Some of the biggest, best-known entertainment formats in the world have long had a place on ABC in the U.S. The Disney-owned network launched The Bachelor, now a global staple and significant reality franchise with multiple spin-offs, in 2002. It was among the first networks to adapt the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, launching Dancing with the Stars in 2005. Shark Tank, based on a Japanese format, is in its tenth season this fall. And since the beginning of this year, ABC has been home to American Idol, rebooted on the network after a long stint on FOX. Robert Mills, ABC’s senior VP of alternative series, specials and late-night programming, speaks to TV Formats about franchise management, global trends and keeping an eye on what’s new and innovative in the genre.
TV FORMATS: Why did you feel American Idol was a good fit for ABC?
MILLS: Not only is it a good fit for ABC, but it’s also a good fit for Disney. At the heart of everything that Disney and, by extension, ABC do are great storytelling, people you care about fulfilling their dreams and great music. American Idol felt like it fit us like a glove. And if you look at our brand of alternative programming with Shark Tank and Dancing with the Stars and even The Bachelor—although that’s less four-quadrant—these are stories about great journeys. It’s kind of a roller coaster, but at the end, the heroes have overcome adversity and there’s a lot of celebration. When we first started talking to Fremantle, it was fascinating how excited they were at the prospect. They really felt Idol, in its bones, felt like an ABC show.
TV FORMATS: I know it’s a large-scale production to stage. What were some of the significant lessons from ABC’s first season that you can bring to next year’s edition?
MILLS: The advantage we had was we had partners in Fremantle who knew this show inside and out, especially Cecile [Frot-Coutaz, former CEO], who was really close to it and always offered advice and counsel. They knew what worked, and that was helpful. We all went in with this mindset: it’s really about the contestants. When you care about these contestants, you care about the show. And when you don’t, it’s hard to get people to go on this journey. We’re talking about 38 hours of television [per season]. The biggest thing we want to do now for season two is look at how to make those stories even more emotionally resonant. What’s great about it is we have a truly magical judging panel. I’ve done enough of these shows to know that sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s like making a cocktail, you have to get all the ingredients right. And these three [Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan] absolutely believe in this show. They’ve all been offered every other music show under the sun, and they truly believe in Idol because they know it’s about the process and it’s not them in competition with each other but instead working together. Now that they are comfortable in their roles, they’re going to be taking it to the next level. I said to Lionel that if season one is Lionel Richie, which was a big hit album, season two is going to be Can’t Slow Down, which was a huge hit album. That’s what this feels like. We all know what we’re doing, we know it works, and we’re going to make it even bigger and better.
TV FORMATS: The Bachelor has become such a pop-culture phenomenon. Why do you think it’s been able to build in popularity season after season?
MILLS: We thought these things have life cycles the way comedies and dramas do. But we’ve seen from the really good, rock-solid reality formats, whether it’s Survivor, The Bachelor, Idol or Dancing with the Stars, that they can last forever if you take care of them. You have the familiarity of the format and then you’re basically rebooting it every season with a new cast. So if you do it right, you can have these things last for as long as you want them to. When The Bachelor started, it was this novel idea of a person who nobody would have a chance to date in real life, somebody who was very wealthy and unattainable, dating these women. That worked because it was so different. And then it wore off; we were airing it twice a year, so it felt like it was always on. Two things helped [turn the ratings around]. One was we started airing it once a year, so it felt more special, and the other thing was using people from prior seasons. So it was like a soap opera, where you see a character who maybe was back burner go front burner. It was somebody you already liked and somebody who the people on the show, whether the women on The Bachelor or the men on The Bachelorette, knew and were interested in getting to know better. They already have an investment in this person. And you’re now able to have somebody be the Bachelor who is just a regular person; it doesn’t have to be somebody who is the heir to a vast fortune or a Harvard-educated businessman. Also, the rise of social media has made the audience the silent producer. We’re all in it together. When somebody says on Twitter, “I want X to be the next Bachelor,” they feel like their voice is being heard. That’s unique to any broadcast TV show.
TV FORMATS: I’m curious about the management of that particular franchise. Once you started extending with The Bachelorette and Winter Games and other shows, were you ever concerned about taking away from the popularity of the original?
MILLS: No, because we’ve taken such care with it. It’s a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year job. We talk with Mike Fleiss [creator of The Bachelor] several times a day about every single one of these franchises. There’s so much care taken in making them different, that’s why it works. You can apply The Bachelor to almost anything and make it work. Bachelor Winter Games was a title, and then we somehow figured out how to retrofit it into something that feels like The Bachelor franchise, and many say it was one of the best things we’d ever done. I think as long as we’re careful with it, there’s no end to how long it will go and what we can do with it.
TV FORMATS: We have to talk about Shark Tank. It’s one of the very few shows that my sister watches with her kids every week.
MILLS: I’m on a call every day telling somebody it’s our most co-viewed show, along with America’s Funniest Home Videos. And we get more requests from people asking for their kids to go for on-set visits. It is such a point of pride that this is something that kids are watching, enjoying and learning from. We’re somehow getting them to eat their vegetables without them knowing it. They know all these business terms now! It’s great, and it makes you hopeful—we’ve got these kids who are growing up to be budding entrepreneurs.
