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Mega Formats

Joanna Stephens hears from leading format producers and distributors about managing megahit format franchises.

Everybody wants a mega-format—one of those game-changing super-brands that embeds itself in popular culture, invents (or reinvents) a genre and turbo-drives revenue season after season, territory after territory, iteration after iteration. But what happens once you’ve made it into the formats super league? How do you nurture the goose that lays your golden eggs?

According to Lisa Perrin, the CEO of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group, keeping a heritage format fresh and appetizing is an art form in itself.

“It’s not a given that these brands will bloom year on year,” she says, pointing to Endemol Shine’s two monster formats, MasterChef and Big Brother. “Their continued success comes with an extreme amount of effort and constant monitoring of their global health.”

Central to this process are workshops—known as “exchanges” in Endemol Shine parlance—where a format’s global family of producers come together to share tips, tricks and experiences, both good and bad. Perrin observes that the creative team behind, say, MasterChef India is under the same pressures as the team behind MasterChef in the U.S. “Our exchanges give our [operating companies] a chance to offload and talk about what’s working and what’s not. It’s all done in a spirit of openness. As a group function, the idea is to share what we’ve learned and inspire new approaches. We want our local producers to go home thinking, ‘Blimey, I hadn’t thought about that. Let’s give it a go….’”

But even with this creative safety net in place, there are never any givens in entertainment. Perrin cites a change in the casting format for MasterChef that worked brilliantly all over the world but went down like a failed soufflé with U.K. viewers. Cultural “tonality” is also a major factor when it comes to fine-tuning local iterations.

The big question, of course, is how to keep your super-format vibrant and relevant without losing the secret sauce that makes it unique. The trick is to tweak, not reinvent. Endemol Shine’s research into format longevity has shown that viewers will accept organic change, but they don’t like change for the sake of novelty, or changes they perceive as cynical, manipulative or inauthentic. They have, after all, tuned in to watch a show they know and enjoy, and that’s what they want to see. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act between staying true to the format’s DNA while refreshing its outer casing with, for example, new casting, locations or branding.

One way of reenergizing a format is, of course, to introduce celebrities. “But we always say that once you go celebrity, you can never go back, so the timing of a celebrity version is crucial in terms of a format’s life cycle,” Perrin says. She also warns against “rinsing a format dry” with too many seasons.

“People get bored. There has to be an element of a show feeling special. The BBC does that really well with Strictly Come Dancing, which has come to herald Christmas in the U.K. Every autumn, when it comes back on, you think, ‘Wow, it’s Strictly time again.’”

Over at Fremantle, dancing is also on Rob Clark’s mind. The company’s director of global entertainment believes The Greatest Dancer, BBC One’s new Saturday-night talent format from Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment and Fremantle U.K.’s Thames, has the potential for “longevity, revenue base, global presence and scalability” that separates the super-formats from the merely successful.

“For me, the ability to scale from the biggest territory to the smallest is what defines a mega-format,” Clark says. “I went to the Maldives earlier this year and was amused, knowing that American Idol was coming back, to see a big poster at the airport advertising Maldivian Idol. Now that’s what I call a super-format!”

But, echoing Perrin, he says there are challenges involved in keeping a global franchise healthy as it matures—and with Idols, The X Factor, Got Talent and the venerable Family Feud (42 years old and counting) in his portfolio, Clark has had plenty of experience with format rejuvenation.

“It’s no surprise that only big companies have super-formats,” he reflects. “You need big resources in management to keep a big format on air.” Those include a centralized force of flying producers whose tasks are to monitor quality control—as Clark points out, a mega-format isn’t cheap and broadcasters expect to get their money’s worth—protect the core concept from ill-advised tinkering and roll out tried-and-tested changes across licensees.

Again, balance is the watchword. “You have to be quite strict in what you allow, but lenient enough to evolve the show and move it on,” Clark says. He gives the example of Got Talent’s Golden Buzzer, which judges can use once per series to send a stand-out act straight through to the finals. The idea emanated from Germany around six years ago and has since been introduced into every Got Talent iteration in every territory. “But it was quite controversial at the time,” Clark says. “There was a lot of discussion about how it changed the whole dynamic and democracy of the show. But then we saw how well it worked and thought, democracy be damned!”

Formats also have to move with the times, Clark says. For example, back in 1976, when Family Feud debuted on ABC in the U.S., the world was a very different place. “So we’ve adapted Family Feud over the years to represent what America looks like today,” he adds. “We’ve recast hosts that are more appropriate for the era, and we’ve ‘modernized’ the families, as it were, because today’s families come in many different forms. But what we haven’t done is play around with the basic structure. It works perfectly as it is.”

