Wednesday, March 22, 2023
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Banijay’s James Townley

As global head of content development at Banijay, James Townley leads the development and creation of non-scripted IP and format acquisitions across the company’s significant global footprint. In this wide-ranging conversation with TV Formats, he offers his perspectives on the state of the industry and the search for the next big global hit.

TV FORMATS: How has the industry recovered since the onset of the pandemic?
TOWNLEY: The whole industry was affected by Covid, although we managed to weather the storm better than most of our competitors because of our strong position in the unscripted space. These shows could, in most cases, keep going throughout the pandemic as they are quick to turn around, can be more budget-friendly and, in terms of new IP, pose less of a financial risk for commissioners than a premium scripted series. Another key factor was that we have a strong distribution arm with Banijay Rights and its catalog of 130,000 hours, which was able to support the company in numerous ways, such as via finished tape sales.

In the last 12 months, we have seen a bounce back both from a new IP point of view and with our big superbrands. The opportunities are all there, and our global teams are working their socks off. There’s no question that formats are back, and the big ones are doing incredibly well.

TV FORMATS: Are the needs of the streamers different from that of an ITV or an RTL?
TOWNLEY: Two years ago, I’d have said yes. Now, the wants and needs of the broadcasters and streamers are merging. 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, high-volume are definitely desirable. Across the board, everyone wants dating and reality, and premium documentaries are doing particularly well.

The broadcast networks can deliver live, appointment-to-view television and are really strong in the studio entertainment space—we saw that with Starstruck on ITV. But at the end of the day, they all want content; they want to feed the beast. The turnover is fast, especially with streamers that need to keep their subscribers. 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, which audiences can dip in and out of. So, the slight difference there is the streamers’ prioritization for an arc non-scripted series.

The cost-of-living crisis is highly likely to hit most of us quite hard, and that will consequently hit budgets. Like with Covid, we will have to adapt here, but being independent and platform-agnostic means we are far more agile and in a much better position to pivot and adapt to change.

TV FORMATS: How do you weigh a global format deal with a streamer against a country-by-country approach?
TOWNLEY: No broadcaster or streamer wants to be the second, third or fourth choice for the pitch. We pitch exclusive ideas to partners depending on their specific brief. The streamers are sometimes able to be a bit more ambitious with scale. At Banijay, we follow the European model—creating IP and retaining as much of it as we can. But it’s very much case-by-case, particularly given the ever-changing nature of content strategies right now.

TV FORMATS: Some people will say that the megabrands crowd out innovation in the market, but you’re constantly refreshing those gems in your catalog. Tell us about the approach to brand management.
TOWNLEY: I work alongside Lucas Green, global head of content operations, whose absolute focus is these superbrands and working with our global teams producing and innovating them. It’s creative renewal. There is a lot of talk about reboots at the moment, which I think slightly downplays the quality of the shows. Big Brother is returning to ITV, and the BBC recommissioned Survivor and, outside our catalog, Gladiators. These are big, recognizable brands, but the audience does expect new iterations and creative renewal.

Superbrands have a strong identity and a format DNA, elements we have to consolidate, strengthen and ensure aren’t compromised. But every single territory, every single culture, has a different way of showcasing it. For example, Hunted on Channel 4 and Hunted on Prime VideoItaly are not the same show. And Endemol Shine Australia was the first to do the pre-recorded Big Brother—when everyone said it couldn’t be pre-recorded, highlighting the adaptability of the shows and their strength across the world. Perhaps that is why copycats never fare well….

Banijay is home to roughly 5,000 formats. Some of them may not work today, but some you go, “What does that look like in 2023?” That’s when it gets really interesting. The effort that goes into a creative renewal of these titles is as much as any new IP.

TV FORMATS: How are you working across the Banijay footprint to identify concepts that can be formatted?
TOWNLEY: When working with over 120 labels, the great thing is that there is so much creativity and we have a very healthy development pipeline. It’s not just working with those individual ideas; there’s the co-production and collaboration we can do among the different territories too. The dating and relationship show Save the Date is a great example. It was created by Endemol Shine Israel and picked up for the first time by Finnish broadcaster Nelonen, produced by Endemol Shine Finland.

We have an internal creative fund 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.

TV FORMATS: Given the economic uncertainty, are broadcasters more risk-averse than usual?
TOWNLEY: I don’t think they’re more risk-averse than usual, but they are very considered at the moment. They have to be incredibly strategic about what they invest in and the bets they are taking, especially given the current economic climate. 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 adapt and are here to help find those solutions.

About Mansha Daswani

Mansha Daswani is the editor-in-chief and associate publisher of World Screen. She can be reached on


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