Seeing Double

Mansha Daswani explores the rising trade in Asian-originated formats.

That rapper T-Pain beat out soul icon Gladys Knight on The Masked Singer in the U.S. isn’t actually the weirdest thing about the show. Neither is the lineup of utterly insane costumes that the participating celebrities don to mask their identities. Arguably the strangest thing about The Masked Singer is its slow march from obscure Korean entertainment show to the format landscape’s obsession of the moment.

Launched in 2015 on MBC Korea as King of Mask Singer, the show was a modest hit in the domestic market. Some Asian adaptations followed, including a Thai version that raised the format’s profile when it landed an International Emmy Award nomination. Craig Plestis, a producer in the U.S., discovered it when he was out to dinner at a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. He quickly secured the rights and landed a slot for the show on FOX, where it became a phenomenon. Since then, the format has notched up deals in the U.K., Germany, France, Argentina, Australia and Mexico, among other countries.

For companies in Asia that represent entertainment formats, The Masked Singer blazing a trail across markets that tend to export more ideas than they import signals a host of new international opportunities.

“We are receiving requests for unique ideas from the Asian market,” says Sonia Fleck, the CEO of Singapore-based independent distributor Bomanbridge Media. “Countries such as the U.S., Germany, France, the U.K. and recently Italy have been in discussions with us for some out-of-the-box creative studio game shows, talent competitions and observational reality series. Buyers agree that it’s getting tougher to garner the record-breaking ratings that were more readily clenched in the past. The Masked Singer is just one example of unique, off-the-wall ideas which entertain and create the audience stickiness we all hope to achieve.”

Lester Hu, the head of formats and international business at Hunan TV, is optimistic about the prospects for the global export of Chinese IP in the wake of the success of The Masked Singer.

“I do think China will be a future center for creative formats,” Hu says. “The Chinese audience is looking for something new every day. It’s really competitive in China. The other thing about the Chinese market is that the money is there. There is always money for good content. That’s why I believe China will be a future format creator, someday. People want new ideas. We’re creating them constantly, and there is money to support good ideas and good content. So that will keep us going forward.”

In Japan, the distribution team of leading broadcaster Nippon TV has witnessed a “substantial rise in interest from Western buyers,” says Shigeko Cindy Chino, the associate managing director for international business development. But Chino is well aware that, as in the case of The Masked Singer, it can take time to find success with an entertainment brand globally.

“Our megahit format Dragons’ Den took three years from pitching internationally until it launched on BBC Two in 2005,” Chino says. “So we know it is not easy, but we thrive as an entertainment industry leader to seek the next Dragons’ Den. We are pursuing a strategy with our production team to constantly come up with ideas that will transcend borders. We are recruiting ideas that specifically target the international market and teaming up with partners that are interested in co-development and in sharing common distribution goals.”

Chino adds that Nippon TV formats come with a track record, having already been successes at home. It’s the same situation for Hunan TV, Hu says.

“Our first goal is to make sure it’s a success in China. That means every format we put out to the international market has been a success in China. And then we think, How can it be Westernized or Americanized? When we used to do acquisitions, we tried so hard to understand the format. Why had it been such a big success in the U.K., for example, but didn’t suit China that well? So we had to do the localization ourselves. I think our potential buyers should look at things that way as well. They should think about how they can abstract some of the key points from a Chinese or Asian format and make it work in a Western market. Hunan has worked on so many international formats; we know how to localize things. I believe that is something we can provide to buyers or producers in other countries—our experience. And we’re not that strict on the format. We can be quite flexible and cooperative and offer them our experiences and what we can do to help them to really make a success in other countries.”

Among the big domestic hits on Hu’s slate is Super-Vocal, a new take on the singing competition, this one featuring classically trained singers.

International partnerships have been important to Hunan TV, Hu says. It has a deal with The Story Lab for the voiceover talent format The Sound, co-developed World’s Got Talent with Fremantle and Syco and worked with Endemol Shine Group on Acting Up.

Nippon TV, meanwhile, has collaborated with Red Arrow Studios, a partnership that Chino says “has enabled us to broaden our perspective in the sense of being aware of the international cultural differences and the latest trends.”

The game-show format Block Out emerged out of that alliance. The show launched in Thailand over the summer.

