The format industry’s leading players weigh in on what’s driving the business today.
The 2000s ushered in the era of the megaformats, marking the arrival of global hits like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Big Brother and Survivor. Twenty-plus years later and the business is thriving—with those brands remarkably still on the air in several territories—despite what has been a difficult few years.
“The format business was one of the first to slow down when Covid-19 hit, but it was also one of the first to quickly respond and kick off again,” says Tim Gerhartz, the managing director of Red Arrow Studios International. “It’s an adaptable and flexible genre, as you can quickly stop and start production; you easily can change elements or adjust the volume as needed or to suit demand.”
James Townley, global head of content development at Banijay, observes, “We are seeing a bounce back both from a new IP point of view, as well as with our big super-brands. The opportunities are all there.”
Andre Renaud, senior VP of global format sales at BBC Studios, notes that while the segment struggled as productions were shut down or scaled back, format licensing and development proceeded at a brisk pace.
“People were looking to us for high-quality shows that they could get to air quickly and to find formats that could be produced under a Covid-safe environment,” he explains, citing new deals for Weakest Link in the U.S., Greece and Australia.
All3Media International, similarly, is home to several brands that were able to continue production amid the pandemic “and even gain new commissions, such as Gogglebox and The Cube,” says Nick Smith, the company’s executive VP of formats. “The sector has more than bounced back. Race Across the World, which couldn’t be produced in 2020-21, now has three versions in production.”
NEW NEW THINGS
Production slowdowns also provided an opportunity for producers to come up with new concepts, according to Renaud. “That time is now starting to bear fruit. If we’re looking at a bounce back, it’s probably about these creative ideas that people had the freedom and flexibility to come up with.”
Tom Miyauchi, head of formats, international business development at Nippon TV, concurs with Renaud’s assessment, noting, “Format creators from around the world lived the new norm and spent the past two years concentrating on the development of new ideas. As a result, we are now seeing a burst of creativity in the market with many new formats.”
For Avi Armoza, founder and CEO of Armoza Formats, a division of ITV Studios, that influx of creativity has been crucial as broadcasters actively seek compelling new propositions. “During Covid, most broadcasters exhausted their current formats and had less of a need or desire to change their lineup of shows and bring in something new. Due to this exhaustion, broadcasters are back searching for new formats to either replace an established show or to give a break to the well-known formats before bringing them back to their viewers.”
The fast-proliferating on-demand landscape is also helping to power the revival of the formats business, with All3Media International’s Smith pointing to the arrival of a wealth of new buyers. “We have licensed formats to global and local SVOD platforms this year such as discovery+, HBO Max, Streamz and VOYO,” he says. “Our formats business has surpassed where we were before the pandemic.”
The consensus among format rights owners is that the needs of broadcasters and streamers are not as different as they once were.
“Broadcasters all have a VOD strategy now,” says Gerhartz at Red Arrow Studios International. “They’re all looking for hybrid formats that can work on both linear and nonlinear and that also offer volume, especially for the binge-watching audience.
“There are exceptions, though,” Gerhartz adds. “Certain genres remain a linear game, such as live event shows and studio-based game shows. But most traditional networks are equally looking for binge-watchable, VOD-capable shows.”
BBC Studios’ Renaud says there are slight nuances in the different needs across platforms. “The bigger broadcasters are looking for prime-time entertainment brands that draw a large audience. The growing competition among the streamers themselves means they’re also looking for brands with wide appeal. They’re often looking for established brand names or talent to stand apart from their competitors. It seems like every streamer is looking for their niche in dating and cooking—[which] are evergreens for linear broadcasters, too. The main advantage for streamers is that they have the nuanced audience data and, therefore, the ability to create new ideas targeting a specific audience.”
“The wants and needs of the broadcasters and streamers are merging,” agrees Townley at Banijay. “Local networks all have catch-up services. They all want content that resonates with audiences, whether it’s four-quad, family viewing or a younger demographic, and successful formats that are low-cost and high-volume are definitely desirable. The broadcast networks have the ability to deliver live, appointment-to-view television, and they are really strong in the studio entertainment space. But at the end of the day, they all want content; they want to feed the beast. The streamers also want to keep viewers for the entirety of a series, whereas some broadcast networks can do stand-alone non-scripted entertainment shows audiences can dip in and out of.”
Armoza agrees, stating that the clear difference between streamers and broadcasters is that the former prefer shows with an arc and a clear visual hook that will grab audiences immediately.