Clark touches on a salient point—that super-formats are flawless under the bonnet. Most of the classic franchises were conceived 10 or 20 years ago, in a gentler economic climate. Almost without exception, the first generation of mega-formats were allowed to grow very, very slowly, with producers given the time and resources to precision engineer their concepts into a state of technical perfection.

This may help to explain why, as Maarten Meijs, the COO of Talpa Media and managing director of Talpa Global, points out, “The big golden-oldie formats are stronger than ever.” They are, at heart, brilliantly constructed shows that provide viewers with great entertainment and broadcasters with that increasingly elusive phenomenon: a tentpole in the schedule.

Talpa’s The Voice most certainly qualifies as a tentpole. The show debuted in the Netherlands in 2010—making it the youngest mega-format on the market today. It has aired in more than 180 territories and picked up four Primetime Emmys for the NBC version. In addition to the flagship property, the show’s brand extensions include The Voice Kids (which now has close to 40 local iterations), The Voice of the Ocean on Princess Cruises and The Voice Senior. Other offshoots include an instant-win online game and a range of merchandise. But while it makes sense to exploit a super-format’s global recognition with satellite products, care must be taken not to tarnish the core IP.

“Before we develop a brand extension, we do our due diligence to make sure we see only benefits to adding a spin-off to the original brand,” Meijs says.

Talpa’s home territory serves as a reliable testing ground for any new concepts—the most recent example being The Voice Senior, which rolled out on RTL4 in late August. “From our experiences with the regular seasons of The Voice, we had a strong conviction that seniors are interesting characters with fascinating life stories,” Meijs says.

Talpa, too, has a team of format consultants who travel the world to guide, advise and share learnings. For licensees, having access to this level of expert support is a crucial benefit of acquiring a Talpa format, Meijs suggests. And the advantages cut both ways: for Talpa, it’s also essential to be aware of what’s happening on the ground, so that local iterations can be fine-tuned to the needs of specific markets.

“For example, our talent competition The Next Boy/Girl Band has great traction in Asia,” Meijs says. “Given the large number of millennials and Generation Zs in the region, we adjusted the format in Asia to engage this target group.” This involved introducing an AI-powered Google Assistant feature to enable fans to engage in a two-way conversation with the hosts of the show.

But introducing any change is “a team effort,” Meijs stresses. “We always work in close consultation with the local partner.”

This resonates with Sumi Connock, BBC Studios’ creative director of formats. “We would never force a change. We work with our global production network to share local innovations, twists and challenges, but, ultimately, it’s down to the local producers and broadcasters to agree on what’s best for their market.”

Adjustments can vary from territory to territory, and from platform to platform, Connock adds. “Some want format twists, while others feel a great new cast each year will keep the audience engaged.”

She references Dancing with the Stars—a true step-changer in every sense—which has introduced a variety of innovations across its 55-plus international versions.

“There are territories that want more than one episode per week, or perhaps a show of longer duration, so we work closely with local producers to help meet their demands while keeping the core DNA alive.”

That said, the original version of the show, Strictly Come Dancing, has remained mostly untouched since it shimmied onto BBC One back in 2004. Given that it turned in its highest-rating season ever last year, it would clearly be a gamble to change more than the odd sequin.

Another monster format distributed by BBC Studios is Love Productions’ The Great Bake Off, which continues to spread calorific joy around the world. The show has just launched in its 30th territory, Chile, following a triumphant debut in Argentina earlier this year, where it pulled in a 70-percent share for free-to-air giant Telefe. Bake Off Greece launched in September and The Great Kiwi Bake Off arrives later this year.

Bake Off has also hit the sweet spot with carefully constructed spin-offs that “reflect the production and edit­orial values of the main show while fitting the needs of the local market,” Connock says. These include Bake Off: The Professionals, Junior Bake Off and An Extra Slice.

Several big formats have recently returned to market after a sabbatical, among them the BBC’s iconic quiz The Weakest Link. The format debuted on BBC Two in 2000 under the stewardship of acerbic host Anne Robinson, whose mocking “You are the weakest link.  Goodbye!” fast became a national catchphrase. It recently returned in Finland and Cyprus and performed well. It also had a successful reprise in the U.K. at the end of last year, when it returned for a celebrity version.

Dancing with the Stars is also back on air on 1+1 in Ukraine after a ten-year hiatus, and going gangbusters.

“It beat the audiences of its nearest rival by 65 percent and ranked first in its time slot against all competition to become the highest-rating show on the channel in 2017,” Connock reports. “The producers did a fantastic promo campaign that cleverly mixed the old with the new. They used the iconic theme tune as a marketing tool and they brought back a much-loved but unsuccessful contestant from series one. But they cast new professional dancers, a new judging panel and a new host to bring it up to date.”

