Banijay Group’s Grant Ross

Grant-RossSince his appointment in 2014 as Zodiak Media’s executive VP of global creative development and format acquisition, Grant Ross has been working with Zodiak’s production companies looking for ideas that can satisfy audiences in several countries. Prior to joining Zodiak, he was global head of acquisitions at the Endemol Group and he has considerable experience spotting shows that have the potential to travel. At the end of February, Banijay Group and Zodiak announced they were combining their production units and catalogues. Ross talks to TV Formats about the advantages of the merger for both companies and the new formats being showcased by Zodiak Rights, Banijay Group’s distribution arm.

TV FORMATS: What are the benefits of the merger with Banijay?
ROSS: The obvious one is the larger footprint [which will now include] 17 territories. That gives us quite a force while maintaining creative freedom. The merger is also incredibly interesting because it’s bringing two different cultures together. Both of them have their own advantages. Banijay has a very strong entrepreneurial culture. They do something that we have been looking to do for a while at Zodiak but has always been our weak point and that is target slots. At Banijay they are very good at achieving results in slots that are very complicated to get and very complicated to hold on to, and those are the slots in television that pay the most—slots for game shows and daily talk shows. These are the ones that change businesses. So we have a lot to learn from that side. On the Zodiak side, creativity is certainly at the heart of what we do and something we’ve invested in heavily in the past two years. Banijay is certainly embracing that part of our culture. I would lastly say that Zodiak, going back to the old RDF years, has a very strong, renowned and respected distribution arm. There is no doubt about it; outside the new footprint we have a good distribution arm to sell our shows.

TV FORMATS: Would you give examples of shows that started in one territory and then became global formats?
ROSS: We have many examples going back to the earlier days—shows like Wife Swap, which was made in 25 territories, Secret Millionaire and Fort Boyard. Banijay also has some big brands like Temptation Island, Beat Your Host and Popstars. Recently we’ve been coming up with some very interesting concepts that have been traveling beautifully, shows like The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds, Wild Things, and in the last few months, a show called Undressed from Magnolia in Italy. All three of them are stellar concepts. They are our queen bees of the last 12 months. The first two are shows which broadcast in 2015. Secret Life has reached six territories with many more to come. Wild Things also broadcast in 2015 and, although it’s an expensive format, it has reached seven territories with further deals close to signature. Undressed only broadcast in January, in Italy, to incredible figures and has been commissioned in three other territories.

TV FORMATS: When you hear an idea for a show, are there certain elements that jump out and make you think it will work?
ROSS: The originality of the idea. If it’s a strong idea and it’s original and it’s taking us into a space that nobody’s gone before, then immediately the hairs come up on my arm. Failing this, [I’d be interested in] a completely different way of tackling something we already know. But there is nothing worse than generic, derivative concepts. Our audiences will reject them. Originality is the first element I look out for.

TV FORMATS: What are the key elements to adapting a format?
ROSS: You need to tick several key boxes in order to have a successfully adapted show. First, you need to have an idea that is successful in its original territory. It’s hard to export failures, although it has been done. The second box that has to be ticked is the proper distribution of the information about the format, which is vital in the local selling process. For us it’s about communication and getting the key talent, who created and executed the original concept, in the same room as all our entrepreneurs who run the different [Banijay Group] offices. The entrepreneurs need to understand the process of how the format was created, why it was created that way, and the key elements that bring it success. [Using their knowledge of their local markets] they can in turn tweak the selling pitch to suit their territories. The next box is that the talented entrepreneurs in our territories, who understand the format and how to sell it, must also know their broadcast clients, their needs and, above all, have the confidence of the broadcasters to execute the format correctly. Once they pitch the format, they know the broadcasters will say, Yes, these people are capable of delivering this format the way they say they will. The next box, which is extremely important, is obviously the execution of the show. That can only happen correctly if the process is understood and, above all, the producers are talented people and work very closely with our consulting team. We put a lot of effort into our consultancy. Our key executives play a major role in this process. That is the last box that needs to be ticked, but all four boxes are extremely important to the process. If you are not able to tick one of those boxes, you immediately have an Achilles’ heel.

TV FORMATS: Are there trends right now in the formats market?
ROSS: Yes, there are trends, no doubt about it, but as arrogant as this may seem—and believe me I don’t want to appear arrogant—we try to steer our creatives away from those trends. It’s one thing to follow a trend, but it’s even more exciting to try to set the next one—that’s the big game. If you follow a trend, you will generally come up with generic ideas and will generally finish second best. Of course, we also create concepts that are in similar spaces to existing ones, especially if requested by our broadcast clients, but if you can motivate your creative to fish elsewhere, you’ll have a much bigger chance of catching that big one. At the end of the day, that has to be what it’s all about—to aim to get a global hit. You are never going to get that global hit by following a trend. Well, never say never, as The Voice was the exception to that rule, but let’s say very, very unlikely….

TV FORMATS: Different broadcasters have different budgets. Does a format have to be elastic enough so that the broadcaster with a bigger budget can put more bells and whistles into it, and another broadcaster with a smaller budget can still use it in a more pared-down version?
ROSS: Creativity must always be put first. If you get that right, you’ll find solutions on the budget side. If you start thinking about the budgets you are probably going to, somewhere or other, handicap your creativity. We’re lucky that much of our creativity comes from the Nordic region; even though the shows are non-English, their budgets correspond to those in most of the world. In other words, all the shows from that region travel without having financial gymnastics issues. We also get a lot of creativity coming out of the U.K. office, and these can be big-budget shows. At the end of the day, if it’s a great concept, broadcasters will find the budgets. Given that 80 percent of creativity comes from the U.K. and the U.S., it’s fair to say their big budgets haven’t hindered their formats from traveling. Secret Life of 4 Year Olds is such a ratings success—it’s the highest-rated factual format in the past five years for Channel 4—the cost isn’t stopping its rollout. When it comes to a show like Wild Things, we’ve created a production hub in Argentina. The hub is enabling many of our territories to produce cost-effectively; albeit Russia, Belgium and China have all managed local productions.

TV FORMATS: What new titles will you have for MIPTV?
ROSS: We will continue to push The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds, Wild Things and of course Undressed, which we believe will be a big one for us. We are adding a Dutch show called Killer Roads, which I think will be well received by the market, and a Danish show called Wimps in the Wilderness, which is an extraordinary take on men changing their lives.