TV FORMATS: You’ve got some new guest Sharks coming up this season. How do you determine how much you can experiment with the lineup of investors?
MILLS: We love our core Sharks. Hopefully, they’re not going anywhere and those seats are theirs as long as they want them. But Shark Tank is a little bit like Saturday Night Live, where the core of the show is fantastic, and it’s about making sure that if for some reason somebody wants to leave, you can still do it. So we’re always putting in new people and it makes the show fresh as well. And it’s interesting to see them interact with different people. As long as you have a Shark that is complementary and isn’t filling the same bucket [as another one], then it’s made for great TV. This is our tenth season and it’s some of the best episodes we’ve ever done. One of the Sharks [in the new season] was an entrepreneur who pitched [a product] that ended up becoming Ring [a security system]. He’s now a Shark himself. He sat in and was fantastic. To me, that is the essence of Shark Tank. That’s the dream. We never would have thought when we started this show ten years ago that this would happen.
TV FORMATS: Your other big returning juggernaut is Dancing with the Stars. How have you kept that format fresh, and what’s been the approach to casting each season?
MILLS: It such a hard show to cast. There are only so many celebrities—although we now live in a world where we make celebrities every day. But it is difficult. We have enough collective muscle mass over 27 seasons that we know it’s about the mix. I talked about it with Idol’s judges and making that cocktail. There are so many great stories—redemption stories, discovery stories, all these things you need. The important thing is making sure you’ve got all those buckets filled for a successful season of Dancing. If you watched an episode from the first season, it wouldn’t look anything like this season. The Bachelor is like that too. And Shark Tank as well. You’ve always got to continue to evolve these shows. They can’t live in vacuums. Dancing is another one too that we’ve found little ways to keep making it feel more current and different, but still holding on to those core philosophies that you had from the beginning of the show.
TV FORMATS: ABC has renewed its Sunday night lineup of classic game shows for summer 2019. How did that deal with Fremantle come about?
MILLS: It was a happy accident! Steve Harvey had been doing Family Feud in syndication. And I watched it and these episodes were electric, you saw [clips] going viral. I just knew there was something there. When I started heading up this group, literally the first call I made was to Steve’s agent, and said, I want to figure out how we do this in prime time. He was immediately receptive. It took a little bit of doing for Fremantle. They didn’t want to water down how successful it had been in syndication. I totally respected that. I can’t say enough about what great partners Fremantle have been. They listened to me and took a chance on it. We did one season of Celebrity Family Feud and it worked out better than we could have dreamed. And then, ironically, Michael Strahan expressed interest in doing a new version of Pyramid (which is from Sony, not Fremantle). And we thought, this is the perfect pairing for Family Feud and Michael is the perfect host for it. And then a light bulb went off and we said, What if we did a three-hour [game-show] block? That’s when Match Game, the quintessential 10 p.m. show, came about. And Fremantle really worked with us and we all agreed we weren’t going to do it unless we found the right host. That old saying, Luck is when preparation meets inspiration? The fact that we got Alec Baldwin to say yes was such a coup. He’s been great. That’s how the ball got rolling on this. I’ve been so lucky. I’m as proud of these shows as anything I’ve done here. They make people happy. A lot of us grew up watching these shows. The fact that people say we’ve done right by them is the biggest compliment I could possibly get.
TV FORMATS: How much do you track what’s happening in the non-scripted space internationally? Are you looking at new imported format concepts?
MILLS: Absolutely. That’s the lifeblood of this business. That’s how these all started. The one format that is domestic that has been a juggernaut is The Bachelor; everything else comes from international. I’ve been around this business—I was at CAA in 2000 and then came here—and the world has gotten so much smaller because we can all communicate with each other. It’s so much easier to find these things now. It’s fascinating to see what’s working and what isn’t. The biggest thing is finding things that are new. You have formats that are not going anywhere. What is the newest thing? What is the evolution of these shows? You have to look to see what’s working abroad.
TV FORMATS: How do you see the health of the unscripted landscape at present? And what innovations are you excited about?
MILLS: I think the state of reality TV is as strong as it’s ever been. Certainly broadcast is the one place where it’s thriving. For scripted it’s difficult because you’re competing with streamers and cable. It truly is the golden age of TV. When shows like Survivor and Idol and Bachelor started with massive, Super Bowl-type numbers, it led everyone to think that this was going to happen forever. Nothing lasts that long. And it’s the attrition rate of TV in general. The pie has gotten so big. But these are still among the biggest hits on TV. If I went on the street and asked ten people about The Bachelor, seven of them would be able to have a conversation with me about it. There are some exciting things [to come]—I don’t know what they are exactly—in live TV. One of the things that we did with Idol that I loved was a simulcast nationwide on our live shows. Everyone can vote at the same time, and to me, that was exciting, and that was a boundary that had never been [crossed]. No one thought it could be in broadcast TV. You’ve seen what the HQ app has done as a live game that everyone plays. Is there an interactive alternative show that can be done? People have been trying to crack it for years. I don’t know if they can, but that’s exciting to think about, that there’s undiscovered territory there.