Nick Smith, the executive VP of formats at all3media international, believes the power of a mega-format’s name is generally enough to bring fans back to a pre-loved show. “That’s why reboots are so attractive to networks,” he adds. “They guarantee attention from viewers and the press.”

But that same attention can turn sour, Smith says, if the relaunch fails to deliver. He cautions against “going too crazy” with variations on the original format theme, which run the risk of disappointing fans who are expecting to revisit a familiar experience. “But often small changes can be very effective,” he adds, citing Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, which has successfully changed networks in several territories since it launched in 2004. The reboots have simply recast the restaurant-saving chef at the center of the action.

When reviving a classic format, changes may be needed to prevent the reboot from feeling dated. Smith uses the example of Cash Cab, which debuted on the U.K.’s ITV back in 2005, before Facebook went mainstream. In Discovery Channel’s recent celebrity reboot of the quiz, which is set in the back of a New York City taxi, Lion Television added a “social media shout-out” to the gameplay. Via Facebook Live technology, contestants could ask family and friends for help. “Not only is it a great way to make the format feel current, but it’s also great promotion for the show coming on air,” Smith adds.

As for the risk of audience fatigue with long-running franchises, Smith’s advice is to avoid the obvious. “I think it’s important not to be lazy with brand extensions and just make the same show with kids of celebrities.”

He illustrates his point with the successful Gogglebox spin-offs Gogglesprogs and Vlogglebox. The former, which features a cast of kids giving their uninhibited and hilarious opinions on a range of TV shows, is a very different proposition from Studio Lambert’s original format. “It has a different production method—it’s not a fast-turnaround review of the week’s TV,” Smith says.

The same is true of Vlogglebox, in which young people review viral videos. Designed to reflect how 16- to 24-year-olds engage with content, Vlogglebox’s participants are filmed out and about, watching trending videos on their phones, laptops and tablets.

However successful a format, there will “always come a time when it begins to wane,” Smith believes. He observes that most of the mega-formats are no longer at their peak and no longer on air in all the territories they once dominated.

Andrew Sime, the VP of formats at Banijay Rights, has a different take. “A good format can run and run,” he insists, pointing to Banijay’s trove of mega-brands, which include Survivor, Temptation Island, Fort Boyard and Wife Swap. “All of these have been adapted in numerous territories over the years, but continue to find new audiences. However, it takes hard work and a collaborative approach between the distributor, producer and broadcaster to make sure formats aren’t over-exploited, and to manage and maximize their life span.”

For Sime, refreshing a format is, in essence, no different from localizing a format in the first place. “You need to work with a reliable partner who understands the cultural subtleties of their own market to ensure that any evolution in the look and feel of the show works for their audiences.”

And with production companies in 16 countries, plus a globe-spanning network of external collaborators, “wherever we’re selling a format, we can be confident we’ve got a good understanding of local audiences and their tastes and can adjust shows according to these requirements,” Sime adds.

When it comes to drawing viewers back to a new incarnation of a legacy format, Sime admits there are challenges. “It’s never an easy process,” he says, “but the results can be extraordinary.” In Sime’s view, the key is to find the right combination of local producer and broadcaster—“a partnership that delivers both a passion for the original format and the skill and instinct needed to update it.”

A prime example is RDF Television’s revival of the game show The Crystal Maze, which made a triumphant return to the U.K.’s Channel 4 last year after a 22-year break. Other Banijay formats set to make a comeback include Temptation Island and Wife Swap, which are being remade for USA Network and CMT, respectively, by Banijay Studios North America.

“When developing classic formats for a new audience, hosts provide a great opportunity to keep the brand feeling fresh,” Sime says. “You can tweak the target demo, you can tweak the tone and you can tweak the scale by securing the right local host.”

But tinkering with a much-loved format is always a gamble. “Any changes need to be properly justified and fully thought through,” Sime adds. “We’re very protective of the integrity of our format brands, but if we trust the producer and believe in their vision, we’re always willing to take a calculated risk in order to reward existing viewers or attract new ones.”

In the end, it’s clear that the guardianship of a mega-format is a mega-task in itself. How do you keep your super-brand shiny and appealing as it grows older and, inevitably, wearier? How do you determine whether adjustments made in one market should be rolled out into others? How do you avoid burning your brand, tarnishing your IP and boring fans by not moving with the times—or outraging them and turning a much-loved old friend into a stranger?

For Fremantle’s Clark, it comes down to balance, patience and respect.

“Always remember that it’s a long game and you’re not playing for quick fixes,” he concludes. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Something that gives you £100 for the next 50 years is worth a lot more than something that gives you £200 for the next two years. These are hugely valuable brands and, if you look after them with care and consideration, they’ll look after you.”

PicturedTalpa’s The Voice on NBC.


Joanna Stephens is a contributing writer for World Screen.


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