Business model for History Channel type reality shows

I’m interested in the sorts of show that the History Channel [among others] presents - unorthodox / maverick / alternative / marginally credible ideas being pursued by self-confessed outsiders / mavericks / non-professionals. Examples would include Curse of Oak Island, Ancient Aliens, History’s Mysteries, plus some others from this wiki list.

My question is where is the flow of money and resources between the channel, the production company and the maverick / talent? Is the talent providing content and being paid or just being filmed and accruing any free publicity that may arise? I’ve heard reality TV represents cheap TV, but is this true? What would be the average costs and outlays for such programs, and who gains and stands to benefit by making them?

Lots of sub-questions but essentially looking for factual building blocks to understand how this beast works.

Short answer, the TV networks buy the show from a Production company that made it. Sometimes shows are commissioned by a network, like the Netflix originals. Sometimes a production company will produce a pilot and then go shopping around looking for a network to sell the show to. And generally sales are per country, so the production company will be looking to sell the show overseas to different networks there as well.

Why does the network pay for the show? Either to collect the ad revenue if it’s free to air, or because they are paid a cut of cable subscription fees for having a channel full of content, or some combination of the two. Yes reality TV is “cheap” but that’s relatively cheap, it means the costs are probably around $50,000-$150,000 per one hour episode. On the other hand drama would be more likely to cost $250,000 and up per episode, with huge budget shows like Game of Thrones reportedly costing $4 million per episode.

My understanding is that all entertainment business models are the same, in a basic way. Person A is willing to pay person B to perform, present, etc, while persons C-Z “pay” to watch, either directly or indirectly.

And the thing about so-called reality shows being cheap to produce, as compared to other kinds of shows, and why they exploded onto the airwaves as they did, was because producers/presenters wanted to cut costs, and “reality” doesn’t require high paid script writers, costume designers, set designers, or “talent.”. Just the concept people, camera operators, and editors.

Not quite that simple… reality TV still has stylists, makeup, often lighting crews if they shoot inside at all and yes even directors. Even though the director is not working off a script they are still directing the camera crews etc on what to focus on. And yes there may not be a fixed script but there will be plenty of producers who create scenarios for the participants or push things to create conflict where there wouldn’t be otherwise.

And as for the editing… it’s a HUGE and expensive job. Because you want to cover everything in case you miss some spontaneous magic moment you might have 15-20 cameras trying to record everything from different angles (some fixed on tripods or mounted on walls and then a bunch of cameras with operators). And you might record a weeks worth of footage to get one one hour show. So literally you might be editing the best bits from 3000+ hours of footage to make one 1 hour episode.

(source for above, work in video, have clients who do reality tv)

Reality shows took off during the last Writer’s Guilde strike because they could be produced without scripts, more like a sports broadcast than traditional TV drama or sitcom. When the writers returned to their jobs, the reality shows were there to stay.