its inception, it benefits the network to work with them to further develop the show until it’s successfully able to stand alone as a series.


Another way unscripted shows are funded is through merchandising. While revenue is not guaranteed up front, if a very popular show offers merchandise, that is a grand way to recoup production costs and set up revenue to be reinvested for next season. In 2020, World of Wonder founders Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey teamed up with RuPaul Charles to create “House of Love” canned cocktails and mocktails. Drag Race serves as a commercial for “House of Love” products, and the cocktails and mocktails are also available in stores and bars nationwide, adding to the revenue of this Drag Race empire. 

The Importance of Staying in the Budget

Although massive, networks do not provide limitless budgets, and maintaining regular communication between department heads and line producers about spending should avoid surprises about money. Managing expectations about how much money producers have access to in order to execute visions is very important. Producers are magicians turning ideas into viral moments with limited budgets, so knowing how much flexibility there is in a budget boosts creativity. 

As you can see, there is more than one way to fund a major network or streaming reality show and I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts on the business side of reality television. If you have anything to add to this discussion, reach out to me on @budlongaveprods on X, or through email. 

Gabrielle Glenn is an unscripted TV producer and development professional.

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