“Streamers are looking for titles that really stand out from the crowd,” says All3Media International’s Smith. “Streamers are also open to shows that are more niche than linear broadcasters would go to—they don’t necessarily have to attract a huge audience but serve neglected groups and convince them to subscribe to their platform.”
Sophie Ferron, president and founder of Media Ranch, adds that the global streamers “also need to control the international rights. The networks want that same high-concept idea. They’re competing against the streamers. It’s an opportunity for the producers to go to the broadcasters and get a better deal. They will be more generous in terms of international rights because they know that the streamers are not. That’s an opportunity for producers and format creators like us.”
With Dancing with the Stars moving to Disney+ and Netflix resurrecting The Mole, it’s clear that reboots and megabrands are being sought after by broadcasters and platforms alike.
A returning franchise is the holy grail for format IP owners, and many of the distributors surveyed here have taken great pains to ensure that their megabrands return refreshed and updated, season after season.
At Red Arrow Studios International, Gerhartz references the time that has gone into building Married at First Sight into a franchise, with broadcasters such as Channel 4 in the U.K., Lifetime in the U.S. and 9Network in Australia “supersizing their offerings” of the show, he says. “During Covid, especially, many channels realized they could turn Married at First Sight into a megabrand with spin-offs and additional tapes of other international versions. We even have a couple of countries that have two separate versions on air at the same time; RTL in the Netherlands has a more traditional version on the main channel and a more reality-TV-driven version on the VOD platform, while in Finland, MTV3 has commissioned a 20-episode supersized version to sit alongside the original version.”
Gerhartz continues, “The key to successful brand management in the format business is to ensure a show remains authentic and true to itself but has room to develop in response to changing viewing patterns and habits.”
BBC Studios is home to such megaformats as Dancing with the Stars and The Great Bake Off. “We’re always asking ourselves, how do we keep improving?” Renaud says. “We make sure that our flying producer network has opportunities for our commissioners and producers around the world to have creative exchanges. We’re continually trying to see if something that works in one place can travel elsewhere. In one territory, Bake Off did a house of cards with biscuits. The visual was so strong and persuasive at a creative exchange that we saw three or four other markets replicate it.”
At Banijay, Townley’s colleague Lucas Green, global head of content operations, is laser-focused on maintaining that company’s significant portfolio of hits. Townley refers to the process as “creative renewal.”
Older formats are also being dusted off and rebooted, with broadcasters and platforms looking to hedge their bets slightly by offering up something that is both new and has some brand recognition.
“We are also seeing a revival of shows that were strong before Covid, like Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds,” Gerhartz says, pointing to Old People’s Home for Teenagers in Australia. “It’s a good example of taking an existing brand but renewing it and putting it into a fresh context. The idea is still relevant; you just have to update the execution.”
BBC Studios’ Renaud agrees that there’s a trend toward rebooting older fare, “but it’s shows that have had a good pause from TV, so it feels like a renaissance instead of a risk-averse piece,” he says.
But an industry reliance on reboots and megabrands does make it that much harder for a brand-new idea to break through.
“It’s not easy to make it in non-scripted,” says Nadav Palti, president and CEO of Dori Media Group. “You develop and develop and develop. Only 1 out of 100 makes it and catches the audience. It’s very tough to convince a broadcaster to take the risk and put it on air.”
Audiences are, however, clamoring for new concepts, Media Ranch’s Ferron says. “When something breaks out, like Love Is Blind, everybody watches it. There’s an appetite for new. What we see with the megabrands is the risk-averse executives saying, Well, at least we know what we have in this. It’s the devil we know. But after a while, you need to think of what will be the next thing.”
Armoza notes, “This is the contradiction that we see in the industry of formats and new ideas—there is a strong need for new ideas, but at the same time, broadcasters feel safe to keep broadcasting the shows they know and have a track record already.”
However, IP owners are seeing some willingness on the part of buyers to try unproven ideas, despite the recessionary fears gripping the global economy.
“I don’t think anybody in this industry can afford to act risk-averse—maintaining the status quo is not an option anymore,” Gerhartz at Red Arrow Studios International says. “It’s an industry in a state of transformation, the speed of which has accelerated because of Covid. There’s certainly a strong willingness to shape the future, push boundaries and try new things.”
RISK & REWARD
Banijay’s Townley says broadcasters are being considered in their choices given the uncertain economic climate. “They have to be incredibly strategic about what they invest in and the bets they are taking. Luckily, most buyers are quite balanced with taking on existing and new IP. We’re a creative community, but we can’t ignore the financial constraints—creatives want budgets to go up, not down, but we have to be able to adapt, and we’re here to help find those solutions.”