CJ ENM is also partnering with global media companies. “Over the last few years, we have collaborated with Endemol Shine Group for The Society Game, and ITV Studios, Banijay and Gil Formats for other new formats,” says Diane Min, the Korean company’s head of format sales. “We are consistently working on co-productions for fresh formats that target the European and American markets.”

But there are challenges for Asian format distributors. Among them is the fact programmers are still cagey about betting on new concepts from anyone other than the usual suspects.

Bomanbridge’s Fleck references a “lack of openness and capacity to push beyond comfort zones. Channel heads focus on shows which follow the traditional formulas for success. By traditional, I mean that buyers first request successful sales to other ‘key territories’ or look at the same corporate players.”

Nevertheless, Fleck is so confident of the prospects for Asian formats that her company is setting up a development think tank, The Brewery, in Singapore. “We shall both develop internal IP with fantastic creatives as well as collate and gather a very select number of third-party formats that have strong legs to stand on.”

Among the format brands Bomanbridge is working on is Little Masters, a talent competition that originated in China. “We realized that the show had strong identity pillars and could stand up for international review. Following some adjustments on the duration, we have now entered into negotiation with three international territories for this series. It’s very satisfying to find good ideas that are well received by respected industry players.”

Just as the trade in Asian entertainment formats is picking up, so is interest in scripts from the region. Nippon TV’s Mother and Woman–My Life for My Children–, for example, were both adapted in Turkey.

“Turkey has contributed to becoming our gateway to the remote areas of the world and has triggered more interest in scripted titles from clients abroad,” Chino explains. “We are taking all available resources to meet the demands of our clients by increasing our salespeople as well as improving our sales materials. Since the requirements and preferences of produced works, as well as business styles, hugely differ among the different cultures, we are trying to allocate our titles from our vast catalog to the right market by utilizing professional advice from the respective major markets.”

GMA Worldwide has licensed scripted formats into Latin America and Vietnam and has received inquiries from Myanmar and Malaysia, according to Roxanne J. Barcelona, the company’s VP. “According to clients from Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, GMA’s stories are relatable to their cultures, with common themes and values on family, love, friendship, perseverance, diligence, and so on.” Barcelona continues, “GMA also produces dramas which revolve around modern-day issues of HIV, mental health, extended families, LGBT, etc.”

Nippon TV’s Chino also references the universal themes and storylines in the company’s dramas as being key selling points. “Also, the flexibility and adaptability for a longer series made it possible for a long-running success. Interestingly enough, Mother has been produced not only in Turkey but also in South Korea, and will soon start in Ukraine. An option was also sealed for the French market, and more deals are to be unveiled soon.”

Barcelona concedes that the scripted-formats space is not an easy one. “The sale of scripted formats is challenging, as markets are looking for crime and political dramas for adaptation, usually 12 to 20 episodes in length. Most GMA titles have an average of 40 episodes and crime and political dramas are not subjects that [do] well locally. While there are prospects in emerging markets such as Myanmar and Africa, their budgets are very low and their production costs are limited.”

She continues, “While we regard format sales as a lucrative business, we need to devote more time and resources to this area as it involves convincing not just buyers but producers, viewer marketers and airtime sales.”

At India’s GoQuest Media Ventures, there is a focus on bringing international scripted formats to the country’s booming OTT market. Scripted formats are indeed a hot commodity in India at the moment, with recent deals including Luther, Hostages, UnREALand The Office.

“[Linear] TV is not taking any risks,” says Jimmy George, VP of sales and acquisitions. “They’ve moved a bit beyond kitchen politics to romance and more urban stories, but digital is where the real remake market is. There is a lot of opportunity.”

There is so much opportunity across the region that many Asian distributors are making formats a crucial part of their growth strategies. “The format business is positioned as a core pillar in our overseas sales,” says Nippon TV’s Chino. “We continue to thrive on challenges in this area by constantly coming out with renewed schemes and initiatives, holding high hopes for creating the next Dragons’ Den or Mother.”

Bomanbridge’s Fleck adds, “As the big hits are harder to find, there is a space now for industry mavericks to take the leap and jump into new local creative circles, one of which is indeed Asia. What might be a rough jewel is, as we have seen, a true diamond. It just requires a bit of cultural adaptation to hit the bullseye.”