Back in Style

Mega-formats continue to dominate prime-time grids, and many are being renewed and refreshed to keep audiences engaged. 

The reality entertainment boom at the start of the 2000s gave way to a slew of megahit format brands—Survivor, Big Brother and Idols among them—and 20 years on, many of these shows are still going strong. There’s a bevy of big-name formats that have held onto their prime-time slots with an iron grip. Some have been given a rest period to return with full force, while others have undergone carefully executed refreshes.

In today’s TV landscape, mega-formats “are not just remaining strong; they are in the middle of a new boom,” says Lucas Green, global head of content operations at Banijay.

He points to two recent global phenomena: the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of streaming platforms. “Those two factors have created an environment where the linear broadcasters and schedulers are under pressure to deliver big hits,” Green says. “People are staying at home, watching more TV and signing up for more streaming subscriptions, and the broadcasters—linear and nonlinear—have been facing financial pressures due to the drop in advertising revenue, so they need shows that are going to deliver. And if they’re looking very carefully at where they spend their budgets, they want to make sure that they have a couple of really big mega-brands that they can get behind, market, support in their schedules and have lots of complementary programming around.”

“The importance and power of mega-formats are increasing,” agrees Tim Gerhartz, president and managing director of Red Arrow Studios International. “We’ve seen that specifically throughout the recent months, as broadcasters are sticking to what worked prior to Covid and during Covid. So, having a mega-format in place is helpful these days.”

The company has in its catalog the über-successful Married at First Sight format, which has traveled to more than 30 countries and become a channel-defining brand in many markets. “That’s the beauty of a mega-format; you don’t only have a successful show, you turn it into a brand,” says Gerhartz. “You reach a point that when people talk about the show, they immediately have the platform in mind and vice versa.”

In the case of Married at First Sight, successful examples include Nine Network in Australia, Lifetime in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K. “The channels not only show the local version on the main channel, but they also offer the audience spin-offs and add-ons that are based on the original format on secondary channels,” Gerhartz says. “And then, to push their VOD services and extend their catch-up platforms, they acquire foreign tapes to offer even more of the brand to the audience.”

With Married at First Sight in the U.S., the main show has stayed true to the original version, but spin-offs and add-ons have offered the audience new content. Married at First Sight: Unmatchables picks up on protagonists and participants who weren’t matched for the original show, while Married at First Sight: Couples’ Cam is a self-shot series following fan-favorite pairs. “There are many ways to do it, and we see that trend of coming up with spin-offs and add-ons just starting,” Gerhartz says.

There has also been a slew of revivals for mega-formats as of late, with big-name brands being recommissioned after a hiatus. All3Media International and Studio Lambert’s Undercover Boss is back on ITV in prime time as Undercover Big Boss, seven years after it last aired on Channel 4. “Undercover Boss launched after the global recession, so it felt fitting for the format to come back to the U.K. following the impacts of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Nick Smith, executive VP of formats at All3Media International.

Gogglebox returned in Norway as a celebrity version on TV2, a different channel from its original home. “It was always a ratings success on the public-service broadcaster, so it made sense for it to have been commissioned by a commercial broadcaster,” Smith adds.

There have been lots of subtle tweaks to Gogglebox to keep the format fresh over the years. “In the earlier series, we would never have reviewed shows from SVOD platforms, but it is important to reflect how viewing experiences have changed,” Smith notes. “We also didn’t review films and dramas until discovering that they work well, and so many of us do talk in the middle of the most dramatic of programs.

“Most controversially, stars of Gogglebox were dropped from the cast after they became too famous and started appearing in reality shows,” he continues. “This seems counterintuitive, but Gogglebox is all about having a cast of ordinary people who are just like the viewers. It proved to be the right decision.”

Tweaks and subtle twists from international versions can also make their way back into the format bible, Smith says, helping to inform broadcasters about what’s worked elsewhere—and what hasn’t. Adaptations of the game show The Cube in the U.S. and Australia allowed The Cube to speak and have a personality. It worked so well that for season 11 in the U.K. this year, The Cube has had an update and can now talk.

From ViacomCBS International Studios’ (VIS) reality format slate, Ex on the Beach has proven quite versatile, with a wide range of tweaks and changes over the years across the various local versions, explains Laura Burrell, VP of international formats. There have been location variations, such as a winter-themed version (Ex on the Beach: Peak of Love) produced in the U.S. and the Nordics, and a standalone spin-off to the original U.K. version (Celeb Ex in the City) set in the city rather than beachside.

Casting is another way to add freshness to a long-running format like Ex on the Beach, Burrell notes. “We’ve had either full celebrity versions (such as the most recent season in the U.K.) or diversified the cast to include gay or bisexual contestants; we’ve even had a cougar in one local series! There have also been some new format beats added, always subject to approval and always carefully worked through to ensure that they enhance the creative. In the U.S. version, an elimination process was added in for the first time.”

The key, according to Burrell, is to stay current. “You have to grow with your audience, and you can’t do that without moving the dial from time to time. You also want to attract new viewers from season to season. With reality TV particularly, if a format becomes too familiar, the audience knows what to expect and potential cast members know how to play the game. The result is that it becomes boring to watch and loses its authenticity factor. Regularly refreshing the format helps to avoid such pitfalls.”

It is crucial, though, to have a format with durable pillars at the outset to ensure its longevity. So, what are the keys to creating a long-running mega-format?

“Big or small, simple is best,” says Paul Gilbert, senior VP of international formats for ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group. “If a game show has a gimmick, it seems to work in the short term but not in the long term. Shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! are free of gimmicks, and their success speaks for itself. Play-along for the viewers is always a plus. That’s not to say that a game show that is purely entertaining can’t be successful, because many have been. In the reality format world, cringe-worthy for me is a must. It’s the OMG moments in a show. Also, the David-versus-Goliath moments when we cheer for the underdog.”

Banijay’s Green shares a similar view: “The way that we champion longevity is that at their heart, these shows have very simple, clear premises. Survivor is ‘Outwit, Outplay, Outlast’—it is about who the last one will be. It’s clearly a strategy game with loads of drama, and it’s very well cast. Big Brother is the ultimate reality show; it’s a popularity contest. Who is the most popular housemate? MasterChef is one of our biggest and best, and the very simple premise is, it’s really good cooking. It’s high-quality food, and it has a lot of filmic qualities; it’s beautifully made and at the heart of it are great chefs.”

As long as mega-formats continue to deliver in their ratings for broadcasters and brand potential for distributors and producers, their future as staples in prime-time schedules seems certain. “While they’re successful, there’s no reason why [broadcasters] would want to rest them,” Green says. “It’s up to us to keep the quality high. The viewers have shown that they like them and will keep coming to them.

“Looking into the future, the landscape is changing,” he continues. “There is a real battle going on between the streaming platforms for viewers, subscribers and top-quality content. I think we will see them start to enter the market and identify some of these mega-brands as a great way to launch their service in a new territory. Then, straight out of the block, you’ve got a show that people are familiar with and, even better, you know works.”

Even with the established megahits continuing to flourish, there’s always room for brand-new concepts, says Red Arrow’s Gerhartz—if they’re compelling. “At the moment, it’s key for broadcasters to work with what does well for them. It’s important for them to extend on that success, but then again, they need to come up with something fresh.”

He believes that Stealing the Show! could be the next big thing. In a spin on the classic quiz show, the format sees the contestant who wins in one episode host the next. “That’s something we haven’t seen before,” says Gerhartz. “It’s a megahit! It’s a huge success on ProSieben in Germany and ratings are building in season two, even better than season one. Proof of concept with a fresh twist gets people excited.”