Paul Gilbert, senior VP of international formats at Paramount Global Content Distribution, says broadcasters are particularly focused on budgets given the concerns about next year. “Their way of combatting the economic climate is to cut the cost of production. I get it. However, we try to convince them to order more episodes, which will result in a lower cost per episode. Sometimes they agree, and sometimes they don’t.”
While Gilbert notes that pitching a show with a track record is helpful, broadcasters shouldn’t be overly reliant on ratings in another territory when making commissioning decisions. “There’s nothing better than pitching a show that is on-air and is successful. Everyone wants to buy off success, and I understand that. However, many great shows have not made it past season one for several reasons: bad time slot, subpar casting or not being well produced. I always tell a buyer, Forget how the show performed on-air—if you like it and feel it will do well for your channel, then step up and make us an offer.”
Smith at All3Media International says that creators need to be, well, extra creative in this landscape. “Format creators have to be smart, whether that means partnering with owners of IP from other spheres to create a TV format or finding ingenious ways to promote new shows. For example, in Belgium, we have closed a deal with a company that operates virtual reality venues to create a game based on the celebrity horror format Don’t Scream. They are promoting the game and also the TV series, which, of course, is attractive to the commissioner.”
Co-development initiatives, whether among producers, broadcasters or distributors, can also be an effective process for building formats that are scalable and easily replicable.
“Nippon TV is a pioneer in format co-developments, having partnered with major studios such as Red Arrow Studios for Block Out, ITV Studios for Stacking It! and The Story Lab for 9 Windows, and many more,” says Miyauchi. “It does take some time to develop new formats across different cultural backgrounds; however, we have garnered many more opportunities and partnerships than ever before with format co-developments. We are expanding our global footprint by building new strategic creative collaborations with international partners to create original content for viewers worldwide.”
“Co-development is really about creating a partnership between companies with great ideas, in-depth local knowledge about what their respective market wants, great access to commissioners and budgets, and expertise in marketing and selling the idea,” says Red Arrow Studios International’s Gerhartz. “That’s the purpose of the distribution business: to turn an idea into business—it’s not enough to just have a great idea. These partnerships can happen across any territories and on different levels of the value chain.”
Creative exchange happens across the Banijay portfolio of 120 companies, Townley says. “We have an internal creative fund set up to invest in embryonic new ideas, fully focused on supporting our producers and supercharging our development pipeline. We know how competitive this market is, so we need to make our IP stand out. We’ve seen positive outcomes from ensuring a new idea is well supported with exceptional materials.”
Renaud points to the development that is happening across BBC Studios, referencing as an example Ex Rated, created by U.K. indie Mighty Productions. “Our L.A. production team worked with them to develop it and attach talent, and it got picked up by Peacock in the U.S. With that U.S. commission, we can take it back out into the market.”
Dori Media is looking for new ideas via an accelerator program. Palti notes: “156 new ideas were submitted to the program. We chose 20 and then six and then we chose two to develop. Spy Date is a different angle on dating. It combines a secret world—Mossad, CIA, KGB—with love and dating. Stand-Up Warrior has comedians who have to prove themselves in a space they are not comfortable in.”
Nippon TV, meanwhile, “launched a new creative team internally with a thriving group of young creators who specialize in developing new paper formats and new creative collaborations,” Miyauchi says.
Armoza Formats, which is part of the ITV Studios network, has a range of processes in place to spot the next big thing. “Our dynamic development team brings a deep knowledge of the industry and creative ways of thinking,” says Armoza, who adds that the company hosts an annual pitch competition, Formagination.
Media Ranch hosts Horsepower, an incubator program for new ideas, and partners with producers across the globe. “We are extremely open to receiving pitches from all over the world,” Ferron says. “We have strong relationships in Scandinavia and South Korea, and we recently closed a deal with Trace Studios in South Africa. That gives us a footprint in these territories. That’s how we get to these new territories and these new creators. And we have the creators from Horsepower coming to us with new formats and ideas.”
Ultimately, “good ideas can come from anywhere in the world,” Gerhartz at Red Arrow Studios International says, “but it needs know-how and experience to turn an idea into a project.”
“We are in the business of telling stories,” Armoza says. “From our perspective, every format is a story. It seems at this point that all the stories have been told. The challenge now is to find a new way to tell the story of talent shows, entertainment shows, reality shows.”