Kevin Lygo

This interview originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2013 issue of TV Europe.

In 2012, ITV Studios’ Come Dine with Me accounted for more than 5,000 broadcast hours around the world, making it the year’s most-screened format. Since originating on Channel 4, the dinner-party format has been adapted in 30-plus markets, among them the U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, France and Brazil. Kevin Lygo, ITV Studios’ managing director, tells TV Europe about how the company is developing properties in-house, acquiring successful indies across the globe and using its network of production companies to adapt its portfolio of hit formats, among them The Chase, Hell’s Kitchen and Four Weddings.

WS: What has been the general strategy behind increasing production and revenues at ITV Studios?
LYGO: The initial focus was to get the right people in the right places, everything else follows from that. As you know, the belief at ITV is that the Studios business has a great deal of potential for growth. More and more today, what works in one country quite often works very successfully in another. We are perfectly poised to capitalize on that.

WS: ITV Studios had set the goal of increasing the amount of programming it provides the ITV network.
LYGO: When I joined ITV Studios we produced approximately 48 percent of the programs on ITV, the figure is about 60 percent now. We are very happy with our growth so far. It’s where we first concentrated our efforts and therefore it’s the first area to really demonstrate that what we’re doing is working. There’s still more work to do, I want to see more high-value programming on the network and I want to see us making even more drama that can travel internationally. A big success for us is Mr Selfridge. It rates very highly on our own network, and we have sold it overseas really effectively. Just on its own, this one drama series makes a significant contribution to our profits and turnover. I would like more of those and that’s where we’re concentrating a lot of attention at the moment.

WS: What’s your strategy for developing these dramas that will resonate at home and abroad?
LYGO: The short answer is you’re sailing into danger if you try and prescribe a hit for everybody in the world. It’s not advisable to try and conceive of something that almost by algorithm will satisfy nations all over the world. You must always first go with the writer, the producer, the person who’s got the idea and the passion to make a really good show. Some dramas might perform brilliantly in your own market and go nowhere internationally; others might be okay in your own market and really succeed elsewhere. First off, you’ve got to deal with the ideas that emerge through the creative process and then think tactically and cleverly about how they could be best adapted to work in other countries. For example, Downton Abbey’s success has, in some ways, paved the way for Mr Selfridge to be so successful. People know what to expect from this genre of British drama, they know they like it, it’s got a stamp of period British heritage about it. We’ve got a fantastic new drama called Breathless, which is set in the 1960s, against a medical backdrop. It will go out later in the year in the U.K. and we’ve got high hopes that it will travel well alongside the other drama we’re making.

WS: Can you tell us about ITV Studios’ development process and how it compares with the pilot system in the U.S.?
LYGO: We make a lot of entertainment pilots as part of our development process and sometimes we do this in conjunction with our network. I will always say that with studio-based shows, you’re mad not to pilot them first. It’s much better to spend the budget needed to try something and then say, “Whoops, it doesn’t work!” than to submit ten parts and then just wince every week as it airs. In entertainment, we do invest in piloting shows and that’s vital and crucial.

With drama, there isn’t really a tradition in the U.K of piloting like they do in the States, because of the costs. We spend a lot of time, money and effort working with writers on scripts. At any one time we will have 30 or 40 scripts being written for both our own network and external networks. And then we move from there. Sometimes you might have a drama idea that lends itself to starting as a two-part on-air pilot. It will look to the viewer as an interesting program on television that night. But we’re looking at it as producers and broadcasters, assessing whether there is a series in it. If people, understandably, are nervous about committing straight to series, then one approach—which is slightly slower and more cautious—is to try a one off or a two-parter or perhaps a three-parter on air. Quite often this happens in the summer, hoping it will go to series the following year. Vera, for example, is a very successful crime show that we make, but it started life as a one-off special. Having Brenda Blethyn in the title lead of a crime drama meant that it attracted the interest of viewers. So they watch and enjoy it, we’re proud of it, the network is pleased, and we go to series. 

WS: What are your thoughts on the U.S. broadcast networks beginning to embrace shorter-run series like Under the Dome or The Following, inspired by the cable model?
LYGO: There’s something refreshing about the shorter runs. We all know that with a few wonderful exceptions, the most interesting work in American drama has been on the cable channels. It’s an exciting new development for writers and producers. It’s more containable. It’s easier to see the arc within a 13-part than a 24-part series. It can allow you to be a bit more experimental, a bit freer with the way you run the story. If you’re going to do 24, it basically needs to be a formatted procedural show that is pretty much the same every week. There will always be a place for the long-runners, but as a maker of TV I think 13-part series are great creatively. Where broadcasters used to commission one show, they will now commission two to fill the same slot and this gives producers another bite of the cherry, if you’re lucky.

WS: The other trend that people have been talking about is binge viewing. What’s your sense of how this phenomenon will alter how shows are made? Will we see the end of the cliffhanger?
LYGO: Certainly everyone in the industry views shows that way, probably because of the lifestyles we lead! What it can do for writers is allow them to have slightly more complicated stories because as a viewer you don’t have to hold it all in your head for a week anymore. You can be more subtle. You can have more variations of tone. In my experience of viewing, I think the cliffhanger is more Dickensian in its formation. They are still there. In all these shows, from Game of Thrones to Dexter, there are loads of cliffhangers but they don’t necessarily need to be at the end of an episode. In storytelling you want these great moments of revelation and surprise. I don't think they’ll disappear.

