FremantleMedia has given the world of television three of the most successful global hit shows: Idols, Got Talent and The X Factor. Rob Clark, the company’s director of global entertainment, continues to mine the creative minds in FremantleMedia’s network of production companies and among third-party producers for innovative concepts. He also oversees the worldwide rollout of formats. In an increasingly crowded and competitive market, Clark, whose extensive production experience is matched by his keen wit, believes successful shows nowadays must incorporate innovation and have a feel-good effect. He is also confident that the age of big hit formats is far from over and outlines the fundamental qualities a show must have to become an international success.
WS: Tell us about the new shows on your slate.
CLARK: We’re very excited by several new projects that we’ve been working on, some that came to fruition relatively quickly and one that took a number of years, and when you see it, you’ll understand why. It really is an amazing example of a television company working with a technology company that’s got great skill and ambition. Between Fremantle and The Future Group, we’ve come up with Lost in Time. We’re calling it the future of family entertainment. It’s a complete screen-agers television format. You can watch it on any screen, so I’d be watching it on the television, the kids would be watching it on their iPads, you’re playing along on your mobile phone in real-time. It’s a good, solid, fun game show that uses the most amazing technology. It’s CGI like you’ve never seen before on a television show. Now, I know people have said that before, maybe even I’ve said that before, but this time, it’s real; it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, not on a television screen, not in a game show, not in an entertainment show. The technology and the application that goes along with it is really the future in many ways—I suppose that’s why our partner’s called The Future Group! [Laughs]
A show that came relatively quickly to fruition is The Next TV Chef. This is from Blue Circle in Holland, working alongside RTL Nederland. It’s a talent show looking for the next TV chef. Are you the next Jamie Oliver? Are you the next Nigella [Lawson]? The basis for [the idea] is that when we make Idols, unlike some shows, it’s not just about the voice, it’s not just about singing, it’s everything that goes along with singing. They need charisma, they need their own style, they need to be ambitious, they need personality; they need everything, right? If you think about a great TV chef, they need the same things. It’s not about cooking; it’s whether you are charismatic in the studio, whether you can talk to the camera and cook at the same time. It’s whether you’re ambitious enough to drive through that career, and whether you’ve got the skills—both in a presenting way and in a cooking way—to actually do it. This [show] melds those two together. We’ve had lots of interest in that. The food space is quite crowded, but this is something different. It’s bringing much more entertainment and our brand of talent—that’s what we’re good at, and I think people are recognizing that.
From Australia, we’ve got The Chefs’ Line. It’s from Eureka, which is a company that Fremantle has invested in. The Chefs’ Line is a format that is really clever. It uses the hierarchy of the chefs’ line within a restaurant as the vehicle that drives the game show over the week. It’s got a fantastic tone, a competitive nature and digs really deep into rich, cultural food. We’re distributing that as tape and as a format, and it’s doing very well.
WS: You mentioned innovation and a feel-good factor. Are those two themes that you see in your formats?
CLARK: When you live in a world that is uncertain, one of the things that television can give you is a feel-good effect. So our formats, to be honest, nearly always have been feel-good. If you look at Idols, Got Talent or The X Factor or any of the game shows, they are about feel-good television. My belief is that television is one of the few vehicles that can bring a nation together and a family together of every generation. So yes, I really do believe that feel-good is a theme, but I don’t think it’s a new theme. As long as I’m here doing this, it will always be quite a prevalent theme, because it’s something that really drives me. It’s why I came into big, broad entertainment, and I didn’t go off and become some niche producer that’s driven by whatever that niche is. I’m driven by wanting to be broad and wanting to entertain lots of people rather than small groups. So in that sense, yes, feel-good is important.
In the technology aspect, television has to, again, reflect what’s happening in the world. The technological advances of the last ten years have been immense. I think sometimes television drags its feet on that and doesn’t embrace it quickly enough. That’s partly because it’s expensive, and partly because sometimes it’s slow to adapt into a television format. But increasingly, it’s rare that we would produce an entertainment show now that didn’t have some play-along app. When you talk about technology, it’s something that speaks to a younger generation. The world has changed, and as television producers, we have to accept it’s changed, because if we don’t, we will never speak to that generation. We will lose them the same way that radio lost a generation until it adapted and learned how to speak to that generation again.
WS: When you hear a show idea, is there some single element that makes you think, This could be a global hit, or are there many factors involved?
CLARK: There are so many factors involved. I think one of the big things in making television is you need a bit of luck, and often it’s the bit of luck that makes the television show a big success. But there are some fundamentals that you need to look out for. If you’re talking about a global hit, it needs to be transferrable; it needs to be something that isn’t culturally specific. It needs to work in [several countries]. The budget needs to be big, and it needs to be small, and it needs to be able to be scalable—that’s one thing that’s really important. And it needs to be returnable. You get people who spend years working on a show that’s fantastic, but once it’s gone out, it can never come back. For a company like Fremantle, that doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying you should never do shows like that, because sometimes they’re great to watch. But when you’re looking for big global hits, they have to be able to return. So [a global hit] has to be transferrable, scalable, returnable, and the thing that’s really important now in a multichannel world is that a show has to be promotable. It has to be instantly recognizable on your EPG when you’re flicking through it. That wasn’t a big issue when I first started [in the business], but now it’s really important. So, if you’ve got all four of those, then you’ve got a chance.
Then you want a show that is based on an idea that either inspires you or makes you laugh—it has to entertain you. And if it doesn’t, then it’s never going to work. You’ve got to be passionate about it. A show like Idols or The Voice, every big show that there’s ever been, was driven by the passion of every producer that ever made it. It can be a good idea, but if it doesn’t inspire that guy who’s sitting in the office six months before it’s going on air, it’s not going to work. It has to have that special something, and that’s what’s so difficult to identify and why we make hundreds of shows that never go anywhere, but then one all of a sudden is a hit. People say, Oh, well the age of the transferrable big rollouts has gone—that’s rubbish. That is not the case; there will be many more to come. But they’re probably not going to come like buses like they did in the early part of the 2000s and the late 1990s, but they will come. There will be more new hits, and I’m sure we’ll have them.
WS: Any concern about OTT platforms getting into unscripted shows?
CLARK: OTT and SVOD services say they’re moving into unscripted, and you can see signs that they are. I think this is great news, it’s another customer; but for a company like Fremantle, our business model at present is rolling out around the territories, so we’re looking for this idea of not being culturally specific. You make the show in their language for that country with their contestants, with their stories—that’s what we do. With OTT at the moment, they’re wanting global shows, so there are two things that we need to look at: the business deal, which is a big issue—but not insurmountable, I’m sure—and then, what does a global show look like? What is that show that will work across many territories? We’re spending quite a lot of time on that, and as we know already, not every format we make is made to travel all over the world. And that’s not necessarily because it’s not a good show, it’s just that it doesn’t travel, for many reasons, sometimes budget. So I think it’s exciting. I don’t think OTTs and SVODs are a threat to the business as a whole. It’s a new market. It will require new skills and a new thought process to get there, but it’s going to be a big part of everybody’s future.