The format business at BBC Studios has long been defined by big, prime-time, family-friendly entertainment brands like Dancing with the Stars and The Great Bake Off, not to mention game-show staples such as The Weakest Link. In the last year, however, the company’s trade in scripted formats has been booming, with adaptations of hit dramas like Life on Mars, Doctor Foster and Mistresses, and continued interest in The Office. As creative director for formats at BBC Studios, Sumi Connock is working across a range of genres, aligning with sister production houses and independents to feed the needs of broadcasters and platforms worldwide. She tells TV Formats about new trends in the market and her approach to rebooting classic brands.
TV FORMATS: It’s been a year since the BBC Studios and BBC Worldwide merger. What have been some of the significant benefits for your format business?
CONNOCK: We work much more closely with all our global production offices. It’s about having a real creative network and creative hub, particularly in the territories that are originating and developing for themselves, so the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Working closely together has been great. We have new genre managing directors, with Suzy Lamb coming into entertainment and Hannah Wyatt coming into factual entertainment. It’s been great to have big new creative minds coming into Studios. And we’ve had new indie partners, like Expectation Entertainment, Peter Fincham’s company with Tim Hincks. They have some brilliant new things going on.
TV FORMATS: What trends in the market are you meeting with your new format slate?
CONNOCK: We’re seeing a big rise in factual entertainment with a purpose. We have Our Dementia Choir, which is all about using musical therapy to improve the lives of people who have dementia. We have three new factual-entertainment formats we’ll be talking about at MIPTV.
Dating and relationships is a theme that is always in demand. What are the new ways of looking at it? We’ve acquired Dating Detectives, which is a Zig Zag format, a pilot for CJ ENM in Korea. What is the twist on dating? We get real-life detectives and use their skills to look at potential partners—hidden-camera filming, cutting-edge forensics, interrogations, psychological profiling. It’s pretty intense! Again on the relationship side, we have Couples on the Couch, which is a BBC Studios production for BBC Three, so slightly younger-skewing. It’s real-life couples bringing their sexual and emotional issues into a specially created clinic where they can have some therapy. We’ll also have footage of them in the car journey on the way to their first appointment. They’ll also meet other couples in the waiting room of the clinic. After their first session, they’ll be sent away with their “homework.” They will do some personal video diaries at home. They’ll come back in and each see the therapist individually. Then they have a third visit to talk about the impact of the therapy and the next steps. In the Instagram world, everybody thinks everyone else has perfect lives and perfect sex lives and their bodies are amazing. That is putting a lot of pressure on young people. [The format features] refreshing, open and honest discussions about their sex lives and their relationships and what they want from each other.
In the daily strippable space, we have a BBC series for BBC One called Home Is Where the Art Is. It’s an accessible way to do art. Each episode follows one couple looking to get a piece of art for their home. They have a budget they want to spend. We have three prospective artists from the local area who come and visit the house. They have a snoop around, see what their tastes are, and then they come up with what they want to create. They will come in and do a pitch for the couple. Two get chosen to make their piece of art, one of them gets it bought. It’s a lovely, warm, creative show, bringing some infotainment into the home.
There’s been quite a big rise in physical game shows. With those game shows, it’s about how you keep the audience engaged. We’ve got two or three in development. It’s something I’m seeing quite a lot of from all of our creatives when they come and talk about their slates.
TV FORMATS: You’ve had a lot of scripted formats activity lately. What’s driving that side of your business?
CONNOCK: In terms of scripted, we are going from strength to strength. We had a huge rise in our scripted formats, particularly in Asia. We are the number one non-Asian distributor of scripted formats in Asia. Life on Mars is huge for us. We did it in Korea. It was on a pay-TV channel and was number one in its time slot across the country. It’s a brilliant adaptation. We’re doing Life on Mars in China. We did the first adaptation of Doctor Foster in France for TF1. It peaked at 6.1 million viewers, won its time slot; it was 84 percent up on the competition and number one for adults 18 to 34.
They are a slightly slower burn in terms of speed of travel. Our biggest scripted formats are Life on Mars, Luther, Doctor Foster, The Office and Criminal Justice. Big characters are working. Dr. Gemma Foster, David Brent, Gene Hunt, John Luther. Same with Thirteen and Ivy Moxam. That’s one that we will see beginning to travel more.
TV FORMATS: How are you dusting off classic brands in the BBC library to introduce them to a new generation of viewers?
CONNOCK: There are two different ways that can happen. Suzy Lamb has a real track record of doing heritage reboots. She was previously at Thames, where she did The Price Is Right and All Star Family Fortunes. Originally when she was at the BBC she worked on a lot of heritage titles. We brought back The Weakest Link for a Christmas special in the U.K.—that performed really well. So sometimes it’s because someone in the U.K. wants to bring a show back out. Elsewhere we work with our creative networks team. We say, What is the demand out there at the moment? We know game shows are in demand. We know there have been lots of reboots. So we will re-look at the materials and we’ll start talking to the international production territories. Can we take one of these tentpole titles and put it back into the market? We’ll think about what we could do, how it could be refreshed. Weakest Link came back in France. At Showcase we announced that RTL 4 in the Netherlands is bringing Weakest Link back. Cyprus did 360 episodes. They brought it back with a slightly more comedic host, so it didn’t go down the stern, dismissive route. It was more sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek, a bit more playful. That has done brilliantly well in Cyprus and it’s coming back in other territories as well.
TV FORMATS: What excites you most about what’s happening in the entertainment format space today?
CONNOCK: I like that some broadcasters are taking risks. It’s not our format, but I really like The Masked Singer. It’s just completely bonkers but warm and playful. It has a panel, but it’s not three judges in chairs! It’s a play-along game. What’s exciting about that show is that broadcasters are willing to take risks. Similarly with physical game shows. The universal themes of dating, food and relationships are still there, but it’s always interesting to see what that little twist is.