Rob Wade knows a lot about managing iconic non-scripted brands. Over the course of his 20-year career in music, variety, reality and live entertainment, he has worked on some of the world’s most successful formats, including Dancing with the Stars, The X Factor, America’s Got Talent and I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, among many others. Earlier this year, FOX tapped Wade as its new president of alternative entertainment and specials. In his role he inherited several successful long-running brands, including Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, but he is also eager to refresh the schedule with the best that the U.S. and international markets have to offer. As he tells TV Formats, Wade is feeling bullish about the global format landscape, expressing confidence that the elusive next big thing is just around the corner.
TV FORMATS: Tell us about your acquisition of The Final Four format. What did you see in that idea that made you think it would work well for FOX?
WADE: It’s a super clean format and it is incredibly engaging. What I love about it is that it starts where other music competitions usually end. You have a set of four very good, talented performers, and then people come in and audition in an attempt to dethrone them. That moment—at which they get the opportunity to not only have a sing-off with one of the four but also choose who that is—was very compelling. I’ve been doing these [talent] shows for a long time and watching them for a long time, and it felt like a genuinely fresh approach to the genre. Before FOX, I was developing shows, first at Syco, Simon Cowell’s company, and then at the BBC. I came up with a lot of shows myself and developed them. I’ve seen a lot of shows like this pitched. [The Final Four is] just unique. It immediately spoke to me. It’s funny, a journalist the other day asked me, Did you come in and just aim for a singing show? Genuinely, I didn’t come in thinking, I want a singing show. I’ve been looking at lots of buckets: singing, variety, game shows, social experiments, etc. But this was the first show that came to me that I just went, yeah, this is a great show. It could have been anything, but it happened to be a singing show.
TV FORMATS: What excited you most about joining FOX?
WADE: I’d been here for The X Factor and I’d worked with the team before. I found it to be an incredibly invigorating culture. It’s a place where you can take risks. It’s got a real pioneer spirit to it. The new additions to FOX since my time were Dana [Walden] and Gary [Newman, the chairmen and CEOs of Fox Television Group], and you look at their track record, they’re just phenomenal producers and incredibly talented executives. That got me excited. The other reason was, I’ve been showrunning and been on that side of the table for a long time. For me, this was an opportunity to try something different. There hasn’t been an unscripted hit for a while. I feel like now is the time. I’m quite optimistic about the business and that we’re on the verge of having another hit, and I hope it’s going to be here at FOX. There’s a new, younger generation of producers coming through who are very exciting, very creative, and I think technology has moved on now, which is always a great entry point into new projects. I can feel a perfect storm coming, where this is the time. And I just enjoy doing this! [Laughs]
TV FORMATS: Having worked on The X Factor and Dancing with the Stars, among others, you have lots of experience keeping brands fresh. Tell us about your approach to managing returning shows and maintaining their viewership.
WADE: The bottom line is, it’s hard work. And you have to be innovative, you have to be creative, you have to be willing to take risks to move on, but you also have to be cognizant that there’s a reason why people love these formats. What you’re doing is a constant tweaking of the format, moving it forward, and hoping that you are adding value to the show. If you wait to react to a reduction in the audience before you make your changes, that’s fatal. You need to be ahead of that. You can’t be reactive; you have to be proactive in your producing.
TV FORMATS: How much can you change a show before you start moving away from the DNA of the original format?
WADE: It depends on the format, quite frankly. When I was doing America’s Got Talent, it was the first season in America when we tried the Golden Buzzer, which was a great little format tweak. On Dancing with the Stars, Conrad Green and I made a lot of changes to the format very early on because it felt like it needed them. Partly it was out of necessity. You’re given a schedule—ten two-hour episodes or eight two-hours, two 90-minutes and an hour—and you have to make that time work. So you have to be creative about how you fill your time. We made some pretty big changes to that show and they worked. That’s what you’re paid to do as a producer or an executive—judge how to move formats onward, to refract them, make them fresh, but not alienate your viewer. That’s the skill.
TV FORMATS: Beat Shazam was a big success for you this summer. Why do you think it resonated so well with the FOX audience?
