Sumi Connock is a self-described format geek. The new creative director for formats at BBC Worldwide has spent much of her career devising and exec producing formattable concepts. She has served as executive producer on BBC in-house productions like Just the Two of Us; a commissioning editor at the BBC, overseeing such shows as Strictly It Takes Two and Let Me Entertain You; and creative director at ITV Studios. In her new post at BBC Worldwide, Connock oversees a portfolio of more than 160 titles, including the megabrands Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing with the Stars) and The Great British Bake Off. She tells TV Formats about what she looks for in new ideas, how to keep returning brands fresh and her plans for mining the deep BBC Worldwide library for classics that can be reinvigorated.
TV FORMATS: What’s your overall strategy for BBC Worldwide’s format business?
CONNOCK: The goal is to find the strongest creative IP and roll out those formats successfully in as many territories as possible. In terms of strategy, it’s working really closely with our suppliers, whether that’s indies, BBC Studios or our global production offices, to create the strongest IP in three key areas: the big shiny-floor prime-time entertainment shows like Let It Shine; the low-cost, high-volume formats, whether it’s factual entertainment or game show or quiz, like !mpossible; and also the really strong formatted factual-entertainment ideas for peak.
TV FORMATS: Tell us about the slate you unveiled at BBC Showcase that you’ll be bringing to MIPTV.
CONNOCK: We launched two of our big Saturday night formats. Let It Shine, from BBC Studios, is a prime-time shiny-floor talent show to create a new band. That’s been well received and it’s got some interest in a few key territories. Let’s Sing and Dance from Whizz Kid is pure comedy entertainment. We have another one coming later in the year, Pitch Battle, from Tuesday’s Child, which is a brand-new competitive choir format. Because there’s always that need for daily stripped entertainment shows, the low-cost, high-volume, we’ll be taking !mpossible, which has a neat little mechanic when it comes to gameplay. We also have a new daytime quiz, The Boss, from BBC Studios. And we have two prime-time formatted factual-entertainment series that both have big international elements to them. In Your Ear follows the story of someone going through a challenging week in their lives, whether it’s a new job, coming home with newborn twins or bouncing back from a life-changing disability. We have a cast of wise sages from around the world, who, using modern technology, can watch what’s going on in this person’s life and offer advice. It has diverse cultural wisdom: mamas in Italy, New York cops, an Irish nun. The Day I Fell to Earth is a life-swap show where you have two people at crossroads in their lives, and they are flown somewhere blindfolded and dropped into a brand-new life in a completely different country. Their counterpart, the person they swap with, often has parallels in terms of the roles they play within their family or the crossroads they are at in terms of their work life. It explores universal themes but allows the contributors to see them from entirely different perspectives.
TV FORMATS: What has most impressed you about the breadth of the BBC formats offering?
CONNOCK: We have two of the biggest global formats, with Dancing with the Stars, which is in over 50 countries, and Bake Off in over 20 countries. I’ve been incredibly impressed with how the international team and the central format teams roll these out so impressively around the world, and how that dialogue works between the production offices and the central teams. The way they roll them out so effectively, often on different budgets and different constraints, is fantastic. We have Top Gear, which is a huge title. We also have a fantastic slate of new titles to market. And we’ve got a really strong back catalog—shows like Weakest Link, The Generation Game, Friends Like These, The Week the Women Went, all of which are brilliant formats with simple but fantastically engaging premises.
TV FORMATS: What are you hearing from buyers about the kinds of formats they’re looking for?
CONNOCK: It’s more about the feel rather than a specific type of format. It was reassuring to hear all our titles are being so well received. There’s a steer towards that warm, feel-good programming, which I think our titles have in abundance. The Day I Fell to Earth is all about spiritual as well as physical wellbeing. In Your Ear is full of really warm characters. For me, and for the buyers, the future is all about feel-good formats.
TV FORMATS: What qualities do you look for in projects to determine how formattable they are?