WS: Come Dine with Me is among the world’s top formats. What’s your overall strategy for developing entertainment properties that will translate well to other markets?
LYGO: Come Dine with Me is unlike anything else and came out of left field. Who could have predicted its success? There’s a pragmatic challenge for people coming up with new ideas; if it can be done on a modest budget and it’s still a fresh new idea then it’s a very good thing. Come Dine with Me is in 36 countries, whereas I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which is a huge show that we make here, is only in a few countries because it’s much more expensive to make. Almost every nation in the world could afford to make its own version of Come Dine with Me. When we’re looking at formats we’re thinking, be pragmatic here: can Serbia afford its own version? It shouldn't shape the idea but it helps us in thinking how much we want to invest in a particular new format. These ideas are few and far between and the most important thing is to create an environment where creative people feel enabled to muck around, try crazy things, have resources to pilot little things, have the comfort that a failure is not a terrible thing at the piloting and development stage. In fact, it’s absolutely inevitable half the time and therefore don’t think you’re going to get fired or crawl into a corner and cry when your idea falls flat on its face. Our job as a production house is to allow creative, interesting people to have the space to try things out and fail and succeed with equal measure.

Sometimes it’s overlooked but just one really successful program can have an enormous impact on your business. And it all comes down to an idea for a TV show that just explodes. You want to build your pipeline, get all your relationships ready, get everybody expectant and hopeful for your next show, but the most important thing is to have the next show. To have the right people in the right place in the right frame of mind, in an environment where they are allowed to try new things. The next big thing will not be like the last. The copycat shows are inevitable. People have tried to rip off Come Dine with Me, there’s a world of that. But Come Dine with Me became the great big show because it was unlike anything else. You can never underestimate audiences’ desire to latch on to something new when they see it. They don’t know what it is until they get there. It’s much more exciting to try things and come up with something you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

WS: You’ve acquired a number of production companies in the U.S. and U.K. recently. What’s your strategy when deciding what kind of company to bring into the ITV fold?
LYGO: We’re very happy with our acquisitions so far both here in the U.K. and in the States. We’ve acquired So Television, The Garden and Big Talk Productions in the U.K. and Gurney Productions, High Noon Entertainment and Think Factory Media in the U.S. Plus Mediacircus and Tarinatalo in the Nordics. So we are moving at some pace but we’re quite cautious and very selective about who we want to be in business with. We do look at it as a partnership. These companies are generally good because two or three people have grown them to the size that they are. What we can do is help them grow substantially from that point. If you’re a two-man band, there’s a limit to what you can do. In the U.K. for example, we bought So Television and The Garden, which are small companies, very solid, they make a nice little profit, but most importantly, we think they will grow exponentially. They have an expertise in areas that maybe we didn’t until we acquired them. What we offer is infrastructure and global reach through our distribution arm. That can really help them to expand. What we want is long-term growth and the creation of intellectual property that we can then take around the world and grow. Firstly, we want people that make shows that are undeniably good, people who are really respected in the industry, that complement perhaps what we do already. In America, it’s the same. We’ve got a couple of proper monster hits on our hands with Duck Dynasty [from Gurney Productions] and so forth.

WS: How do the ITV Studios production businesses around the world contribute to your format development and rollout process?
LYGO: We have ITV Studios production businesses in the U.S., France, Germany, Australia and the Nordic countries. As well as developing their own shows they have all had success producing our U.K. originated formats for their own markets. For example I'm A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here and Four Weddings in Germany, Come Dine with Me Australia, Four Weddings and Coach Trip France and Come Dine with Me across the Nordics. Eleven seasons on, Hell’s Kitchen continues to be a hit in the U.S. and the U.S. team has recently produced The Chase, which is a very successful quiz show in the U.K., for GSN. We want to keep doing more of this.

WS: What did you learn from the adaptation of Prime Suspect for NBC in the U.S.?
LYGO: We had a very happy experience with Prime Suspect. It was a show that only went to the 13 episodes. We learned that we really don't want to be in the deficit-funding business of great big long-running network shows. We’re not big enough. We’re not the size of Fox or Warner Bros. But we really felt the power of having a good American show on our books and certainly our sales team at ITV Studios Global Entertainment found it a glorious thing to sell. We sold it to many, many countries, it brought new clients to us and it was something nice to offer our existing clients. The international distribution of American scripted content is something we want to do more of. But, we’ve got to walk before we can run. We are distributing the Sundance Channel series Rectify. It’s been a fantastic hit for Sundance and the critics love it. So far we’re really happy with that kind of strategy.

WS: How important is it to have nonlinear or consumer-product extensions to some of your big entertainment brands?
LYGO: I don't think it’s essential at all, and only some lend themselves to it. We just launched a show here that was a big success called The Big Reunion, which was getting a bunch of pop stars from the last few decades back together. On the back of that, their records were back in the charts, and so they could do a huge tour in big arenas because they have such a big fan base that hasn’t seen them in years. In that way there are spin offs. As always, it’s the idea and the show first.