WADE: FOX does music brilliantly—look at the legacy of Empire, Star, American Idol. We’re very good in that space and our viewers like it. Jamie Foxx is a phenomenal talent, and Jeff Apploff and Mark Burnett are great producers. We came up with a format that is just super clean. It’s got big prize money and high stakes, so it’s very broadcast. And obviously we partnered with Shazam, and the play-along-at-home aspect is great fun. In this era of multiplatform content, having that partnership has been great. There are various measures of the success of a television show, but I’m old school. My judgment of the success of a television show that I’m working on is how much my mother talks to me about it. [Laughs] I’m joking. My judgment honestly is how many people come up to me anecdotally and talk about it. I was talking to a woman at a party and she said, What do you do? I said I work at FOX. She said, What shows are on FOX? And I said, Beat Shazam…. She said, That’s amazing, yesterday my 9-year-old had a Beat Shazam birthday party! Hearing stuff like that makes me so excited. That’s why I’m in this business. It’s that moment where culture meets television, and you go out of the linear broadcast and become part of the vernacular. That’s why Beat Shazam is successful—it immediately, after one season, is already becoming part of the vernacular. It’s living outside of its broadcast hour.
TV FORMATS: How important is at-home interactivity with a show?
WADE: I can’t [overstate] how important that is for all the big competition shows and the big reality shows. If you look at any of the big successful shows, they all have great social footprints and the ability to live on other platforms. It’s still very difficult to quantify the reach of a show, but you know when you’re doing the right thing. You have to have the television show living on different platforms, living on social media, living in the press. It helps from a marketing perspective. And it helps that FOX has the largest social footprint of all the networks. That means we live outside of those broadcast hours.
TV FORMATS: Are you developing concepts internally that your distribution colleagues can sell globally as formats, or are you more focused on what’s available on the global market?
WADE: I’m from the creative part of the business, and the open market is how you get the greatest success. We want to attract the best producers and the best talent to FOX. And to do that, we are open to all American producers and international producers to come here and sell to us. The Four is [adapted from the] Armoza format from Israel, and we’ve partnered them with ITV Entertainment in the U.S. Every show is different. Some are existing IP, some are brand-new IP, some are paper formats, some are from a pilot, some might be from a series abroad. We’re very open to all of those things. We do have internal ideas, but when we have an internal idea we give it to someone [to produce]. So let’s say I wanted to come up with a show that was about dating, for example. If I had a hook that I really liked, I would say, what about these production companies, and we’d do a deal with them and they’d go off and develop it and see if we can make it into a series. That’s our method.
TV FORMATS: You rebooted Love Connection this year. Are there other classic properties you’re looking at reviving? And what’s the key to successfully bringing back a known, loved brand?
WADE: We’re looking at everything. I came in here and I felt like we had to adjust our programming strategy in unscripted to a degree. What happened with Love Connection was that it got a bit of an overhaul. If you’re going to buy an older format that you want to survive beyond one season, you have to refresh it. That’s one thing I’ve noticed over here and in the U.K.—sometimes when you buy existing IP, it burns bright at the beginning because there’s a lot of sentiment from the viewers who want to see it coming back. So they’ll watch it a lot in that first series, but if it’s not good enough you’ll see a big drop off, in particular in the second season. So you need to choose brands you can refresh, but you also need to leave time for brands to come back. It’s not a good idea to bring a brand back too quickly. You need to make sure they’ve had enough time to rest before they come back.
TV FORMATS: Other than The Four, what’s on your upcoming slate?
WADE: We are picking up Love Connection for season two. I’m excited by a lot of our shows in development. As a producer, you need to get your ducks in a row on shows. You need to make sure you’ve got a clear plan for them. We are developing a lot of stuff in broad, original, fun spaces. Whether it’s dance, social experiment, variety or dating, we’ve got a few things in the pipeline that are interesting. I arrived [at FOX] at the beginning of April and we had a few pitches—The Four was one of the first that came in—and then it went a little bit quiet in the summer. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve had some really good stuff coming in. I’m looking for big things. I’m a producer and your job as a producer is to take ideas and make them bigger. You usually see something in everything, to a degree. But every so often, something comes through and you’re just like, wow, that’s different and that’s big and that’s exciting. I’ve seen a couple of those in the last few weeks.