CONNOCK: It needs to have a simple premise, one you can sell in a top-line, its USP. A universal theme that feels authentic—that’s key for viewers as well at the moment, a sense of authenticity and real-world relevance. If it’s a quiz or a game show, I’m looking for a unique concept with some neat mechanics and compelling play-along. Something like You’re Back in the Room from Tuesday’s Child, which took the physical game show but then switched it up by hypnotizing the contestants, which gives hilarious results. That’s now in seven countries, shortly due to air on FOX in the U.S. under the title Hypnotize Me. It’s also asking, “Why would a format sell now?” That comes down to it tonally feeling warm, having a lot of feel-good to it, that’s what the audience wants in the current climate. And something we need to think about a little bit more is how it’s going to help local broadcasters engage with their audience beyond a linear transmission. That’s something I want to explore. We’ve done it with dramas like Thirteen, which had its initial transmission on BBC Three and did amazingly well, with just under 8 million viewers, and was second highest rated on the iPlayer in March 2016. There was additional immersive content that was all commissioned as a full package from the start. So there was a website called blog.findthegirl.co.uk, and this helped the viewers stay engaged between the episodes. I’m looking at that angle and seeing how the online content and social content can tie in with the linear as one proposition.
TV FORMATS: How’s your scripted format business?
CONNOCK: It’s particularly buoyant at the moment. We’ve got a lot of interest in Doctor Foster, especially in advance of the second season later this year. We’ve had the success of the second season of Unforgotten in the U.K., which has spurred format interest in the U.S. and France. We’ve got season five of Orphan Black and have interest in that format in Asia. Also, The Office recently launched in Finland. It was done as a box set, and most people had watched the whole thing in the first weekend. A lot of territories are looking for localized drama that’s had proven success in the U.K., which we can provide. We’re in a good place with our scripted formats.
TV FORMATS: What most interests and excites you about the format business?
CONNOCK: I just absolutely love formats. I’m a bit of a format geek. It doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday night entertainment, quizzes, game shows, reality—I love the mechanics, I like the detail, I like the way they’re shaped, and they give you a story. I love drilling down into the detail of a new format to see how it works. I genuinely, sadly, get quite excited when a new format comes to market, especially if it’s unique or has a simple, clever idea at the heart of it. I love tuning in! On the other side, seeing a format rolled out globally with great success is satisfying and exciting.
TV FORMATS: How do you collaborate with your international production teams on both the adaptation of brands and the creation of new ones?
CONNOCK: That relationship with our international teams is hugely important to us. We talk on a regular basis. We work collaboratively with the global production offices, whether it’s on new ideas or adaptations. It’s safe to say they know their market best, so it’s vital we have a close relationship and an ongoing dialogue with them. We’ve also got a brilliant team of flying producers who are hands-on when it comes to rolling out the new formats and adapting them. They sit within our central team. We’re making Dancing with the Stars in Brazil for the first time this year, and this year was the first time we made the show in Ireland, for RTÉ. It’s performing brilliantly. The first episode had a 42-percent share. It’s also delivered a huge increase in their 16-to-34 demographic, which was the result of some clever casting. Also, in terms of working closely with the teams and doing things differently and always keeping it fresh, they have a Facebook Live show that goes out an hour before the live show on RTÉ One. That’s doing well. In Germany, they just launched season ten and they totally reinvented the launch show—they did it in a new way. So we’re always working closely with international production and actively promoting creative exchanges to keep everything fresh, while also ensuring we’ve taken the brand and maintained the strength of the format. We do an annual creative exchange for Dancing with the Stars, so all the international showrunners fly in, and we share experiences, ideas, offer creative solutions and suggestions, which is hugely valuable to the global productions. We also held on to Bake Off. It makes sense to do that because we want to nurture our biggest global brands. We work closely with them.
TV FORMATS: Are you mining the deep BBC Worldwide catalog for opportunities to revive classic brands?
CONNOCK: We’ve got loads of great formats. I love The Generation Game, Weakest Link, Just the Two of Us. There is a trend towards nostalgia, and we’ve got some really strong formats that are ripe for reinvention.